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Various Routes to Independence in Africa

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved)

This Web page contains a brief overview of the different paths to independence in Africa, plus detailed information about three case studies: Egypt, Gold Coast, and the Congo.

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The first colonies to become independent were located in North Africa. They included Libya in 1949 (granted by the UN), Egypt (and Sudan) in 1952, Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, and Algeria in 1962. Only Algeria had a substantial European settler population, and only there did independence require a war.

In West Africa, the independence of AOF and AEF provided examples of one of the basic problems facing African independence leaders: what size should the independent African state be? Should the resulting independent state be defined by ethnic boundaries, geographic boundaries, colonial boundaries, or territorial boundaries, or should it be determined by its relationship to the existing empire?

The countries in East Africa fall into two categories: those that were British colonies and all of the rest. The British colonies form a coherent group because there were many plans to combine them into an East African Federation at independence.

Independence in southern Africa was substantially different from that of other regions thanks to the presence of large white settler populations in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and the presence of enormous mineral wealth in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo. Of all the areas in Africa that were under European rule, this was the area that Europeans wanted least to give up. Consequently, independence struggles were long, drawn-out affairs.

Example 1: Egypt, a modernized colony

Words: ulema, Faruk, Wafd, Nahas Pasha, Mohammed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, United Arab Republic

1942 (Oct) After the Prime Minister Aly Maher tried to maintain Egyptian neutrality, the British forced King Faruk to call new elections, which were won by the WAFD party. Nahas Pasha became the Prime Minister.
1944 (Oct) The British withdrew support from the Nahas Pasha government. New elections showed the political splits within Egyptian society between military officers, the Ulema, and the nationalists.
1945 Egypt joined the Arab League with British support
1947 (March) Anti-British riots in Cairo because Britain was still unwilling to withdraw from Egyptian soil
1948 First Arab-Israeli War increased opposition to British and to Faruk government, which depended on British support
1950 Faruk called new elections. WAFD got 2/3 of vote.
1951 Faruk ignored UN Resolution concerning Israeli right to navigate in Suez Canal. Egyptain Parliament ordered the British to withdraw from the Canal Zone, and ended treaties governing the Sudan.
1952 (Jan 25) "Black Saturday" in Egypt, riots, Cairo burns
1952 (June) First revolution by military officers leads to Naguib government. Describe the "class of 1937" including Nasser, Mubarak, Sadat.
1952-4 Land Reform Act limits ownership to 208 acres. Monarchy abolished. Sudan became independent.
1954 (Feb) Conflict between Naguib and younger officers led by Nasser. Nasser outmaneuvered Naguib by announcing the "end of the revolution" and Egyptian workers went on strike.
1954 (Oct) Nasser got the British to agree to withdraw from Suez by June 1956
1954 (Nov) Nasser has Naguib arrested.
1956 (July) Suez crisis after Egypt recognizes Communist China receives envoy from Russia, and US halts funding for the Aswan High Dam. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. UN forbade Anglo-French invasion, so they tried to get Israel to do it for them. Result: UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai.
1958 Nasser forms United Arab Republic with Yemen and Syria.

Egyptian military officers who attended the military academy at Abbasieh, Egypt, in 1938 became co-conspirators at independence. One of them, Gamal Abdul Nasser, was posted to Khartoum in the Sudan in 1939-1942. At the time, Egyptian nationalists considered the Sudan to be a part of "Greater Egypt" while most collaborating Egyptians viewed the Sudan as a desolate place where one was transferred as punishment (the prime posts were located in Alexandria and Cairo).

Between 1940 and 1943, Egypt became a WWII battlefield. The Egyptian Prime Minister, Aly Maher, tried to keep Egypt neutral, but British occupation of the Suez Canal and other strategic points made that impossible.

In February 1942, the British government forced King Faruk (a nephew of Tewfik) to accept a new prime minister and government, known as the Wafd, under Nahas Pasha. As a result, King Faruk lost considerable prestige among the Egyptian people, and he offered only weak opposition to Egyptian nationalists once the war was over.

On 8 October 1944, the Nahas Pasha government (Wafd) fell after the British government withdrew its support. King Faruk recalled Aly Maher to form a new government. Faruk ultimately depended on the British to support his throne, but he tried to reduce internal unrest by making shifting alliances with the three factions in Egyptian internal politics: the Muslim ulema, nationalist political parties, and army officers in Egypt.

On 22 March 1945, only two weeks after WWII ended in Europe, Egypt joined the Arab League to foster pan-Arab ties and end European colonial domination. The Arab League had British support, at least at first, because it represented a movement towards independence by "known quantities" that was preferable (to the British) to the unknown quantities of Marxism and Muslim fundamentalism.

Violence: Riots broke out in Cairo in March 1947 and the British decided to withdraw all of their troops from the main cities, leaving garrisons only in the Canal Zone. Then the 1948 withdrawal of the British from Palestine ignited the first Arab-Israeli War, leading King Faruk to declare martial law and polarizing Egyptian politics into pro-British and anti-British positions. The Arab defeat increased resentment within the Egyptian military and the fundamentalist clergy. The continuation of martial law increased resentment against Faruk's government.

Consequences of increasing unrest in Egypt: With his popularity sagging, Faruk agreed in 1950 to hold elections. The Wafd, which was seen as pro-British, received more than 2/3 of the votes, but it still faced enormous opposition from among its own members, and also from outside, particularly from a group known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Under pressure from his nationalist and Muslim opponents, Faruk ignored a 1951 UN Resolution that required Egypt to open the Suez Canal to Israeli vessels as part of the freedom of the seas. (In 1954, Nasser did the same.) In an attempt to increase its popularity, the Parliament repealed the treaties binding the Sudan to Egypt in 1951, and tried to order the British to withdraw from the Canal Zone. Violent riots and sabotage against the British followed.

The first Egyptian Revolution: On January 25, 1952, a day which became known as Black Saturday to Egyptians, British forces disarmed an Egyptian police battalion at Ismailia (Suez), and riots broke out in Egypt's major cities, leading to a major fire in Cairo on the following day. Faruk reorganized the government five times in the next six months, but was unable to satisfy his opponents. Finally, on July 22, 1952, a group of military officers calling themselves the "Free Officers" overthrew the Faruk monarchy. They selected an older officer, General Mohammed Naguib (alternate spelling = Neguib), as both president and prime minister of the new government in September 1952.

The Naguib government ruled Egypt for slightly more than two years. In September 1952, they passed a Land Reform Act which limited land holdings to 208 acres, but enabled large landowners to transfer up to 100 acres to each of two children, and compensated them with govenrment bonds for the loss of any other land that they owned before the revolution. The Naguib government also abolished the Egyptian monarchy in June 1953. The British government accepted these changes and even tried to strengthen Naguib's position by signing an agreement in 1953 that opened the way for the independence of the Sudan.

However, the continued British military presence on Egypt soil was unacceptable to Egyptian nationalists and to many military officers. In February 1954, Naguib resigned from the government in protest against the influence wielded by his pro-nationalist deputy prime minister, Nasser. When Naguib's resignation divided the army, Nasser backed down, so Naguib returned to office. But a month later, with elections already scheduled for June 1954, Nasser made a shrewd tactical move. He announced to the Egyptian population that the revolutionary council of officers would disband after the election, and would present no candidates of its own. In essence, Nasser told the public that the revolution was over and that henceforth, Naguib would lead Egypt with a government composed the major political factions: Muslim fundamentalists, Marxists, and old landowners.

The Egyptian reaction to the "end of the revolution" was negative. Transport workers went on strike, the navy threatened to mutiny, and the nationalist press condemned the "sell-out" of thee revolution. The Revolutionary Council then issued a statement that it had heard the voice of the Egyptian people and would respect their will by remaining intact. They followed that with an order to arrest anyone who had supported the disbanding of the revolutionary council, and prohibited them from engaging in further political activity.

Meanwhile, Nasser reached an agreement with the British on October 19, 1954, who pledged to remove all of their forces from Egyptian soil within 20 months (by June 1956) and make their removal permanent in 1963, once they were certain that British interests were no longer threatened. By November 14, 1954, Nasser and the other members of the Revolutionary Council felt strong enough to remove Naguib and place him under house arrest.

Independent Egypt under Nasser: One of Prime Minister Nasser's first foreign policy moves was to sign an agreement with Czechoslovakia in 1955, exchanging Egyptian cotton for arms. Meanwhile, Nasser sought Western funding for the Aswan High Dam, which would provide water for an increase in the amount of arable land for Egypt's growing population.

The 1956 Suez Crisis began when the USA voted to withhold funding for the Aswan Dam on 15 July 1956. Britain and the World Bank followed suit. This followed Egyptian recognition of China in May 1956, and a visit from a Russian envoy in June 1956. On 26 July 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Franco-British stockholders protested to their governments. The British and French entered into negotations while secretly preparing to invade the Canal Zone, but were deterred by the opposition of the USSR and USA in the UN Security Council. Instead, they backed an Israeli assault on the Canal that began on 29 October 1956 and ended with a Franco-British proposal for both sides to withdraw so that a "peace-keeping force" could occupy a 20-mile buffer strip based along the Canal. Instead, a UN peacekeeping force occupied the Zone.

Nasser continued to promote Arab independence and in 1958, Nasser formed the United Arab Republic of Egypt, Yemen and Syria. That lasted until 1961, when the Baath Revolution in Syria led to Syria's withdrawal.

Example 2: Gold Coast, a non-settler colony

Words: Kwame Nkrumah, Convention People's Party, Accra, Sekondi-Takoradi

The Gold Coast progressed gradually towards independence with a series of constitutional revisions that granted increasing local authority. The British claimed that this was done in recognition of the Ghanaians' increasing ability to rule themselves, while Kwame Nkrumah claimed that it was the result of increasing pressure brought to bear on the British by the Convention People's Party (CPP).

Synopsis: Prior to independence, the Gold Coast was divided socially between the more traditional, Muslim, agrarian Northern Territories (Tamale, cattle & fish trade, kola), the wealthier central region (Asanti, Kumasi, gold), and the more industrialized coastal region (Accra, Sekondi-Takoradi, railroads). In the coastal towns of Accra and Sekondi-Takoradi, African labor unions controlled the ports and railroads of the colony.

Immediately after WWII, under the governorship of Sir Gerald Creasy (1948-1949), the British encouraged local lawyers and traditional elites to run for seats in the Gold Coast Legislative Council, an advisory body to the colonial governor. However, the Gold Coast had changed as a result of the war, and pre-war methods of indirect rule were no longer successful. Wartime inflation had hurt the westernized sector, which was larger in the Gold Coast (thanks to mining) than elsewhere in West Africa. In addition, about 30,000 Ghanaians served with the British in Burma against the Japanese. These veterans returned to the Gold Coast with greater knowledge of Europeans, plus new expectations about their role in British and West African society. At the end of February 1948, the "Christianborg riots" broke out in Accra after a British policeman fired on an African veterans' protest march. Looters attacked stores owned by British companies (United Africa Company & Union Trading Company). As the violence spread, foreigners were assaulted, and 29 Africans killed, with 237 wounded. Strikes and demonstrations by youth and other social organizations followed.

In subsequent years Kwame Nkrumah (1908-1972) became the leader of the movement for independence. After growing up in the Gold Coast, Nkrumah left to attend school for twelve years, during which he received degrees in education, sociology and theology at Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania. While in the USA, he supported himself with odd jobs (fish market, soap factory) and got involved in a variety of political movements. He also preached in an African Baptist Church in Philadelphia and led a pan-African student movement at the University of Pennsylvania called the African Students Association. That gave him an opportunity to observe American race relations at first hand. At the end of World War II, Nkrumah went to London and attended the 6th Pan-African Congress in 1945. There, he encountered the political themes that became the basis for his program: positive action, anti-communism, anti-imperialism, non-alignment.

Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast in December 1947 at the invitation to become the Secretary-General of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), an organization of wealthy lawyers and traders which stayed away from the February 1948 riots. He left the UGCC after it supported the report of Great Britain's Coussey Committee which made recommendations for constitutional reforms after the February 1948 riots. Instead, Nkrumah sought support from the large number of poorer working-class people who lived mostly in coastal cities like Sekondi, Takoradi and Accra. On June 12, 1949, Nkrumah formed a new political party, the Convention People's Party (CPP) in Accra at what was then the largest popular assembly in Ghana's history (60,000 people attended). Unlike the UGCC, the CPP demanded independence immediately rather than in "the shortest possible time" and denounced the constitutional reforms proposed by the Coussey Committee. Recognizing the strength of British opposition, Nkrumah urged the Gold Coast population to prepare for "positive action" to bring about independence.

The action began on January 6, 1950 when the Gold Coast Trade Unions Council declared a general strike. In response, the government arrested the leaders of the union and the CPP on January 21, and the strike ultimately failed. Even though Nkrumah received a one-year jail sentence, CPP candidates dominated the local elections held two months later. Recognizing the strength of the pro-independence movement, and fearing that the CPP would become more radical, the British authorities assisted Nkrumah to run for colonial office a year later, even though he was still in prison. Nkrumah won almost all of the votes in the Accra Central district and the CCP won a majority of the races in the 1951 election. CPP delegates formed a new colonial-wide legislative council, using the constitution recommended by the Coussey Committee.

Registered Voters in Ghana, by Region, 1951
Region Estimated population Eligible voters Registered voters Percent of eligible
voters who registered
Colony (rural, coastal) 2,153,310 1,095,190 350,525 32.0
Asanti (interior) 784,210 398,590 220,658 55.4
Municipalities (urban, coastal) 290,230 141,480 90,275 64.1
Total 3,227,750 1,635,260 661,458 40.5

Although the CPP's control of the colonial legislature was an important step towards political independence, the British continued to dominate the Gold Coast economy through the Cocoa Marketing Board established in 1948, and an oligarchy of 13 British companies led by the United Africa Company (Unilever) that controlled the export trade. That left only the smallest sectors of trade to Ghanaian businessmen, although Ghanaian entrepreneurs did manage to profit from the cocoa trade by transporting the cocoa crop to the coast. Control over the Marketing Board became the central issue in colonial politics. Africans opposed to the CPP organized the Ghana Congress Party (led by wealthy African cocoa planters) and the National Liberation Movement (NLM, based in Asanti), both of which opposed the CPP's use of the Marketing Board to finance other activities with cocoa profits after world prices soared in the 1950s. The other parties claimed that the CPP was communist while the CPP charged the other parties with representing tribal interests at the expense of national unity.

After the CPP narrowly won the 1956 election, less than a month later the new Legislative Assembly called for political independence. Groups opposed to the CPP organized demonstrations that led to riots, and on March 4, 1957, Britain granted independence to the Gold Coast. Residents of western Togo, the former German colony (by then, a UN Mandate under French control) voted to join the new country.

Ghana's independence, the first in sub-Saharan Africa, inspired Africans throughout the continent. French Guinea declared its independence in 1958 and two dozen more African colonies followed suit by 1963. To support his pan-African ideals, Nkrumah offered assistance to other nationalist movements, and began to face increasing opposition from the world's major powers. The Cold War aggravated his situation, since the USA viewed Nkrumah as a "Communist" while the USSR considered him undependable. As foreign opposition encouraged Nkrumah's domestic opponents, he responded by suppressing political dissent. On March 13, 1966, Nkrumah was overthrown by an army coup.

Example 3: The Belgian Congo, a colony unprepared

Words: Patrice Lumumba, Mouvement National Congolais, Joseph Mobutu, Katanga, Leopoldville, Stanleyville

The Belgium government (and public) received all of its information about African public opinion from the big Belgian companies (Union Minière du Haut Katanga, for example) and missionaries, and neither group was particularly perceptive. Despite all the turmoil of the 1930s and 1940s, it was not until 1954 that a reform government allowed a few Congolese to study in Belgium. Belgium made almost no plans for independence in the Congo. In 1956, only 120 Congolese held the carte d'immatriculation out of a population of 13 million, and there were only thirty university students from the Belgian African colonies (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi). There was no African soldier with a rank higher than sergeant.

The formation of the French Fifth Republic in 1958, the independence of Guinea, and political activity in other French colonies like Congo-Brazzaville stimulated political activity in the Belgian Congo. In addition, members of the Congolese elite attended the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels as part of the Belgian delegation, where they met other Africans, including some from independent countries.

A civil servant from Stanleyville named Patrice Lumumba formed the first nationalist political party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), in 1958. He faced opposition from parties organized along regional or ethnic lines, including the largest, ethnic group, the Association pour la Sauvegarde de la Culture et des Intérêts des Bakongo (ABAKO).

Riots in Leopoldville in January 1959 and October 1959 led to a hasty decision by the Belgian government to grant independence on June 30, 1960. Patrice Lumumba won an election that took place only one week before independence, and tried to form the first government. The Force Publique rebelled against their officers on July 8, 1960, killing some and inciting thousands of Europeans to flee the Congo. The next day, Katanga province seceded from the Congo and asked for Belgian military assistance.

Lumumba and the national government interpreted this as an attempt by Belgium to retain control of the richest part of the country. On July 13, 1960, the Congolese government asked for UN assistance to expell the Belgians. The USA refused to participate, but did not block it in the Security Council, and a multi-national force headed by Ghana, went to the Congo. The UN occupied Leopoldville and prevented the Katangan secession, but failed to protect Lumumba from his political enemies. The government collapsed and Lumumba was captured by Katangan authorities and executed, although his family reached safety in Nasser's Egypt.

By the end of 1960, Joseph Mobutu, Lumumba's personal secretary and an army sergeant during the colonial period, took control of the Congo.

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