The Challenge of Decolonization in Africa

Benjamin Talton – Temple University

Through the process of decolonization that began, in most African territories, at the close of World War II, African leaders gained greater political power under European rule. In the decades that followed independence, they worked to shape the cultural, political, and economic character of the postcolonial state. Some worked against the challenges of continued European cultural and political hegemony, while others worked with European powers in order to protect their interests and maintain control over economic and political resources. Decolonization, then, was a process as well as a historical period.

Yet the nations and regions of Africa experienced it with varying degrees of success. By 1990, formal European political control had given way to African self-rule—except in South Africa. Culturally and politically, however, the legacy of European dominance remained evident in the national borders, political infrastructures, education systems, national languages, economies, and trade networks of each nation. Ultimately, decolonization produced moments of inspiration and promise, yet failed to transform African economies and political structures to bring about true autonomy and development.


The Year of Africa

"Most of our weaknesses," declared Kenneth Kaunda, first president of Zambia, in a March 1966 speech, "derive from lack of finance, trained personnel, etc., etc., etc. We are left with no choice but to fall on either the east or west, or indeed, on both of them." What Kaunda does not state is that the weaknesses that he speaks of were, first and foremost, products of European colonial strategies and, second, the failure of all but a few of his colleagues in other independent African nations to fully serve the interests of their people through brave and innovative development programs.

When decolonization began, there were reasons for optimism. The year 1960 was heralded throughout Africa and the West as "the Year of Africa" for the inspiring change that swept the continent. During that year, the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa shook the world to awaken to the horrors of white minority rule as South African police fired into a crowd of peaceful black protesters, killing sixty-nine in full view of photographers and reporters. Also in 1960, seventeen African territories gained independence from the strong arm of European colonial rule. These seventeen nations joined the United Nation's General Assembly and gave greater voice to the non-Western world.

Fully recognizing the potential for the remarkable change that African independence could bring to global politics, on February 3, 1960, Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Great Britain from 1957 to 1963, delivered his famous speech, "Wind of Change," to the South African parliament. "The growth of national consciousness in Africa is a political fact," Macmillan said, "and we must accept it as such. … I believe that if we cannot do so we may imperil the precarious balance between the East and West on which the peace of the world depends." He cautioned Western nations to change their behavior toward Africa to prevent the continent from falling under the sway of the East.

Back to top


The Cold War

It was this fear of Soviet influence in Africa, particularly on the part of the United States, that created such a major problem for African nations. Western powers viewed African independence through the lens of the Cold War, which rendered African leaders as either pro-West or pro-East; there was little acceptable middle ground. Naïvely, most African leaders believed that they could navigate the political land mines of the Cold War through political neutrality. Along these lines, in his speech on the occasion of Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta (in power from 1964 to 1978) declared:

The aim of my government which starts today is not to be pro-left or pro-right. We shall pursue the task of national building in friendship with the rest of the world. Nobody will ever be allowed to tell us, to tell me: you must be friendly to so-and-so. We shall remain free and whoever wants friendship with us must be a real friend.

Nonetheless, as Africans declared themselves nonaligned, pro-West, or Marxist sympathizers, Cold War politics deprived them of the freedom to truly shape their political paths. Combined with the strong residue of the colonial political structure, African leaders designed their internal and external politics mindful of the Western powers' vigilance against socialist or communist influences.

Although Western European powers granted aid to African nations, they also coerced governments to support their agendas and instigated and aided coups against democratically elected governments. They also fomented civil unrest to ensure that governments friendly to their Cold War agenda remained in power and those that were not were removed by political machinations or assassination. In the Congo, for example, Joseph Mobutu took a strong anti-communist position and was subsequently rewarded by Western powers. It mattered little that in 1960 he helped orchestrate the coup that removed and ultimately brought about the murder of Patrice Lumumba, was among the most anti-democratic leaders on the continent, and siphoned Western aid and revenue from the nation's natural resources into personal accounts. Mobutu's rise to power and economic and political damage to Congo in the process—with the help of his Western allies—demonstrates that the politics of the Cold War, more than anything else, defined the successes and failures of African decolonization.

Back to top


Neo Colonialism

In the 1960s, Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial intellectual and psychoanalyst, among others, described neo-colonialism as the continued exploitation of the continent from outside and within, together with European political intervention during the post-independence years. One of the many questions that African leaders faced was whether continued economic and political interaction with former colonial powers threatened their autonomy and political viability. The ex- colonizers wanted to retain their former colonial territories within their sphere of influence. This continued relationship, Fanon argued, benefited African politicians and the small middle class but did not benefit the national majorities. The result was tension between the ruling classes and the majority population.

In 1964 he wrote in Toward the African Revolution: "Every former colony has a particular way of achieving independence. Every new sovereign state finds itself practically under the obligation of maintaining definite and deferential relations with the former oppressor." With regard to the Cold War he continued:

This competitive strategy of Western nations, moreover, enters into the vaster framework of the policy of the two blocs, which for ten years has held a definite menace of atomic disintegration suspended over the world. And it is surely not purely by chance that the hand or the eye of Moscow is discovered, in an almost stereotypical way, behind each demand for national independence, put forth by a colonial people.

Early in the decolonization process, there were fleeting moments in which the emerging African and Asian nations did seek to shift the political paradigm away from the Cold War's East-West dichotomy. Foremost among these initiatives was the 1955 Bandung Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia, from April 18 to 24, 1955. Representatives from twenty-nine Asian and African countries gathered to chart a course for neutrality in the Cold War conflict. The attendees agreed that to avoid being trapped within a Western or Soviet political orbit, developing nations must not rely on the industrialized powers for economic and political aid. Therefore, they vowed to work together by pooling their developmental and technological resources to establish an economic and political sphere, a third way, to counterbalance the West and the Soviet Union.

However, it was a challenge for African nations to forge international links beyond words on paper: few national networks of administration, communication, or transportation within their borders operated consistently and effectively. In addition, the senior administrators who ran the colonies were removed with European rule, to be replaced by Africans with far less experience. Moreover, the political system that African leaders inherited was structured to benefit the evolving ruling classes with little regard for the needs of the people. There were few real efforts beyond the political speeches of Kwame Nkrumah—Ghana's first president, in power from 1957 to 1966—and the words of the founding charter of the Organization of African Unity to look beyond these accepted borders toward pan-Africanist or even regional confederations.

Moreover, the failure to dismantle the internal political structures imposed by European colonial regimes allowed ethnic and regional-based political competition (which acted as such a strong obstacle to national unity and progressive rule) to remain at the core of local and national political structures. Generally, the absence of national identities and political movements facilitated the continued intervention of the former colonial powers in Africa's internal affairs.

In addition, with few exceptions, European powers continued to dominate the economic affairs of the former colonies. Under European rule, people were forced to grow cash crops. This practice continued after independence, and the farmers remained vulnerable to the vagaries of the world market. A fall in world prices created political instability. This was the case in Ghana in the 1960s when the price of cocoa collapsed, and in Rwanda in the 1980s, when the price of coffee fell. The former contributed to Nkrumah's fall from power in 1966, and the latter to civil war and ultimately genocide in the early 1990s.

Back to top


Pan-Africanism and Socialism

The most outstanding post-independence leaders were cognizant of the challenges of the Cold War and ongoing European economic and political influence and sought remedies to ensure the autonomy and development of their nations. Few pursued initiatives that transformed their nations into bastions of economic and political stability. Nonetheless, they worked steadfastly to dismantle the colonial political structures and replaced them with systems that reflected the history, culture, and needs of the people.

In addition to launching a bold and expansive, if economically unviable, industrializing program, Kwame Nkrumah believed in the political and economic unification of the African continent. A federally unified state, he argued, would allow Africa to pool resources to rebuild the continent for the benefit of its people as opposed to multinational corporations. In I Speak of Freedom, Kwame Nkrumah wrote: "It is clear we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity. Divided we are weak; united, Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world."

From a Western standpoint, Nkrumah forged alliances that increasingly placed him in the camp of the Eastern Bloc. Western governments understood Nkrumah's agenda to be socialist and worried about his influence on other African leaders. There are debates about the forces behind the coup that overthrew him in February 1966, but there is strong evidence from the State Department Archives that the United States was interested in removing him from power and that they worked to manipulate the international cocoa price to fuel dissatisfaction with his regime.

Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania from 1964 to 1985, argued for shifting the political paradigm away from the European models inherited from the colonial era and toward indigenous Africans forms. In particular, he advocated for African socialism, which more closely aligned with the communal practices of "traditional" African societies. In his Arusha Declaration, published in February 1967, Nyerere declared African socialism as the model for African development. Contrary to the Western model of economic development, Ujamaa socialism, and African socialism generally, emphasized collective responsibility and advancement in place of the individual:

It is stupid to rely on money as the major instrument of development when we know only too well that our country is poor. It is equally stupid, indeed it is even more stupid, for us to imagine that we shall rid ourselves of our poverty through foreign financial assistance rather than our own financial resources...

From now on we shall stand upright and walk forward on our feet rather than look at this problem upside down. Industries will come and money will come, but their foundation is the people and their hard work, especially in agriculture. This is the meaning of self-reliance.

Self-reliance and the freedom to aggressively pursue an autonomous global political position proved elusive in an era in which the West defined its friends by their perceived position within the Cold War divide. Unique among the overtly socialist leaders in Africa, Nyerere enjoyed political longevity and friendly relations with Western and Eastern Bloc nations. Yet throughout the 1970s the Tanzanian economy, and Nyerere's Ujamaa socialism for that matter, failed to produce the economic and political benefits that it espoused.

Back to top


Tragedy in Congo

In Congo, Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister, also battled the forces of the Cold War but with more tragic consequences. On Independence Day, June 30, 1960, Lumumba delivered a speech in the presence of the king of Belgium, denouncing the atrocities of colonial rule and declaring that Congo would establish an autonomous government and an economy for the people:

We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make of the Congo the center of the sun's radiance for all of Africa.

We are going to keep watch over the lands of our country so that they truly profit her children. We are going to restore ancient laws and make new ones which will be just and noble...

And for all that, dear fellow countrymen, be sure that we will count not only on our enormous strength and immense riches but on the assistance of numerous foreign countries whose collaboration we will accept if it is offered freely and with no attempt to impose on us an alien culture of no matter what nature...

The Congo's independence marks a decisive step towards the liberation of the entire African continent.

Western powers viewed Lumumba as dangerous and vulnerable to falling under Soviet sway, and they quickly collaborated on a plan with the United Nations' assistance to undermine him. He served as prime minister for fewer than seven months before he was deposed and assassinated as part of a plot drawn up by the United States, Belgium, and their allies within the Congo. Because Western powers feared that the country's resources would be nationalized or, even worse, be made available to the Soviet Union, they thought it necessary to have a pro-Western government installed, regardless of its legitimacy within the Congo or its commitment to democracy and development.

Back to top


Proxy War in Angola

The United States' deep investment in destabilizing the democratically elected, post-independence government of Angola is arguably the most profound example of Western influence and its destructive consequences for Africa. In 1975 Angola gained its independence from Portugal, and three nationalist groups subsequently fought for control of the government: the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), led by President José Eduardo dos Santos and backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union; UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), led by Jonas Savimbi and backed by South Africa and the United States; and the FNLA (National Liberation Front of Angola), backed by Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko (he had changed the name Congo to Zaire in 1971.)

Cuban and Soviet support for MPLA, including Cuban troops led by Che Guevara, forced Zaire and South Africa to withdraw their forces, which allowed the democratically elected MPLA to organize a government. Savimbi and UNITA became the rebel opposition but enjoyed little support beyond Savimbi's Ovimbundu ethnic group and financing from the United States. The basis for American support for UNITA was that Savimbi declared himself an avowed anti-Marxist, in contrast to the nominally Marxist MPLA. Between 1986 and 1991 the United States spent $250 million on a covert operation in Angola and aid to Savimbi. In a 1986 meeting at the White House, U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared Savimbi a "freedom fighter" for his struggle against dos Santos and the MPLA. Yet in 2002, when news of Savimbi's death reached Luanda, the Angolan capital, people poured into the streets shouting, "The terrorist is gone!"

It was only with Savimbi's death that fighting ended between the MPLA government and UNITA. The twenty-seven-year civil war caused so much destruction to the nation that UNICEF declared Angola the worst place in the world to be a child. Angola stands as a harsh illustration of the direct consequence of civil war, Cold War politics, and failures in African leadership.

Between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s, as African leaders south of the Sahara took direct control of their economies, political institutions, and resources, they entered the brutal trap of Cold War–era global politics. European economic and political influence remained deeply entrenched in Africa throughout the period because of their strategic interests in maintaining unobstructed access to Africa's natural resources and in supporting governments friendly to Western political interests. More important, there was an acute failure of African leadership in many of the newly independent African nations as Western aid and a focus on anti-communism paved the way for political corruption and self-interest among African leaders. Decolonization, therefore, released Africans from their status as colonial subjects but failed to rid African nations of the sway of their former colonial rulers, other Western powers, and a culture of political and economic exploitation and corruption.

Back to top


De Witte, Ludo. The Assassination of Lumumba. New York: Verso, 2002.

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Le Seuer, James D., ed. The Decolonization Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Africa Must Unite. London: Panaf, 2006.

———. I Speak of Freedom. London: Zed Books, 1973.

Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila. New York: Zed Books, 2002.

Springhall, John. Decolonization Since 1945: The Collapse of European Overseas Empires. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.

Worger, William, Nancy Clark, and Edward Alpers, eds. Africa and the West: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to Independence. Phoenix, Ariz: Oryx Press, 2001.

Image Gallery

Scroll to the bottom of the page to see all images