What delayed civilization in Africa

(Post) colonialism and global history

Andreas Eckert

To person

Dr. phil, born 1964; Professor for the history of Africa at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Institute for Asian and African Studies, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin.
Email: [email protected]

Sixty years ago no fewer than 17 African colonies gained their independence, in addition to the Belgian Congo, above all the former French possessions south of the Sahara, but with Nigeria also the most populous British colony. Andreas Eckert gives an overview of the historical events.

Kwame Nkrumah was one of the most important exponents of Pan-Africanism, was at the head of the nationalist movement and became the first President of the Republic of Ghana in 1960. Here his statue can be seen in the memorial park at the Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra. (& copy picture alliance / Rita Funk | Rita Funk)

On August 11, 1960, shortly after midnight, the time had come: the poet André Malraux, France's Minister of Culture at the time, read General de Gaulle's greetings on the veranda of the governor's palace in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Much was said about the heroic days of free France before Malraux took the hand of Chadian President François Tombalbaye and shouted to the crowd in front of the palace: "Long live the confederation". Chad was independent. A few months earlier, cooperation agreements had been signed that guaranteed the Sahel state economically vital financial aid from Paris. At the same time, they secured France's political and cultural influence even after the formal end of its colonial rule, for example in the areas of the military and education.

A few weeks earlier, the independence ceremonies had taken place in the Belgian Congo, in the capital Léopoldville, today's Kinshasa. An occasion for the Belgian government to praise the alleged civilization work of the Belgians in Africa and to present their hasty withdrawal from the resource-rich country in the heart of the continent as an expression of political foresight. But then it became apparent how differently colonizers and colonized saw the world and how much frustration and anger had built up, at least among some of the new generation of African politicians.


The young Belgian King Badouin first praised colonial rule in his speech. He spoke of the unselfishness of the Belgian work in Africa, of construction and progress. The subsequent address by the first Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu was still a friendly echo. To everyone's surprise, however, the young Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba gave an improvised incendiary speech. Lumumba - who had led the independence movement in the Congo - conjured up the suffering of his compatriots under colonial rule. He spoke of exploitation, racism and injured dignity. And shouted to the confused guests of the state ceremony: "We had to experience that we were mocked, insulted, beaten, day in, day out, from morning to night, just because we were 'negroes'. None of us will ever forget that we were Naturally, a black man was on the deuce of a black man - not because he was seen as a friend, but because the honorable 'you' was reserved for whites. We had to experience that our land was robbed because of some texts that were called laws, but in truth only documented the right of the fittest. "

Immediately after independence, the Congo plunged into a deep political crisis, the so-called Congo chaos, which resulted in a five-year civil war. Colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu came to power in September 1960. His political rival, Patrice Lumumba, was arrested and murdered in early 1961 - with the participation of the Belgian and American secret services. Mobutu established a dictatorship from 1965, whereby he was considered an ally in the Cold War by some Western powers. His corrupt regime was tolerated by them as well as by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. [1]

In the late 1950s, no one could have foreseen the at best mixed record of politically independent Africa. When the Gold Coast became the first colony south of the Sahara to gain independence on March 6, 1957 and renamed itself Ghana, there was great optimism. "Better self-government with danger than bondage in peace" - this is how the first President of Ghana and "Father of the Nation", Kwame Nkrumah, set the tone. Nkrumah, who had gone to London after studying in the USA and there developed into one of the most important exponents of Pan-Africanism, had returned to his homeland after the Second World War and had firmly set himself at the head of the nationalist movement.

In retrospect, the decolonization of Africa has proceeded rapidly. In 1945 there were just three independent states on the African continent: Liberia, Ethiopia and Egypt. Just 15 years later, the number had grown to 26. 1960 is considered the "year of Africa", in which no fewer than 17 African colonies gained their independence, in addition to the Belgian Congo, above all the former French possessions south of the Sahara, but also the most populous British colony with Nigeria. Shortly afterwards, the wave of decolonization swept through East Africa. And in the seventies, the Portuguese rule in Mozambique, Angola and the Cape Verde Islands ended first. [2] Then the "white" settler regimes of southern Africa began to falter, a development that ended with the first free elections in South Africa in 1994.

Paths to Independence

In the prehistory of the African year 1960, the Second World War played a decisive role. The resources of the colonial possessions were highly strained, especially those of India. Africa also had to make a significant contribution. At least half a million African soldiers fought in British units alone on the battlefields in Europe, Asia and North Africa. [3] Raw materials from Africa were used for war production. The uranium for the atomic bomb that the Americans used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 came from the Belgian Congo. Even during the war, the contrast between the official commitment to freedom and democracy as central goals of the Allies and the fact that the mechanisms of colonial rule were still maintained in many ways became apparent. This did not escape many Africans who began to organize themselves in the struggle against colonial rule. In January 1944, Charles de Gaulle vaguely offered the prospect of more self-government for the French colonies in Africa at the Brazzaville Conference. Liberty, equality and fraternity should only apply to a limited extent to the African population in the colonies. Forced labor was soon abolished, but political participation remained limited, and racism and paternalism continued to shape everyday life.

After the Second World War, the colonial powers in Asia quickly gave up in the face of massive national movements. But initially hardly anyone in London and Paris thought of giving up the African colonies - on the contrary. A process took place there that can be interpreted as a "second colonial occupation": France and Great Britain favored a strategy associated with larger investments south of the Sahara that would directly benefit the metropolises and the Africans the supposed independence for the distant future should bring the necessary "maturity". This is also known as "development colonialism". The European colonial powers put on comprehensive programs for the expansion of infrastructure and education as well as the introduction of new agricultural technologies. Waves of experts were sent to Africa to show the farmers new ways of cultivation and to suggest new forms of work to the workers. [4] At the same time, there were initially new opportunities for Africans to run for political office, especially at the local level, in order, according to the paternalistic view of the colonial rulers, to practice democracy.

The new African politicians, who usually belonged to the small group of well-educated city dwellers, saw themselves as citizens and no longer wanted to be treated like "natives". Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere in Tanganyika, Ahmed Sekou Touré in Guinea and other nationalist politicians demanded a political say. European colonial officials saw these politicians as troublemakers, but they had to cooperate with them to save the colonial project. However, the new generation of African politicians had quickly learned to use the new parliamentary structures to constantly expand their own power base. They succeeded to a considerable extent in taking political initiative and determining the course of events.

The road to independence in Africa was comparatively bloodless. There were striking exceptions, such as Algeria, Kenya and Cameroon. However, the decolonization process was primarily shaped by the use of political strategies and tactics such as strikes and media campaigns. The international context benefited the African anti-colonialists, as anti-colonialism rose to become a worldwide movement in the decade after World War II. Not only did important anti-colonial groups form in many countries around the world, not least in the colonial "mother countries" such as England and France, but Afro-Asiatic groups also intensified, for example on the initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, which has been independent since 1947 Solidarity and the Alliance of Non-Aligned States.

At the same time, the colonial development initiative quickly lost its zeal for reform. In the mid-1950s, the administrative and economic circles in Paris and London became convinced that Africa would only play a marginal role for the economies in Europe and the world. [5]

Infrastructure measures and social programs in Africa have been withdrawn and delayed. When the responsible politicians in England and France then, for political and economic reasons - against the massive resistance of the numerous colonial supporters - made the decision in the late 1950s to release the African colonies relatively quickly into independence, the Europeans were only able to transfer power control conditionally. Against the background of the systematic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in the colonial world, it was often the strength of the respective nationalist groupings that ultimately determined the actual schedule of decolonization. The European withdrawal from Africa can be characterized as unstructured and ill-considered.

Today it is largely forgotten that Francophone West African politicians during the decolonization period did not necessarily try to enforce political independence in the form of nation states. For a long time they had in mind participation in an egalitarian, federal France that would consist of different nationalities residing in different territories. Politicians like Léopold Sédar Senghor in what would later become Senegal, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in the emerging Côte d’Ivoire or Mobido Keita in Mali, which was not yet independent, identified themselves as part of an interdependent world. In their view, a reformed colonial empire offered Africans not only the opportunity to associate themselves with a rich country, but also with each other. If African peoples were to find their place in the post-war world, they would have to develop and bring together the best traditions that France and Africa had to offer. Senghor called out to the Africans: "Assimilate instead of being assimilated". In a way, he has not called on France to decolonize Africa, nor has it called for Africa to liberate itself. In his view, the Africans should, as it were, decolonize France. [6]

Towards the end of the 1950s, more and more African politicians adopted nationalist positions and showed greater interest in direct relations with France than in relations with one another. Prosperous areas such as Ivory Coast feared that they would have to give too much to poorer regions such as Chad or Upper Volta as part of a confederation. Students and youth groups argued that federal models would not mark a sufficient break with the colonial power of France. However, only Guinea opted for independence in 1958. The following year, with the Mali Federation, a badly trimmed federalism became a reality for a short time. In the end, African politicians could not agree on ways that would have enabled the goal of an order beyond the nation state. Thus the independence efforts of the political actors in Francophone West Africa ended in 1960 in the nation-state - which very few had wanted in the previous fifteen years. The French colonies, which became independent that year, followed the model of a confederation of states dominated by France (Communauté Française). They established close political, economic, cultural and, last but not least, military ties to the former colonial power.

Not a radical turning point

For this reason alone, the idea of ​​1960 as a radical turning point in African history would be misleading. Sure, independence has accelerated the Africanization of the political and administrative staff, but it merely continued a process that had already started the decade before. There were also new opportunities for African politicians to invest in social networks. In this way, however, one of the essential political contradictions arose in post-colonial Africa: between a so-called "developing state", which is growth-oriented and whose interventionist tendencies continued to increase under the banner of nationalism and modernization after 1960, and the populist-clientist orientation of its politicians.

For many people in rural areas, the year of independence left few memories. There are individual indications that at the local level, for example, the end of forced labor in the French colonies, elsewhere the suppression of anti-colonial movements, repressive resettlement measures by the new governments, phases of economic boom or great hunger in public spaces or discourses are often remembered more intensely than hoisting the new flag. 1960 may make sense as a metaphor for political independence, but the year is hardly a suitable marker for key economic, social, cultural, and religious developments. To this day, there is something random about the memory of the year of Africa, as it outshines other, possibly more significant turning points such as the Biafra War in Nigeria (1966-70) or the 1973/74 oil crisis. But when ten years ago the five decades of independence were lavishly celebrated in many African countries, the festivities also provided impetus for critical debates about recent history and current continuities and the resulting challenges.In this sense, the year 1960 stands for hope and new beginnings and at the same time for a moment that already contained many crises of the following decades.