Anticolonial Movements, Africa

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Anticolonial Movements, Africa

Anticolonial movements in Africa were responses to European imperialism on the continent in the late nineteenth century and the greater part of the twentieth century. African responses to colonial rule varied from place to place and over time. Several forms of both armed and nonviolent resistance to colonialism occurred. Nonviolent forms of anticolonialism included the use of the indigenous press, trade unionism, organized religion, associations, literary and art forms, and mass migrations. Various African states used one or several of these nonviolent forms of anticolonialism at one time or another, but what is significant is that most of them resorted to armed resistance or cataclysmic actions to safeguard their way of life and sovereignty.

African resistance to colonial rule may be divided into four phases. The first was African responses to the colonial conquest itself. This occurred from about 1880 to 1910. The second phase spanned 1914 to 1939, the period of the consolidation of colonial rule. The third phase ran from the end of World War II (1939–1945) to the attainment of independence between the early 1950s and the 1980s. The final phase may be broadly categorized as African responses to neocolonialism—that is, their bid to redefine not only their relationships with the former colonizers, but also their efforts to deconstruct negative images associated with the continent.

Apart from its tendency to fall into these phases, anticolonialism in Africa differed from place to place and over time. The littoral states that had longer contact with Europeans, usually since the fifteenth century (e.g., the Fante of Ghana), and in some cases had experienced acculturation and social change, tended to initially accommodate colonial rule. But this changed dramatically when they realized that colonial rule was not as beneficent as they had assumed. Conversely, the interior peoples, largely non-Christians whose contacts with Europe were comparatively evanescent, resisted the colonial conquest by deploying vigorously militant forms of anticolonialism.

The Islamic areas in Africa—for example, French West Africa and the North African states—resisted colonial rule more than areas where indigenous African religions were the norm. The Islamic areas were influenced by the Muslim doctrine that recognized Euro-Christianity as an infidel entity, indeed, the antithesis of Islam. Hence, compared to non-Islamic Africa, anticolonial efforts in the Islamic regions were more vigorous, militant, and prolonged

Additionally, the nature of African anticolonialism depended on whether the colony was a settler or non-settler one. Settler colonies were colonies with a large number of resident migrant Europeans. These developed, for example, in Kenya and Algeria. In such colonies, the European settlers were directly involved in the administration of the colony. In contrast, nonsettler colonies were colonies that lacked large numbers of permanent European settlers, such as Nigeria and the Cameroon. Overall, anticolonialism efforts in the settler colonies tended to be more violent and prolonged than those in nonsettler areas because the European settlers were not willing to allow Africans to regain their independence. In Algeria, for example, about one million Africans perished because of the tenacity of resistance adopted by the French settlers.


The first phase of African resistance to colonial rule from about 1880 to 1910 was broadly characterized by several forms of militant anticolonialism in which military resistance was the norm. Most African states took up arms to safeguard their independence during this period. The idea that it was only centralized states that took up arms against the European aggressors, as some researchers have argued, is no longer tenable. Even kin-based, noncentralized societies, such as the Tiv of Nigeria and the Tallensi of Ghana, resorted to militant forms of resistance. In southern Africa, the Chikunda, Chokwe, and Nguni, all noncentralized societies, also resorted to military resistance.

Numerous other African states and societies resorted to armed resistance: for example, in West Africa, Lat Dior, the ruler of Cayor (in present-day Senegal), confronted the French from 1864 to 1886; the Baule of the Ivory Coast put up spirited resistance against the French from 1891 to 1902; the Asante of Ghana engaged the British in several wars during the nineteenth century and went to war against them again in 1900 to 1901; and the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin) fought against the French from 1891 to 1902. In addition, the Yoruba state of Ijebu fought against the British in 1892, while the Sokoto Empire in Northern Nigeria confronted the British from 1899 to 1903. The most celebrated military resistance to colonialism in West Africa is credited to Samori Ture (ca. 1830–1900), a Muslim leader in the Madinka Empire, who engaged the French in protracted armed resistance from 1882 to 1898.

East Africa was also a theater of armed resistance to colonial rule. The Swahili coast of Tanzania under the Muslim leader Abushiri engaged the Germans from August 1888 to December 1899. The Hehe people of Tanzania fought against the Germans from 1891 to 1894; when the Hehe leader, Nkwana, realized the futility of resistance, he committed suicide. Similarly, armed resistance broke out in northern and northeastern Africa. Egyptians rose up against the British in 1882, while the Sudanese confronted the British from 1881 to 1889. Somalis confronted the multiple forces of the British, Italians, and the French between 1884 and 1887. In the northern arc of the continent, the Libyans, Tunisians, and Moroccans fought against the French, the Italians, and the Spanish.

In sum, overwhelming numbers of African states and societies resorted to military resistance in an effort to safeguard their independence. In the end, the European-led armies carried the day. This is not to say that Africans did not put up spirited resistance. Indeed, if one considers the duration of individual resistance, there is evidence to suggest that African armies, in spite of their limited military technology, fought bravely and were able to prolong their resistance to the dismay of the European aggressors. This was especially true in cases where Africans possessed comparatively unlimited military resources, martial prowess, and unbridled determination. The resistance of Samori Ture of the Madinka Empire, who fought the French in West Africa in the late 1800s, illustrates this point best.

Ture had a well-organized, professional infantry and cavalry that were further divided into battalions, each of which played different roles in battle. Additionally, Ture, unlike some other African leaders, was able to equip his armies with modern weapons. For example, by 1893, he had amassed about six thousand Gras repeater rifles. He equipped his troops by selling gold and ivory, which were abundant in his empire. He also benefited from his region's vast population, which enabled him to recruit large numbers of soldiers for his armed forces. Compared to most African armies, Ture had larger military forces. By 1887 the size of his infantry ranged from 30,000 to 35,000 troops, while the cavalry was about 3,000 strong. In addition, Ture's army had skilled workers who repaired and even improved European-made guns.

Above all, Ture was a capable leader and a skilled general. His scorched-earth strategy and his tactic of initiating intermittent military skirmishes allowed Ture to determine when he wanted to fight instead of when the French were ready to fight. This approach enabled him to prolong his resistance against the French. In order to make his policies more effective throughout the seventeen years of military campaigns against the French, he moved the base of his empire and army from region to region. He covered several thousand miles from French West Africa to the northern reaches of Ghana. This process of migration enabled Ture to expand his empire by conquering some African states along the way. For example, between 1895 and 1896, he conquered the Abron and Gyaaman kingdoms, as well as parts of Gonja, all in northern Ghana. Such military conquests significantly added to Ture's ability to replenish his resources. Eventually, he was captured by the French in 1898 and exiled to Gabon, where he died in 1900. Ture's French adversaries wrote that to the end he was a man of honor.

If Samori Ture is remembered for his prolonged resistance to the French, Emperor Menelik II (1844–1913) of Ethiopia is celebrated for having decisively humiliated Italy in 1896 at the Battle of Adwa. There are several similarities in the way that Ture was able to prolong his resistance against the French and how Menelik was able to defeat the Italians. First, both had well-trained, disciplined, and well-equipped professional armies. Menelik also imported large quantities of guns from France and Russia. By 1893 the Ethiopian forces had 82,000 rifles and twenty-eight canons. At the decisive Battle of Adwa, Menelik's forces numbered over 100,000 compared to Italy's approximately 17,000 men. Geography also played to the advantage of Menelik and Ture because they knew the terrain of battle better than their European adversaries. In contrast, while the French assiduously pursued Ture and his mobile army, the Italians blundered by assuming that the Ethiopian armies, like those of other African states, could be easily defeated.

In the end, it was only Ethiopia that was able to decisively defeat a European power, Italy, to maintain its independence. However, from 1935 to 1936 the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) occupied Ethiopia in revenge for the humiliating defeat that Italy suffered in 1896. The Italian occupation stimulated African nationalism and Pan-Africanism because many Africans, including diasporic Africans, believed that Ethiopia was a symbol of African resilience and independence. Some historians have even suggested that had it not been for the outbreak of World War II, the seething disenchantment unleashed by the Italian occupation could have served as a watershed for decolonization in Africa.

Several factors explain the success of the Europeanled armies in Africa. The paramount reason was the superiority of European military technology. As the famous lines of English author Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) attest, "Whatever happens, we have got / the Maxim gun, and they have not" (The Modern Traveller, 1898). By the later part of the nineteenth century, military technology in Europe had developed considerably. It was this technological advantage that accounted for the ability of the Europeans to conquer not only Africa, but other parts of the world. Those African societies, such as Ture's, that could muster large forces and equip their armies to a level comparable to the Europeans, were able to put up the greatest degree of anticolonial resistance.

Another reason for the success of European armies in Africa is that most African armies were not professional, but were mobilized in the event of war. Thus they lacked systematic training, military discipline, and the martial prowess to withstand the well-equipped, disciplined European-led armies. Most African armies were mobilized when events dictated that colonialism was imminent, but African enthusiasm and dedication could not withstand the technological superiority of the European forces.

Few African states and societies engaged in mutual assistance to fight the forces of colonialism. One exception involves the cooperation of Ture and King Prempeh I (1872–1931) of Ashanti in the late 1890s during the final stages of Ture's resistance to the French. In general, however, Africans failed to unite against the European aggressors. Some commentators refer to this fact as evidence of the extent of local crisis and the contending political polarities in Africa on the eve of the colonial conquest. The evidence does not support this contention, however. It is based on the erroneous view that precolonial Africa was a monolithic state, and therefore all of Africa could have united in anticolonialism. Rather, precolonial Africa was made up of a multiplicity of states with different political systems. Not surprisingly, some African states, such as the Fante of Ghana, even assisted the British against Ashanti because throughout the nineteenth century, the Fante had struggled against the forces of Ashanti hegemony. The idea of Pan-Africanism had not yet developed among African states on the eve of the colonial conquest, which helps explain the lack of political unity among African states at the time.

The first two decades of the twentieth century also witnessed militant forms of anticolonialism against forced labor, forced cultivation of crops, land alienation, and taxation. In Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), for example, the German colonial authorities' harsh demands for cotton cultivation, forced labor, and taxation unleashed the Maji Maji Rebellion in 1905. The rebellion, led by Kinjikitile Ngwale (d. 1905), an indigenous prophet, was organized across ethnic lines and involved over twenty different ethnic groups inhabiting an area of 10,000 square miles (about 25,900 square kilometers). Other such rebellions included the peasant revolts in Madagascar in 1904 to 1905 and 1915; the Mahdi revolts in Sudan from 1900 to 1904; a vigorous protracted rebellion in Somaliland from 1895 to 1920; and the Egba revolt in southeastern Nigeria in 1918. Armed uprisings during this phase were not only responses to the political economy of colonial rule, they were also efforts to overthrow colonial rule. The latter rationale explains why colonial regimes brutally suppressed such anticolonialism, as exemplified by the brutal response of the Germans to the Maji Maji Rebellion, in which more than 75,000 Africans were killed.


Realizing the futility of armed resistance in the face of the European possession of superior military technology, Africans adopted new strategies, one of which was mass migration. This involved communities, groups, and individuals migrating from theaters of objectionable colonial politics to areas where their independence could be safeguarded. It has been suggested that this strategy of anticolonialism was common in the French, Belgian, German, and Portuguese colonies because of arbitrary exploitation based on forced labor, taxation, forced cultivation of certain crops, and military recruitment, among other things.

Mass migrations could be seasonal, occurring, for example, during periods of forced labor recruitment in the dry season. Such migrations could also be episodic, occurring during periods of taxation, as when fifty thousand Africans fled from the Zambezi Valley to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi) between 1895 and 1907. Colonial forced labor and military recruitment during both world wars also stimulated mass migrations; for example, in 1916 and 1917, more than two thousand people migrated from the French Ivory Coast to neighboring Ghana.

Permanent mass migrations occurred in situations where European settlers seized African lands and then forced the Africans to become laborers and landless peasants. In Kenya, for example, the Kikuyu, who lost their ancestral territory in the so-called white highlands to European settlers, migrated en masse to burgeoning urban centers like Nairobi in search of employment. In the Belgian Congo, Africans suffering from the predatory policies of European companies, whose main aim was profit by any means, migrated to neighboring districts. The importance of mass migration as a vehicle of anticolonialism is that it freed Africans from the claws of colonialism and at the same time rendered certain colonial policies ineffective.

Although armed resistance was the norm, other forms of confrontation, which have been compositely described as peaceful or diplomatic, occurred. Diplomacy was employed, for example, by King Jaja (d. 1891) of Opobo in the Niger Delta and King Prempeh of Ashanti. Prempeh, convinced that negotiations with the colonial government in the Gold Coast (Ghana) would remain fruitless, sent an embassy to the British government in London. The delegation left on April 3, 1895, arrived in England on April 24, 1895, and remained in London until December of that year. But the British government failed to meet with the Ashanti delegation, and instead British forces in the Gold Coast attacked and subjugated Ashanti in 1896. This action culminated in a final military showdown in 1900, when Yaa Asantewaa (d. 1921), the Queen of Edweso in Ashanti, decided that in order to redeem their independence, the Ashanti had to go to war against the British. Eventually, the British efforts to subdue Ashanti materialized in 1901 when the British-led armies emerged victorious.

Independent Christian churches and variants of syncretic Christianity generically termed millennial movements or Ethiopianism also served the anticolonial agenda of Africans. Christianity was seen as a pathfinder for colonial rule and European hegemony, both of which undermined the African way of life. This way of life included, for example, the spectrum of African rites of passage, namely, indigenous ceremonial rites that underscored birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and death and funerals. The European attack and denigration of African culture through the ideological artery of Christianity forced Africans to distill Christianity in order to render it more amenable to their way of life.

The millennial movements and other anticolonial religious movements thrived in an environment of apocalyptic vision, divine intervention, divination, and healing espoused by leaders such as Nehemiah Tile, who founded the Tembu Church in South Africa in 1884; Willie J. Mokalapa, who founded the South African Ethiopian Church in 1892; Reverend John Chilembwe and his Providence Industrial Mission in Malawi in 1900; and Wade Harris, who lead the millennial movement in the Ivory Coast in 1915. These religious movements involved a synthesis of European Christianity and indigenous African religions. For example, members practiced Christian liturgies along with spirit possession derived from indigenous African religions. Moreover, Old Testament prophetism became synonymous with African forms of divination. These millennial and other movements exemplify the way that Africans grappled with objectionable aspects of Christianity and succeeded in grafting the useful aspects of it onto their indigenous worldview and ontology.

Overall, these religious movements empowered Africans by restoring faith in African religions and cultures, which had been placed in the vortex of colonial rule. More significantly, some of these movements became powerful anticolonial movements as well. Chilembwe, for example, used his Providence Industrial Mission to spread his views that colonialism was an anathema to the Bible and Christianity. Consequently, in January 1915 he organized a revolt against the colonial system, and was eventually persecuted by the colonial authorities.

Another form of peaceful anticolonialism that began in the nineteenth century and continued throughout the colonial period, was the use of indigenous and foreign-based newspapers to promote anticolonial views. The London-based Pan-Africanist newspaper African Times, for example, became an anticolonial platform. In the Gold Coast, James Hutton Brew founded the anticolonialist Gold Coast Times in 1874. Black South Africans presented their views in Imvozaba Ntsundu or Native Opinion, established in 1884 by J. T. Jabavu and published in both English and Xhosa. Others periodicals with an anticolonialist bent included The Lagos Weekly Record, founded in Nigeria in 1891, and the Nigerian Chronicle, established in 1908.

The life spans of these newspapers differed: Some lasted several years, while others survived for only a few months. The Gold Coast, for example, had about twelve newspapers from 1874 to 1919. The African intelligentsia used the press to question objectionable colonial policies. This occurred more in West Africa, North Africa, and southern Africa than in Central Africa and East Africa. Barred from serving on the legislative councils and from participating in colonial administration because of their anticolonial views, the African intelligentsia used the press to articulate anticolonialism.

The use of the indigenous press as a political platform can be divided into phases. The first period, from about the 1870s to the 1920s, can be conveniently described as reformist anticolonialism because the objective of the African intelligentsia was not to overthrow colonialism but to better it. They attacked colonialism for the following reasons: the lack of African representation on legislative councils, brutalization of Africans, forced labor, taxation, lack of educational opportunities, and indirect rule that allowed illiterate indigenous rulers to govern educated African intellectuals.

In the aftermath of World War I (1914–1918), African intellectuals intensified their anticolonialist activities through the medium of the press. Several conditions help explain the revolutionary change in the African intelligentsia's attitude toward colonialism at this time. First, after the war the colonial powers, especially France and Britain, systematically implemented vigorous colonial policies aimed at maximizing exploitation to make up for losses incurred during the war. Second, the forceful winds of the Pan-African movement reshaped the anticolonial perspective of intellectuals in Africa. Finally, social changes, especially in urban centers, fueled the anticolonial movement: Rapid population growth and urbanization provided mass support for the evolving anticolonial constituencies.

The African intelligentsia also used societies, clubs, and associations as vehicles for the dissemination of anticolonialism. In 1912 South African blacks formed the South African Native National Congress. The congress became instrumental in challenging the Native Land Act of 1913, which had dispossessed Africans of their lands. In addition, the formation of the Gold Coast Aborigines' Rights Protection Society (ARPS) in 1888 was directly associated with the colonial government's effort to take over what it considered to be public lands. The ARPS campaigned in local newspapers, in particular the Gold Coast Methodist Times and the Gold Coast Aborigines, both in the late nineteenth century, and the Gold Coast Nation and the Gold Coast Leader during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Apart from various petitions issued by the ARPS, in 1898 the organization sent a delegation to England to meet directly with British officials. The delegates wanted the British government to address various problems of colonial rule, especially the Lands Bill. The delegation was successful because the British government's Colonial Office asked the colonial government to abandon both the Lands Bill and the hut tax. In 1906 another delegation was sent to England under the auspices of the ARPS to demand the repeal of the Town Council Ordinance, though this time the Colonial Office did not grant the wishes of the ARPS.

Apart from the questions relating to land that led to the formation of anticolonial associations, other exigencies of the colonial situation also resulted in the founding of clubs and associations. In Senegal, the Young Senegalese Club fought for better working conditions. In Malawi, the North Nyasa Native Association, founded in 1912, and the West Nyasa Native Association, established in 1914, agitated for better working conditions and educational reforms. The Egyptian pan-Islamist writer Shiekh Ali Yusuf founded the Hizb al-Islah al Dusturi (Constitutional Reformers) in 1907, while the intellectual Mustafa Kamil founded the Nationalist Party, also in 1907. Both organizations campaigned for the independence of Egypt. These political organizations, formed during the late nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, paved the way for the revolutionary nationalism that would emerge in the 1920s and would crystallize in the 1930s and 1940s into vigorous independence movements.

Some of the political associations of the early decades of the twentieth century cut across colonial frontiers. The National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), for example, was founded in the Gold Coast by J. E. Casely Hayford in 1919 to 1920. Its membership was elitist, constituting mostly African intellectuals. The NCBWA, unlike earlier associations, had a regional base: it represented four English-speaking colonies—Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, and Gambia. Thus, by embracing several colonies, the organization combined the idea of national unions based on specific colonies with Pan-Africanism. The NCBWA worked for political representation, the establishment of municipal corporations, and the promotion of higher education, among other things.

The achievements of the NCBWA were long term rather than immediate. The NCBWA gained political concessions from colonial governments, including the Clifford Constitution of Nigeria (1922) and revised constitutions in Sierra Leone (1924) and Ghana (1925). The NCBWA also contributed to the formation of radical political parties: NCBWA leader Herbert McCauley formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party in 1923, while Wallace Johnson is credited with founding the West African Youth League in 1938. In the long term, the activities of the NCBWA radicalized the African intelligentsia's stand against colonial rule.

Pan-Africanism also served as an agency of anticolonialism. It was a global movement, championed by various organizations and individuals who believed that all people of African descent shared a common identity and shared their struggles against the vestiges of slavery, racism, and colonialism. The proponents of the Pan-African movement included Liberian Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912), W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963) of the United States, the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), and J. E. Casely Hayford of the Gold Coast (1866–1903). The aim was to bring all peoples of African descent together to discuss the inequalities facing Africans worldwide.

A series of Pan-African congresses were held during the interwar years. The last conference, held in Manchester, England, in 1945, was attended by several future leaders of independent Africa, including Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) of Ghana. From the Pan-African movement grew a nationalist idea that empowered Africans to address colonialism. For example, in the course of the independence struggles in Africa, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, Nkrumah organized a series of Pan-African congresses in Accra, Ghana, aimed at empowering other African nationalist leaders to overthrow the colonial yoke.

The changing landscape of colonial economies also provided opportunities for African anticolonialism. During the 1920s and 1930s, the import-export trade in Africa was dominated by expatriate firms. Due to the monopoly these firms exercised, they were able to dictate not only the prices of African cash crops, but also those of goods imported from Europe. The monopolization of commerce by expatriate traders and firms not only had an impact on local farmers, it also had adverse effects on the fortunes of African merchants, in particular, the great tradition of African merchant families, which had been crucial in the import-export trade since the precolonial period.

This situation resulted in new forms of anticolonialism. Some African societies boycotted European goods and also refused to sell their cash crops to expatriate traders. For instance, in response to price-fixing by Europeans in 1921, rural Transkei women in South Africa boycotted European goods. Similarly, in Ghana a spate of boycotts of European goods and refusals to sell cash crops to expatriate firms occurred periodically from 1920 to 1937. This form of anticolonialism intensified during the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s, when prices of cash crops fell sharply while those of imported goods increased astronomically.

Indeed, the economic downturn in the 1920s and 1930s provided opportunities for rural peoples who had used armed resistance in the nineteenth century to stage boycotts and holdups in opposition to colonialism. During the same period, rural peoples increasingly teamed up with residents of urban areas to seek redress for injustices in the colonial economic systems. They objected to policies that resulted in rural communities receiving poor prices for their crops, while those living in urban areas experienced escalating costs of living due in part to increasing prices for imported goods.

Trade unionism or organized labor formed another area of economic anticolonialism when African workers, both men and women, joined forces to demand better working conditions from their European employers. African laborers staged strikes and boycotts to support their demands. In 1890 workers on the Dakar-Saint Louis railway lines went on strike in Senegal. In 1891 Dahomian women working in the Cameroon also resorted to a strike. In Mozambique, a series of strikes organized by African employees of the Merchants Association in 1913, train workers in 1917, and railroad technicians in 1918 rocked the local economy. In South Africa, sewage and garbage collectors staged a strike in Johannesburg in 1917. In fact, throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and the postwar period, trade union activities formed a vital part of African anticolonialism. For example, railway workers' strikes occurred in French West Africa in 1946 and 1947, and in Tunisia the colonial police killed thirty-two and wounded about two hundred Tunisian trade unionists who were agitating for labor reforms.

Trade union activism was instrumental in the eventual decolonization of Africa. By resorting to demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes, trade unions were able to bring the injustices associated with the colonial system to the attention of a larger anticolonial audience. Additionally, their organizational abilities, which cut across class, religious, and ethnic lines, benefited the anticolonial movements. Most significantly, some of the leaders of the labor unions also assumed the leadership of revolutionary anticolonial movements. Both Siaka Stevens (1905–1988) of Sierra Leone and Sékou Touré (1922–1984) of Guinea were labor leaders who became leaders of their liberated countries.

From about the 1930s forward, new kinds of political organizations emerged that were more forceful and revolutionary than those that existed in earlier decades. The new political parties were no longer interested in reforming the colonial system, but aimed to overthrow it. The New-Destour Party in Tunisia, founded by Habib Bourghiba in 1934; the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, founded in Morocco in the late 1930s; the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, launched in 1944; and Kwame Nkrumah's Convention People's Party, founded in Ghana in 1949, all championed anticolonialism.

A rapid population growth beginning in about the 1930s provided mass support for the new political parties. In addition, the well-educated African middle class played an important role by rallying others to the cause of the independence movements. There was a considerable number of primary-and middle-school dropouts who had besieged urban centers in search of employment. Because of the inherent hardships and deprivations of urban settings, they latched on to the grand promises of anticolonial campaigners and offered their support for decolonization.

Rapid urbanization during the colonial period created opportunities for interaction among different ethnic groups. Unlike the early period of resistance to colonial conquest, Africans on the eve of decolonization presented a formidable united front in their quest for decolonization. Furthermore, the return of African soldiers who participated in World War II brought new political insights to the decolonization movements. For example, in Ghana it was the revolutionary actions of the former servicemen in 1948 that contributed to popular discontent against the British colonial government. Overall, local anticolonial trends, which had developed in different forms in various places, reached fruition in the 1950s, enabling Africans to overthrow colonial rule.


Several global developments in the aftermath of World War II paved the way for decolonization. In 1941 Winston Churchill (1874–1965), the British prime minister, and American president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) signed an agreement that became known as the Atlantic Charter. The agreement stipulated that at the end of the war, the Allied nations could determine their own political destinies. Roosevelt insisted that the agreement should be applied universally. As a result, African and Asian nationalists capitalized on the promise of the Atlantic Charter to argue for political independence.

Additionally, the two major colonial powers in Africa, France and Britain, had been weakened considerably by the war. Indeed, had it not been for assistance from the United States, their fortunes at the end of the war would have been worse. However, the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers that emerged after the war, were determined to dismantle colonialism in Africa. This development was enhanced during the ensuing Cold War, when the Soviet Union gave material and ideological support to African nationalists in their effort to gain independence.

Furthermore, the creation of the United Nations in 1945 benefited anticolonialism. The human rights doctrine of the United Nations challenged the inequalities inherent in the colonial situation. More importantly, African and Asian countries used the forum of the General Assembly of the United Nations to articulate and internationalize their anticolonialism campaigns. Finally, the independence of Asian countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s served as a precedent for Africans. Thus, in the postwar period, a mixture of local and international events unleashed the powerful winds of anticolonialism in Africa that culminated in decolonization.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, neocolonialism exists in myriad forms in Africa. These are exacerbated by the Western media's propagation of negative images of the African continent that are undoubtedly vestiges of the colonial system itself. For this reason, various African states have adopted policies to reconstruct the image of the continent. These strategies include changes in school curricula, the establishment of institutes of African studies, artistic production, and literary and populist movements, all wrapped in powerful ideologies.

Finally, actual decolonization took several forms. Nonsettler colonies like the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria used constitutional methods, sometimes marked by occasions of militancy and violence, to achieve decolonization. Ghana, for example, pursued decolonization through a constitutional process involving political parties, but there can be no doubt that the revolutionary actions of soldiers on February 28, 1948—the so-called 1948 Riots—constituted a major turning point in the country's relentless march for independence. The "riots" started in Accra, the colonial capital, and were occasioned by two incidents. The first occurred when a British senior police officer ordered his men to open fire on unarmed former servicemen who were intent on marching to Osu Castle, the seat of the colonial government, to present a petition to the governor. The second event was a reaction to an anticipated nationwide drop in the prices of European goods that failed to materialize. The disturbances, which lasted seventeen days, resulted in the deaths of twenty-nine people, left 237 injured, and destroyed property estimated at two million British pounds. In this case, popular agitation forced the hand of the colonial government to grant political concessions. More significantly, the riots energized political parties to campaign for decolonization. This occurred on March 6, 1957, when Nkrumah's Convention People's Party won the day.

The decolonization period also witnessed armed resistance, which occurred in such settler colonies as Kenya, Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. In all cases, Africans took up arms against stubborn colonial regimes that were bent on staying put. Unlike Ghana and other nonsettler colonies, the main issue of contention in the settler colonies was land. For this reason, much of the revolutionary fervor that underscored the movement for independence came from landless peasants, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, who rebelled in the 1950s. The cost was enormous because the Europeans in Africa—for example, the Portuguese in Mozambique and Guinea Bissau, the British in Kenya, and the French in Algeria—resorted to extreme measures, such as aerial warfare, to suppress African resistance. In Algeria, about one million Africans were killed. Although the futility of resistance loomed, Africa's settler colonies eventually won independence, but only after protracted, costly wars with the European colonizers.


African anticolonialism began with efforts to safeguard African independence and ways of life. By the early 1900s, armed resistance had failed, but Africans continued their anticolonial efforts by using other methods. Indeed, by the early 1900s the indigenous press had become an invaluable tool for anticolonialists. The trend was fueled by the political changes ushered in by the Pan-African movement. The African intelligentsia thus moved their stake from reform activism to revolutionary anticolonialism.

From about the second decade of the twentieth century, the colonial powers vigorously implemented administrative policies that had an impact on Africans. Economic exploitation nursed an alliance between the African intelligentsia and the native chiefs, as well as between rural and urban Africans. During the interwar years, the activities of Pan-Africanists and the formation of viable political parties served to question the essence of colonialism. In addition, rapid population growth, urbanization, and educational attainments before World War II engendered mass support for nationalist parties. Finally, the effects of World War II propelled the forces of African anticolonialism and nationalism to greater heights by placing Africans on the pathways of eventual decolonization.

see also Ashanti Wars;Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa; Maji Maji Revolt, Africa; Mau Mau, Africa; Nationalism, Africa; Nkrumah, Kwame; Pan-Africanism.


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