Skip to main content

Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa

Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa

European imperial retreat from sub-Saharan Africa, usually described as decolonization, was one of the most sudden and momentous transformations in the history of the modern world. It occurred in the aftermath of World War II. Although the granting of self-government was not entirely novel prior to the end of the war in 1945, given the independence of Liberia in 1848, South Africa in 1910, and Ethiopia in 1943, the postwar imperial transformation was nevertheless unprecedented. Between 1945 and 1965, almost all European African colonies—except the former Portuguese territories, Angola and Mozambique—regained their independence. So sudden and dramatic was the process leading to decolonization that it has since become known as "the winds of change." Some profound questions have continued to engage scholars since the demise of European colonies in Africa. For instance, to what extent was decolonization consciously planned and directed by imperial powers? Why did European withdrawal from Africa occur when it did—after the end of World War II? How did the various European powers approach the process of devolution of power? It is the purpose of this article to address these questions and to hazard a simplified analysis of this rather puzzling process.

The decolonization process in sub-Saharan Africa was quite complex, and an adequate explanation of the phenomenon must address its causes and course, including its timing, planning, and pace. The speed with which European empire crumbled following the end of World War II, and the manner in which it did so, suggest that the war was a primary cause of decolonization. It produced a chain of events globally to which imperial Europe was susceptible. Though the war was quite pivotal in the demise of European empire, several other factors—including African nationalism, the origins of which preceded World War II—cannot be ignored in any analysis. Thus, even if one may partly concur with John Flint that the decolonization process "began well before the war started," his conclusion that the dynamic for change lay in London and not in Africa remains far-fetched (1983, pp. 389-394). This position disregards other potent forces for change such as African nationalism, Asian nationalism, U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War rivalry, and the United Nations. As Robert Pearce argued, decolonization was marked by "false starts, incompatible expectations, and changes of speed and direction. There was no immediate, no steady, and no straightforward crystallization of colonial policy towards Africa" (1984, p. 77). During World War II, officials of the British government, the supposed planners of the process, were confused about the method, nature, and pace of disengagement from empire; their thoughts and actions were mostly in response to both internal and external pressures.

While some European political leaders such as Oliver Stanley of Britain and Charles de Gaulle of France felt that self-government within the framework of the empire made sense, any notion of full independence belonged to the remote future. Thus, in 1943, Herbert Morrison, the British home secretary, stated, "It would be ignorant, dangerous nonsense to talk about grants of full self-government to many of the dependent territories for some time to come. In those instances it would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account, and a shot-gun" (Manchester Guardian, January 11, 1943; as cited in Louis 1977, p. 14). Within a rather short period of twenty years, however, almost all European colonies in sub-Saharan Africa became completely independent. Undoubtedly, the aftermath of World War II changed everything; it strengthened African nationalist movements and consolidated global sentiments against colonial rule, thereby forcing imperial powers to begin to think about exit strategies. As Melvin Goldberg puts it, "Only after the war did the powers begin to take decolonization seriously, and even then the speed at which it proceeded was neither anticipated nor welcomed in many quarters" (1986, pp. 666-667). Clearly, control of the rate of change lay elsewhere outside the command of imperial powers; African nationalists and the global mood dictated decolonization's pace and momentum.

With its rhetoric of antiracism, antifascism, political freedom, and self-government, the World War II era marked a turning point during which African agitation for independence not only became more widespread and intense but also could no longer be silenced. The experiences of African servicemen and of those on the home front exposed European hypocrisy regarding racism, imperialism, and European claims to be the bearers of a superior civilization. Allied propaganda against Nazi Germany and the psychological effects of African participation in the war did much to develop mass consciousness of racism, oppression, and unjust colonial rule. The big lesson for Africans was that they fought and suffered to preserve for others the freedom and self-determination they did not have back home. Thus, early in 1945, a Nigerian serviceman wrote from India to the prominent Nigerian nationalist leader Herbert Macaulay: "We, overseas soldiers are coming back home with new ideas. We have been told what we fought for. That is 'freedom.' We want freedom, nothing but freedom" (Davidson 1994, p. 65). Clearly, the war demystified the long-standing claim of European racial superiority, as Africans fought alongside white soldiers and won many battles. Furthermore, African notions of "whites" as superior beings or demigods were shattered by the war. African serviceman, as Ndabaningi Sithole pointed out, "saw the so-called civilized and peaceful and orderly white people mercilessly butchering one another just as his so-called savage ancestors had done in tribal wars. He saw no difference between so-called primitive and so-called civilized man" (1959, p. 47). World War II, therefore, exposed serious contradictions in European colonial rule in Africa and helped to sharpen anticolonial sentiments and strengthen nationalist movements.

The war's social, economic, and political consequences changed the perspectives of Africans and led to heightened anticolonial militancy. As Basil Davidson has observed, the effects of the war "upset rural stability" (1994, p. 63). During the war, economic control by Europeans became more stringent than ever before. Increased production of cash crops was brutally enforced to support the war effort. In both French and British territories, forced (corvée) labor was imposed as exports continued to be hampered by inadequate transportation resulting from fear of enemy submarines. The hardships created by the war were partly responsible for the emergence of several trade (labor) unions across Africa. Increased political awareness created by wartime conditions led unions to employ strategies such as strikes and boycotts after the war. The general strike mounted by Nigerian railway, postal, and other government workers in 1945, which almost paralyzed the colonial regime, was one of the largest and most effective of such actions. The organizational efficiency and the potency of this strike constituted a serious warning sign for imperial Europe. The solidarity of the strikers, as John Hargreaves argued, "showed how wartime hardships had increased class-conscious militancy" (1996, p. 76). Unexpectedly, the strike produced positive results, as a Commission of Enquiry concurred with the workers' demand for a 50 percent cost-of-living raise. Such concessions to workers were unprecedented and nationalists were quick to fathom the larger implications, that organized protests would now elicit positive results.

International factors also hastened the course of decolonization in the postwar years. The anticolonial posture of the new superpowers—the Cold War rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union—spelled doom for European rule in Africa. The United States opposed colonialism because "it was antithetical to free trade and self-determination—both ideals that the United States had lauded in the Atlantic Charter (1941)," and the Soviet Union attacked colonialism because Marxist-Leninist philosophy described it as the "highest stage of capitalism" (Gilbert and Reynolds 2004, p. 324). Secondly, the United States, which emerged as a global power during World War II, suddenly developed an intense economic and geopolitical interest in the British Empire, including its African components. Thus, the superpowers' diplomatic support for decolonization was not necessarily a benevolent gesture aimed at benefiting Africans; indeed, the continent soon became a theater of Cold War superpower conflicts, with dire consequences. Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson argue that as the center of world power shifted from London to Washington (and later to Moscow as well), "the British felt the blow to their economy and their colonial position throughout the world." The shock emanating from this global power shift triggered "the changes of mind on the part of the British that eventually accelerated the transfer of power and the nationalization, or Africanization, of the colonial administration" (1982, p. 31).

Thirdly, the anticolonial posture of the United Nations, formed in 1945 and dedicated to world peace, was a boon to those seeking decolonization. Article 73 of the U.N. charter called on members still possessing colonies to recognize the political aspirations of their colonial subjects, to begin to develop self-government, and to assist colonial subjects in developing free political institutions appropriate to their stage of development. This article represented a moral and political statement that colonialism was no longer acceptable to the international community, and that all European colonies in Africa and Asia had the right to self-determination. In addition, the U.N. provided nationalists with a powerful forum and international moral authority with which to keep the pressure on the imperial powers; it was "a powerful instrument in the long and dangerous process of dismantling colonialism" (Sithole 1968, p. 59). Fourthly, the Atlantic Charter of 1941 adopted by U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill proved antithetical to colonialism. Article III of the Atlantic Charter, for instance, declared that signatories must "respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live" (Davidson 1994, p. 66). Although Churchill, de Gaulle, and Roosevelt later quibbled over the meaning of "all peoples," the declaration had serious implications for Afro-Asian nationalists, including Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, who claimed it should "apply to the colonies in the form of responsible self-government" (Wilson 1994, pp. 54-55). The debate about the import of this declaration ultimately aided the nationalists' cause.

Both Asian nationalism and the successful attainment of postwar independence by former British and French colonies including India, Pakistan, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka were quite inspirational. The Gold Coast nationalist Kwame Nkrumah even adopted Mahatma Gandhi's anticolonial strategies of positive action and passive resistance. If Africans were inspired by these changes, the colonial powers saw in them a warning that Africa might be susceptible to similar revolts. The importance of even the threat of nationalist resistance in shaping colonial policy or prompting retreat can hardly be ignored. French experiences in Madagascar, Tunisia, Algeria, and Vietnam constituted sufficient lessons that despite their relative weakness, resistance movement present in sub-Saharan Africa by 1948 might pose a serious threat to colonial rule. Arguably, then, it would be a mistake to minimize the contribution of African nationalism to the demise of European rule, even if African nationalism was not as forceful in the 1940s as it was in the late 1950s.

The stages of nationalist mobilization varied from one region to another and from one territory to another. In West Africa, nationalist movements were far more advanced than in East, Central, and Southern Africa. As far back as the late nineteenth century, a class of highly educated Africans had begun to emerge in West Africa among the Creoles of Sierra Leone (descendants of freed slaves and recaptives), which soon dispersed to other parts of the subregion. In Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone, Africans educated in the languages and political ideas of their colonial masters began to formulate political objectives and new methods of attaining them. However, the mobilization of a critical mass of the African population for the anticolonial struggle required the creation of mass political parties. In West Africa, such mass parties included the National Council of Nigerians and the Cameroons (NCNC) founded in 1944 under the leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Rassemblement Democratique Africaines founded in Senegal in 1946, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) formed in 1947, and the National Council of Sierra Leone founded in 1950. In East Africa, although the Kenyan African Union (KAU) was formed in 1944, it was not until 1960 that mass parties such as the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) and Kenyan African Democratic Union (KADU) emerged, in the aftermath of the Mau Mau uprising. In Tanzania the first mass party, the Tanganyikan African National Union (TANU), appeared in 1954 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere, while in Uganda the first grassroots parties emerged between 1952 and 1956. Almost everywhere in Africa, the sudden and full independence of the Gold Coast in 1957 was euphorically received and inspirational; it encouraged the formation and consolidation of mass parties and sharpened the nationalist struggle.

African nationalists were drawn from the ranks of a "modern," educated generation. First trained by mission schools within the continent, most of these elites obtained advanced training overseas in education, medicine, law, journalism, and so on. While they were overseas, many, especially those in the United States, experienced blatant racism and subsequently became intensely influenced by global political concepts of liberation, self-determination, and self-government, as well as the ideas of the Pan-Africanist movement. Upon their return to Africa, they initially sought accommodation within the colonial system only to discover that the system had no place or role for them. When their attempts to bring about reforms were likewise rebuffed, these elites began to articulate demands for self-government. World War II presented them with the opportunity to gain the masses' support for their campaign for an immediate end to colonial rule.

The Pan-Africanist movement, which was founded in 1900 by people of African descent in the diaspora, played an important and unique role in the decolonization process. Initially Pan-Africanism did not focus on a campaign to end colonial rule in Africa; however, Marcus Garvey's slogan of "Africa for Africans," and the cultural reawakening of peoples of African descent articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois and others, became very inspiring for Africans in their struggle against colonialism. The Manchester Congress of the Pan-Africanist movement held in 1945 was particularly decisive in challenging African elites to dedicate themselves to the total liberation of the continent. "All colonies," it was declared, "must be free from all foreign imperialist control whether political or economic…. We say to the peoples of the colonies that they must fight for these ends by all the means at their disposal" (Padmore 1956, pp. 171-172). African delegates to the Congress resolved to return home immediately to achieve the Manchester mandate within the shortest time possible.

By the end of 1945, Britain and France fully recognized the global anti-imperial mood that was developing in the aftermath of the war against Hitler's Germany. Additionally, dependence on their colonies during the war had exposed the need for investment in the colonies' economic and social development. As a result, Britain expanded its Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1945 to provide more funds for the "welfare" of the colonies, while France established a similar program, Fonds d'Investment pour le Dévelopment Economique et Social (FIDES), in 1946. As it turned out, these developmental initiatives were mainly geared toward ensuring that Africa better served the needs of Europe as an exporter of raw materials and importer of manufactured goods. Nonetheless, the persistent demands of African nationalists resulted in increased government spending on social welfare. In both Britain and France, a postwar leftward shift in public opinion strengthened the position of the Labor and Socialist parties, which had campaigned for an end to old-fashioned imperialism. Imperial officials soon decided that a gentler, kinder colonialism would be necessary to calm the critics of empire at home and around the globe. The result was a rather intensive political and economic reform process. Nevertheless, even as France and Britain proposed a "new deal" for their African colonies, Portugal and Belgium continued with "business as usual" in theirs. Evidently, as lesser powers with fewer colonies and little international influence, they were less subject to the pressure to reform.

Imperial powers confronting the dual costs of repressing nationalism and modernizing colonialism soon realized they had limited options. As they recovered economically in the early 1950s and as African nationalist movements gathered momentum, they began to doubt the benefits of retaining power. Consequently, for French policy makers colonies became "a burden on the most progressive sectors of industry," while British officials concluded that "it mattered little economically whether the colonies were kept or lost" (Iliffe 1995, p. 246). For most European business ventures, the priority was maintaining good relations with whoever held power in Africa—it did not necessarily matter much if those in power were African. Besides, even if it made good business sense to hold on to colonies, nationalist pressures, which were economically and politically disruptive, would most likely sooner or later force imperial Europe toward retreat. Britain's secretary of state for the colonies, Iain Macleod, recognized this, and later commented, "We could not possibly have held by force to our territories in Africa" (Iliffe, p. 246).

Approaches to political reform and devolution of power varied from one European imperial power to another and from one sub-Saharan African region to another. Whereas Britain focused on how to effect a gradual transfer of power to friendly successor states, France (and, later, Portugal) preferred a closer integration with their colonies. Britain took the lead in acknowledging the benefits of peaceful transfer of power. Several factors accounted for this. First, the British proved more prepared than the French to deal with overseas challenges to their rule. Second, Britain's relationship to the United States was different than France's. Third, Britain's political institutions better prepared it to deal with decolonization than did France's. Finally, the character of the nationalist elites in their respective colonies was different. Britain was fortunate that it did not have to deal with Algeria and Indochina. For the British, "a negotiated transfer of power would avoid the need to defend the colonies by force of arms when frustrated nationalist claims for independence led to violent protest" (Birmingham 1995, p. 5). Economically and strategically, therefore, decolonization was beneficial, because economic exploitation—the rationale for colonization—could still be achieved without the financial and other costs of direct political control.

Yet, in the minds of many European officials, full independence still belonged to the remote future, and, ideally, progress in that direction would be very slow. Not surprisingly, only minor actions were taken to prepare Africans for their eventual independence prior to a dramatic turn of events: in 1957, the Gold Coast, regarded as Britain's model colony, blazed a trail by attaining full independence under its charismatic leader, Kwame Nkrumah. Using his newly formed Convention People's Party as a platform, Nkrumah had mobilized the masses and employed Gandhi's tactic of positive action to force Britain to concede power. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, which had sizeable populations of British settlers, the struggle for independence was quite protracted and violent. European settlers' efforts to install white minority regimes were bitterly resisted by Africans, who waged protracted and bloody guerilla warfare. In Portuguese territories, especially Angola and Mozambique, the struggle for independence was also violent, because Portugal never contemplated a retreat from Africa. It was only after a coup in Portugal in 1975, which overthrew the dictatorial regime led by Prime Minister Marcello Caetano, that Portugal decided to decolonize.

In most of the European colonies in sub-Saharan African, the transfer of power was relatively peaceful. The deciding factor was the presence or absence of European settlers. In British West Africa, with no settler colonies, decolonization was more peaceful than in East and Southern Africa, where there were European settler populations. In French territories, the devolution of power was generally peaceful, with the exception of Algeria where a bitter war ensued, largely because of the presence of a large number of French settlers. To preempt similar uprisings in French sub-Saharan Africa, the French president, Charles de Gaulle, hijacked the nationalist momentum by enforcing the referendum of 1958. This gave French colonies the choice of either accepting limited self-government while remaining within the French Community or severing ties with France to become fully independent. All French sub-Saharan territories voted to remain a part of Greater France, with the exception of Sékou Touré's Guinea, which voted in favor of complete independence. Guinea was punished severely for its unexpected choice, as France suddenly and dramatically cut all aid and support. However, the survival of Sékou Touré's proud republic coupled with the euphoria generated by the other colonies' new semi-independent status "quickly began to undermine the legitimacy of de Gaulle's new Community" (Hargreaves 1996, p. 188), and by the end of 1960, all eleven French colonies had claimed full independence.

Belgian imperialism in Africa came to a sudden end in 1960 with Belgium's hasty withdrawal from its sole, if huge, colonial possession, the Congo. According to Hargreaves, the "Belgian public's indifference to Africa was suddenly shaken by the nightmare of an Algeriantype war," and therefore "support for colonial empire evaporated quickly as African hostility, sustained by widespread international sympathy, became seriously apparent" (1996, pp. 193-194). In East and Central Africa, the transfer of power was more or less peaceful, with the exception of Kenya, where the Mau Mau uprising and the subsequent imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta, who was accused of masterminding the rebellion, delayed decolonization. However, following Kenyatta's release in 1963 there was a speedy transfer of power, after which Kenyatta became prime minister. In Southern Africa, Zimbabwe presented a difficult case as its white minority resisted African majority rule with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of 1965, which produced a protracted war that lasted until 1980, when African majority rule was achieved with Robert Mugabe as prime minister.

Clearly, the liquidation of European colonies in sub-Saharan Africa was one of the most dramatic processes of the mid-twentieth century. Even those at the center stage of imperial policy making in Europe found themselves helpless to shape the outcome. At first glance, decolonization seems consciously planned and executed, but at second look, it appears to possess a life of its own. No one was sure of what turns and twists it would take. De Gaulle confidently planned a system of limited self-government for French colonies, but Sékou Touré's Guinea surprised him by voting for full independence. Similarly, Britain was stunned by events in the Gold Coast, where a sudden and bold step toward full independence was least expected. Although the impact of World War II was crucial to the crystallization of decolonization, it would be quite misleading to ignore other related but equally significant international forces. Different powers followed different paths to decolonization, just as different African regions had different experiences shaped by a range of variables. In all cases, however, European powers were concerned with maintaining some links to their colonies even after the end of formal empire. In this concern lies the origins of the neocolonialism that has continued to define the Euro-African relationship in the postcolonial era.

see also Anticolonial Movements, Africa; Nationalism, Africa; Pan-Africanism; Sub-Saharan Africa, European Presence in.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Birmingham, David. The Decolonization of Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Collins, Robert O., ed. Problems in the History of Modern Africa. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1997.

Crook, Richard C. "Decolonization, the Colonial State, and Chieftaincy in the Gold Coast." African Affairs 85, no. 338 (1986): 75-106.

Davidson, Basil. Modern Africa: A Social and Political History. 3rd ed. London: Longman, 1994.

Flint, John. "Planned Decolonization and Its Failure in British Africa." African Affairs 82, no. 328 (1983): 389-411.

Fyle, C. Magbaily. Introduction to the History of African Civilization. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001.

Gilbert, Erik, and Jonathan T. Reynolds. Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Goldberg, Melvin. "Decolonization and Political Socialization with Reference to West Africa." Journal of Modern African Studies 24, no. 4 (1986): 663-677.

Hargreaves, John D. Decolonization in Africa. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1996.

Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Louis, Wm. Roger, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941–1945. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Louis, Wm. Roger, and Ronald Robinson. "The United States and the Liquidation of British Empire in Tropical Africa, 1941–1951." In The Transfer of Power in Africa: Decolonization, 1940–1960, edited by Prosser Gifford and Wm. Roger Louis, 31-55. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

Padmore, George. Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa. New York: D. Dobson, 1956.

Pearce, Robert D. The Turning Point in Africa: British Colonial Policy, 1938–48. London: Frank Cass, 1982.

Pearce, Robert. "The Colonial Office and Planned Decolonization in Africa." African Affairs 83, no. 330 (1984): 77-93.

Ranger, T. O. "Connexions between 'Primary Resistance' Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa." Journal of African History 9, no. 3 (1968): 437-453.

Sithole, Ndabaningi. African Nationalism. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Strachey, John. The End of Empire. London: Gollancz, 1959.

Wilson, H. S. African Decolonization. London: E. Arnold, 1994.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/decolonization-sub-saharan-africa

"Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Retrieved May 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/decolonization-sub-saharan-africa

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.