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Questions and concepts related to independence in Africa

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved)

The end of European colonial regimes in Africa was rapid, unexpected and controversial. The first colonies to become independent were located in North Africa and included Libya in 1949 (independence granted by the UN), Egypt (and Sudan) in 1952, Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, and Algeria in 1962. Only in Algeria, which had a substantial European settler population, did independence require a war. In West Africa independence was generally peaceful, although the large French colonial federations of Afrique Occidentale and Afrique Equatoriale fragmented into separate countries based on colonial borders. In East Africa there were several failed attempts to unite the British colonies into an independent East African federation, while in southern Africa the presence of white settlers in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and mineral wealth in the Belgian Congo, led to lengthy independence struggles. Still, within one generation (by 1965) nearly all of Africa was independent, and the rest followed suit within two more generations.

Because independence came unexpectedly, European colonial powers did little planning (just as American politicians have not made plans for Hawaiian independence). Instead, when the pressure for independence became irresistible after World War II, it triggered a process called "decolonization" and generated a series of questions about the future of the relationship between Africa and Europe.


Should colonies become independent? This question was answered by forces that were beyond the control of European colonial governments, including pressure groups within each colony, pressure exerted by the USA and USSR, and the formation of the United Nations.

When should independence occur? The answers to this ranged between "immediately" and "in the distant future" with various interest groups supporting one extreme or the other. Those arguing for delay claimed that they needed time to "prepare" Africans to rule themselves, while their opponents argued that delay was intended to subvert the movement for independence and enable Europeans to create new forms of control.

What should be included within an independent state? This required decisions about boundaries -- should they conform to ethnic categories, geographic regions, European administrative boundaries, or other notions, like that of a "United States of Africa"?

How "independent" should a colony become? The ties between colonizer and colony included political, economic, social and intellectual elements. Should a colony that became independent make its own laws? Should it acquire the means to defend its own borders? Should it finance its own development? How about replacing the colonizer's language with an African language, banning European styles in music, clothing and art, or expelling the representatives of European religions?

What happens to property owned by colonizers? Both European settlers and European businesses owned property in colonies, while governments maintained military bases at places like the Suez Canal. Could they continue to own them after independence? If not, could they expect compensation for their loss, and how much should they receive?

Who would become the new leader(s)? This was more than a question of personalities -- it involved economic and social interests as well. For example, supporters of majority rule faced opposition from minority groups. Soldiers and civilians were not always in agreement. Departing colonizers had preferences, and the Cold War powers had them as well.


Political independence changes who sets the rules for everything else. It requires a constitution to define who has the power to make rules, what rules they are empowered to make, and where those rules are enforced. It also requires other nations to recognize the authority of the government defined by the constitution.

Economic independence requires the ability to generate all the things needed for all types of production using resources found within the national boundaries. Resources include capital (i.e. money), raw materials, markets, and various kinds of expertise (research, management, labor). Types of production include subsistence (food, housing and other basic needs), infrastructure (ex: electricity, roads, drinking water systems), primary goods (ex: steel, concrete, paper), consumer goods (ex: fashion, appliances, entertainment), exports to pay for things that could not be produced at home, and much more.

Intellectual independence requires the means to conceive of problems and answers without depending on imported ideas. It may also require goals and aspirations that are not directed towards Europe or even expressed in European terms or languages.


The colonial system reserved power to Europeans, so in order to create enough pressure to bring about change, Africans had to pool their individual power by forming mass movements. To bring together a wide variety of individuals into a mass movement, the following was necessary:

  1. Widely shared belief that change was possible: The early victories by Japan against the British, Dutch and Americans, and the final defeat of Germany and Italy (both colonial powers) coupled with the weakening of Britain, France and Belgium (also colonial powers) raised the hope that change was possible. The rise of new world powers (USA and USSR) with no imperial history (at least not in Africa) increased those hopes. Then the independence of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma and Palestine in 1947-1948 showed that independence could come sooner rather than later. Each newly independent country - Libya in 1949, Egypt in 1952, Ghana in 1956 and so on - increased expectations.
  2. Shared grievances (sources of dissatisfaction): WWII extended the problems caused by the Depression and forced a new generation of Africans to sacrifice for Europeans at war. By the war's end, all Africans faced inflation and shortages, and unlike in the years following WWI, few believed that WWII was an "accident" that had interrupted an otherwise beneficial process of colonial development.
  3. Leaders to direct action: Precolonial African leaders often owed their positions to their willingness to collaborate, but a new generation of more militant leaders developed during WWII. Some came from the military, but others were labor union leaders, teachers or civil servants in the colonial administration.
  4. Pressure points for action: Where colonial authorities allowed elections, action took the form of electoral campaigns. Where peaceful chance was impossible, direct assaults against military bases were unlikely to succeed, but the export economy offered a target for terrorist attacks or strikes that closed ports, railroads and mines.
  5. Means of communication with which to coordinate action: Telephones came late to Africa and telegraph systems were usually controlled by colonial governments, but the spread of literacy in European languages in produced local markets large enough to support newspaper publishing, and the number of newspapers published by Africans increased rapidly after WWII. In addition, after WWII, a generation of African teachers who started in the 1920s and 1930s produced a new generation of Africans who had learned about Europe from other Africans. In other words, African public opinion became a true force after WWII, and Africans controlled its formation.
  6. Financing for everything else: African organizations used the sale of newspapers to raise money, and relied on contributions from local merchants and sympathetic Europeans. This was, however, always a weak point for African mass organizations.

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