The decolonisation of Africa refers to the period between the mid-1950s and 1975 when numerous African nations gained independence from their European colonisers. This process was often marked by violence, political turmoil, widespread unrest, and organised revolts in northern and sub-Saharan countries.
The decolonisation of Africa can be traced back to the “Scramble for Africa” between 1870 and 1914, a period of intense European imperialism on the continent. During this time, almost all of Africa and its natural resources were controlled as colonies by a small number of European states. The Berlin Agreement 1885 confirmed the partition of Africa with little regard for local differences.
By the early 20th century, Britain and France had the largest holdings, but Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Portugal also had colonies. The process of decolonisation began as a direct consequence of World War II. 50 African countries had achieved independence from European colonial powers by 1977.
Several factors contributed to Africa’s decolonisation, including African soldiers’ participation in imperial militaries during both world wars. Over 1.3 million African troops participated in World War II, fighting in both European and Asian theatres of war. As a result, political awareness increased, and the expectation of more respect and self-determination was largely ignored.
The 1941 Atlantic Conference, where British and US leaders met to discuss ideas for the post-war world, included a provision by President Roosevelt declaring that all people had the right to self-determination. This inspired hope in British colonies and led to increased pressure on Britain to abide by the terms of the Atlantic Charter.
The 1960 Declaration by the United Nations on granting independence to countries and people under colonial rule declared that colonial exploitation is a denial of human rights. It also stated that power should be transferred back to the countries or territories concerned.
Colonial economic exploitation involved the siphoning off of resource extraction profits to European shareholders at the expense of internal development, causing major local socioeconomic grievances. For early African nationalists, decolonisation was a moral imperative around which a political movement could be assembled.
In the 1930s, colonial powers cultivated a small elite of local African leaders educated in Western universities. Although independence was not encouraged, arrangements between these leaders and the colonial powers developed. Figures such as Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Kwame Nkrumah (Gold Coast, now Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanganyika, now Tanzania), Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal), Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria), and Felix Houphouet-Boigny (Cote d’Ivoire) took the lead in the struggle for African nationalism.
During the Second World War, some local African industries and towns expanded, improving literacy and education and establishing pro-independence newspapers. By 1945, the Fifth Pan-African Congress demanded the end of colonialism, and delegates included future presidents of Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi and national activists.
Transition to Independence
Following World War II, rapid decolonisation swept across the continent of Africa as many territories gained their independence from European colonisation. Consumed with post-war debt, European powers could no longer afford the resources needed to maintain control of their African colonies. This allowed African nationalists to negotiate decolonisation very quickly and with minimal casualties. Some territories, however, saw significant death tolls due to their fight for independence.
On 6 March 1957, Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to become independent from European colonialism. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave the famous “Wind of Change” speech in South Africa in February 1960, where he spoke of “the wind of change blowing through this continent”. His goal was to avoid a colonial war similar to what France was fighting in Algeria. Decolonisation progressed rapidly under his leadership.
Britain’s remaining African colonies, except for Southern Rhodesia, gained independence by 1968. British withdrawal from eastern and southern Africa was not peaceful. The eight-year Mau Mau Uprising ushered in Kenyan independence.
In Rhodesia, the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the white minority started a civil war that lasted until 1979 when the Lancaster House Agreement set the terms for recognised independence in 1980 as the new nation of Zimbabwe.
French colonial empire
The French colonial empire began to collapse during the Second World War. It wasn’t long before foreign powers occupied most of the colonies. Control was gradually reestablished by Charles de Gaulle, who used the colonial bases as a launching point to help expel the Vichy government from Metropolitan France. De Gaulle was committed to preserving the Empire in its new form, the French Union, included in the Constitution of 1946.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo experienced extensive urbanisation, and the administration aimed to make it into a “model colony.” Due to a widespread and increasingly radical pro-independence movement, the Congo achieved independence as the Republic of Congo-Leopoldville in 1960.
Female independence leaders in Africa
Men predominantly led nationalist and independence movements throughout Africa; however, women also held important roles. These roles included tending to the wounded, being on the front lines of war and organising at the local and national levels. Women’s roles in independence movements were diverse and varied in each country. Many women believed their liberation was directly linked to the liberation of their countries.
Legacy of colonialism
The economic legacy of colonialism in Africa is difficult to quantify and is disputed. Modernisation theory posits that colonial powers built infrastructure to integrate Africa into the world economy; however, this was built mainly for extraction purposes. In general, African economies retained a subordinate position in the world economy after independence, dependent on commodities such as copper in Zambia and tea in Kenya. Despite this continued reliance and unfair trading terms, a meta-analysis of 18 African countries found that a third of countries experienced increased economic growth post-independence.
Scholars argue that Africa’s linguistic diversity has been eroded due to the use of language by Western colonial powers to divide territories and create new identities, leading to conflicts and tensions between African nations.
In the immediate post-independence period, African countries largely retained colonial legislation. However, by 2015 much colonial legislation had been replaced by local laws.
The decolonisation of Africa was a complex and multifaceted process involving a combination of external and internal factors and the efforts of numerous individuals and groups across the continent. While the long-term effects of colonialism are still debated, the decolonisation movement undeniably played a crucial role in shaping modern Africa’s political, economic, and social landscapes. Today, the legacy of decolonisation continues to influence the development and progress of African nations as they strive to forge their paths in the global community.