Tuesday, 29 September 2015
On the extent to which European post-war decolonisation in Africa was the result of nationalism
Nationalist movements in post-war Africa destabilised many colonies and provided reasons for administrations to withdraw. African leaders, who had often been educated in the West and were provided with inspiration by Haile Selassie, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the liberation of Burma and India, gained widespread recognition as they championed their nations’ rights to independence. In Ghana, Kwande Nkrumah had incredible popularity and recognition as a brilliant orator and organiser. The same was the case with Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Julius Nyerere in Tanganyika, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, and Hastings Banda in Nyasaland. Dynamic figures such as ZANU’S Robert Mugabe were able to record in their autobiographies how it was their work which had led to the inevitable destiny of triumph over the colonists. Certainly the growth of nationalist consciousness had a political element: Nkrumah’s CPP, which campaigned on the slogan of ‘self-government NOW’, won democratic elections in the Gold Coast in 1951, 1954 and 1957, and Nkrumah had the support of the governor Arden-Clarke. Nyerere and his party, TANU, played a similar role, also influencing the nationalist movements in South Rhodesia, South Africa and Uganda as well as that within its own borders: Freund writes that ‘Nkrumah and Nyerere were central figures articulating the inspiring rhetoric of radical nationalism…their influence was everywhere infectious’. Banda’s nationalist forces in Nyasaland boycotted the colonialists and created their own state within a state: four years later, they had attained independence as Malawi. Mugabe won elections in Zimbabwe in February 1980. Similar mass parties were formed in Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. Their existence, and often their popularity (the Tunisian Party had half a million members), seems evidence enough for the influence of nationalist forces on the process of decolonisation.
The key example of nationalism forcing reform and independence occurred in Algeria from 1954-62. Ferhat Abbas’ FLN began a guerrilla war against the French Foreign Legion which had consequences for decolonisation far and wide. The vicious and indiscriminate terror used by both sides led to at least 1 million deaths, and the strength of the nationalists was a significant factor in bringing down the Fourth French Republic in 1959. That the issue of decolonisation, as supported by the FLN, could cause regime replacement in a major democratic power, and subsequent attempted assassinations of President de Gaulle, indicates how significant nationalism could be. The nationalist war in Algeria also caused reform and decolonisations in other states, particularly in sub-Saharan French West Africa. The French wanted to concentrate their efforts on retaining Algeria and were thus quicker to part with Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Morocco among others. Furthermore, the conflict significantly changed attitudes of many French intellectuals, who ‘became more concerned about the effect the killing, the brutality, and the torture had on their own society than their impact on the Arab victims’ (McWilliams and Piotrowski). Arguably, nationalism was the key cause for Algerian decolonisation, and further decolonisation in other French colonies.
Nationalism was not always as unified as in these examples. In many areas indigenous peoples were driven into uneasy tribal coalitions, united merely by their mutual dislike of the colonialist powers: thus nationalism was really anti-colonialism. In Nigeria, for example, the NCNC ‘fed off popular agitation’ but was rejected by the Yoruba elite: the religious split between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north fed into the creation of two new parties, the NPC and the NEPU. When independence was finally granted in 1961, the fact that it was a shaky NCNC-NPC coalition which ruled Nigeria suggested that nationalism was divided and indeed weak. Jomo Kenyatta’s KAU only supported the tribe of his own ethnic background, the Kikuyu, which did not represent the entire Kenyan population; the Mau Mau struggles of 1952-6 constituted in effect a Kenyan civil war, fought between the Kikuyu and other tribes as much as it was fought against the British colonialists. Ugandan politics were dominated by the Buganda, a major tribe which wanted to ensure its own interests were protected but ‘tribal differences…impeded any sense of national unity’. Southern Rhodesia remained split between native Africans seeking independence and the white settler elite who also sought independence in the UDI of 1965. This fractured state continued until 1980. Divisions hindered the process of FRELIMO in Mozambique while Angola became embroiled in civil war in the 1960s between the rival factions of MPLA, FNLA and UNITA (in fact, nationalism was limited in Angola to the extent that more than 40% of Angolans fought for the Portuguese).
Divided nations were still able to force reforms and quicken the pace toward independence, however. The horrific Mau Mau violence, and the equally gruesome counter-insurgency moves made by the British in response, was chaotic and tribally-based, but it certainly contributed to the British decision to reconsider the administration of Kenya and bring in the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which allowed Africans to buy land, and to grant Africans equal representation with Europeans on the Legislative Council in 1957. The chaotic situation in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s was vital in persuading the Europeans towithdraw. The Leopoldville riots of 1959, during which one hundred people were killed, convinced the colonialist administration that it was best not to halt the nationalist progress. At Brussels in 1960 a time-scale for independence was agreed. Nationalism had played its necessary role, although any kind of national unity seemed to be lost after independence.
In addition, European leaders recognised that the strength of nationalism was such that it could not be held back – during the infamous Winds of Change speech in 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke of an ‘African national consciousness’ while Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod stated that ‘the march of men towards freedom can be guided, but not halted’. The historian Betts claimed that nationalism was a ‘main decolonising force’; David Low maintains that without pressure from nationalism Britain would have been reluctant to withdraw.
There are important limitations to nationalism. Firstly the term is in its very nature vague: to define nationalism requires a definition of a nation, which in many cases did not exist in Africa, since the ‘nations’ as defined by Europeans were not created along tribal lines, rather random geographical borders. Secondly, nationalist forces varied from colony to colony. In some parts of Africa the nationalist forces had a consistent socialist ideology; others were driven by Islam; and still others were more united by a hatred of their colonial overlords. In some parts of the continent nationalism scarcely existed at all. A key example of a lack of nationalist fervour can be found in parts of French West Africa, where colonies actually voted to remain in the French Community and France had to initiate reforms and the drive for independence (the Ivory Coast was noticeably reticent). The two weaknesses mentioned above mean it is hard to fully credit nationalism as a unified and powerful historical process completely responsible for decolonisation.
Economic factors, in particular trade links between colony and colonising power, must also be explored in reference to European decisions to withdraw from Africa. Ferguson comments that ‘the bottom line was, of course, the economy…Britain was simply no longer able to bear the costs of Empire.’ Europe’s economic fortunes changed dramatically between the 1880s, when its constituent nations took African land whilst at the height of their powers, and the 1950s and 60s, in which they emerged shell-shocked from a devastating world war to find the global economy radically redesigned. This can be explored in two ways: firstly, the economic weakness of the colonialist powers, and secondly, the relative profitability of colonies in comparison with other, more advanced markets.
That the powers responsible for maintaining colonial administrations underwent the collapse of world markets in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression, followed by waves of anti-colonial strikes in 1935-40, meant that there was already some long-term stagnation in economic growth in major colonies. This was worsened by the immediate factor of World War II, which fomented discontent and fractured economies. Many major European powers, particularly Great Britain, had become debtors to the USA. Imperial defence was more expensive than before, due to the advances in military technology. British defence expenditure reached an unsustainable height of 5.8% of GDP in the period 1947-87, up significantly from the mere 2.6% of a century earlier. In such a climate it comes as little surprise that European taxpayers would grow to be less well-disposed to financing costly colonial administrations, the benefits of which were not immediately obvious at the local scale in France or Belgium or Britain. Nationalism heightened these concerns, in that the violent crack-downs or counter-insurgency it incurred also raised costs, but the economic decline of the metropoles was a major process independent of any nationalist movement. The most dramatic expression of this came in Portugal, where long-term stagnation had made the domestic economy dependent on the material exports of its colonies (particularly Angola). When decline in Portugal reached its nadir and discontent broke out in the 1974 revolution, the regime was unable to continue holding its colonies. Economic and political forces within the colonialist power had made it impossible to hold back nationalists and prevent decolonisation.
Secondly, there was a growing concern that imperialism no longer yielded the profit it once did. Given the weakened state of the imperialists’ economies, this provided an important excuse for decolonisation. Macmillan’s audit of the late 1950s concluded empire was more of a liability than a profitable enterprise, and with the added expense of the newly formed welfare state it was becoming harder and harder to afford. Those nations which were less economically profitable were certainly more quickly and smoothly relinquished: notably Nyasaland for Great Britain and Guinea-Bissau for Portugal. France also seemed keen to initiate reform and independence in sub-Saharan West Africa, where the economy was underdeveloped and the threat from nationalism minimal: that the area yielded low profits for its colonisers was almost certainly a factor in this decision. RF Holland has emphasised that colonies were lagging behind their colonialist powers, and as such they were of declining value: since they were no longer bringing in the same percentage of colonialists’ income that they had done, the pressure from the corporate world was to change economic direction and abandon formal financial ties with the colonies. In the view of the historians Waites and Ferro, and the so-called ‘neo-colonialists’, France, Britain, Belgium and others decided it would be more worthwhile to open up to the global economy and trade with America and the newly formed EEC. In other words, the money was no longer in the colonies; it was elsewhere.
However, there are numerous indicators which suggest economics was not always a primary factor. In some areas, colonies were financially thriving even at the time of decolonisation. For a time after World War II, Britain attempted ‘new imperialism’: this involved making colonies more economically efficient through cheap food and export earnings. In Algeria and other areas of the French Empire, there was strong resistance to decolonisation entirely based on economic interests: the settler class and investors did not always want to go elsewhere. The same pattern is found in the Belgian Congo: after World War II, its economy boomed due to the newly discovered uses for uranium in the nuclear age. The Congo contained 80% of the world’s uranium in 1945, Katangan economics were stably managed, and the nation was rapidly industrialising. After 1960 most major Belgian investors remained in the Congo to defend their assets – which suggests that in this particular case, nationalism had forced an unwilling colonial administration out of an enterprise which was still earning a good income. That Britain, France and others continued to maintain strong trade links with former colonies also implies their respective economic circumstances were not necessarily crucial in making the decision to decolonise.
As mentioned above, one of the economic considerations colonialist powers had to make was that of turning towards the financially expanding EEC for trade links. This was only one of the many effects international relations, and the emergence of a new world order, had on the process of decolonisation. Such effects can be divided into two categories: the more manifest consequences, such as proxy Cold War battles; and the change in attitudes within the metropoles which this influenced.
The importance of the USA in world affairs, and its political and economic influence on other nations (especially Britain) meant it had a stake in decolonisation: as supporters of a free trade global economy, the Americans wanted an end to colonialism, but as opponents of communism, they did not want Marxist regimes to supplant the colonial administrations. Britain largely followed American policy on this, supporting anti-communist forces as much as possible in its attempts to transfer power. African nationalists sought American support from the 1950s onwards. Sometimes the USA even seemed to pressurise Britain into decolonisation when the latter was unwilling: this is best highlighted in the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which an internationally humiliated Britain was forced to accept American judgment and withdraw from Egypt.
Much nationalism was socialist in outlook, and thus gained support from the USSR: nationalist leaders such as Nyerere and Nkrumah were Western-educated socialist intellectuals, and there was a strong Marxist dimension to the Patriotic Front led by Robert Mugabe to electoral victory in Rhodesia in 1980. In some areas global concerns about communism determined who gained power: when Lumumba invited Soviet support for his Congolese National Alliance, the United Nations intervened, fearful of a Cold War battle in the region. Soviet Russia provided the Guinean nationalist party, the PAIGC, with surface-to-air missiles from 1973, and this was a key factor in the shift in balance-of-power and Guinean independence in 1974. Vicious civil wars fought in Angola and Mozambique were largely dependent on Cold War politics and some have called them proxy Cold War conflicts. The MPLA was backed by the USSR; its nationalist rival the FNLA gained support from Russian ideological rivals the Chinese, despite the fact that the FNLA was not communist in outlook. In Mozambique, the main Marxist party, FRELIMO, gained support from the USSR and Cuba. Darwin writes that international relations were favourable to the breakdown of colonialism, since the two superpowers used nationalist uprisings as Cold War conflicts: he also suggests that the centre of imperialism actually transferred to Washington and Moscow, as they tried to exert their political, economic and cultural influence in a new post-colonialist world.
There are many areas in Africa where international relations seem much less significant in contributing to decolonisation, or even some where they had the opposite effect. Communism was minimal in sub-Saharan Africa (although the RDA did have links with the French Communist Party), and effectively held back by the powerful cultural force of Islam in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The Brazzaville conference of 1944, despite claiming to address the issue of the new world order, featured ‘no recognition that France owed any accountability to the international community in the conduct of her colonial affairs’, in the eyes of one American official. Despite supporting the policy and lending aid to nationalists in the late 50s and early 60s, the USA actually became a hindrance to British decolonisation after the UDI of 1965, for fear of Marxist hegemony in Rhodesia.
Arguably more significant than financial aid or military assistance was the effect the new world order had on cultural and intellectual attitudes toward decolonisation. After atomic bombs struck Nagasaki and Hiroshima, governments were left with a very different view of the world. The emergence of two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, left colonial nations far behind in international standing. Power lay in the hands of the newly formed United Nations Organisation, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and European Economic Community. To rule over Uganda or Kenya no longer held the international prestige it once did. As British policy more and more aped that of the USA, it turned its attention to free market economics, nuclear capability and stronger international trade links with other prosperous capitalist nations. Moreover, in the post-World War II world, self-determination and the right for each individual nation to rule over itself was seen as crucial; the domination of European powers in Africa was perhaps compared in retrospect rather uncomfortably to the aggressively expansionist Third Reich. The international rejection of ‘white supremacist’ ideals in Rhodesia was also important in deconstructing the regime of Ian Smith and allowing Mugabe to power. That colonies were no longer seen as a key to power in a changing global hegemony meant it was less and less desirable to hold on to them, especially since they were sometimes expensive and/or beset by nationalist violence. In short, the initial reasons for European colonisation of Africa no longer existed, or were much reduced in importance.
The significance of nationalism, therefore, in causing post-war decolonisation in Africa can only be understood in the wider economic and global context. Clearly, nationalism arose out of a complex range of factors. The new generation of Western-educated, politically active leaders (usually socialist) were instrumental in promoting a wide range of ideals, from Pan-Africanism to self-determination to Islamic law. The way the Europeans had shaped societies themselves was also important, as increased industrialisation, education opportunities, and Christianization impacted the way colonised powers saw themselves.
However, nationalism was also quite clearly affected by the world in which it was formed. There is a temptation to imagine an endless cycle here, whereby nationalists saw the decline of the metropole and seized their chance to take back power, instigating more financial difficulty for the metropole in the process. Although there was some nationalism before World War II, the strongest waves of nationalism only really formed in the late 1940s: in other words, during the period in which European nations were at their economic nadir for the latter half of the twentieth century. Nationalism also only really seemed to take hold as the new world order, the world of the UNO, NATO, the EEC and the Cold War, became more defined. This is not to say that nationalism was not crucial in instigating decolonisation, rather that it exploited the economic deficiencies of colonisers and the growing global trend towards self-determination. It also benefited from the power struggles of the Cold War. In this view, the formation of nationalism owes much to the economic and global context.
Additionally, it is important to note that decolonisation appeared increasingly likely even in 1950, before the worst nationalist struggles. Britain had, after all, relinquished the ‘jewel in its crown’ in 1947, and as has been explained the trend in the foreign policy of many nations seemed to be heading in that direction. There were significant exceptions, particularly the French experience in Algeria, but generally speaking nationalism (or, as we could also see it, an uneasy anti-colonialist alliance) seems to be a historical process which dramatically sped up what was already set to be a long-term certainty. Thus it was of great importance in decolonisation, but it could only operate in a wider framework of factors which made it much stronger and effective.
1. Thorn, Gary. End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80, Hodder Education, 2000.
2. Freund, Bill. The Making of Contemporary Africa, Indiana University Press, 1984.
3. Aldred, John. British Imperial and Foreign Policy 1846-1980, Heinemann, 2004 (extract)
4. Darwin, John. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006 (extract)
5. Watts, Carl Peter. The ‘Wind of Change’: British Decolonisation in Africa, 1957-65. Published in History Review, 2011.
6. Macmillan, Harold. Winds of change speech, delivered 1960.