“colonial moment”


Suspect insurgents held by British troops, during the Mau Mau rebellion, 1954.

In the period between 1945 and the end of the 1960s, the “colonial moment” came to an end across most of Africa, and did not last much longer even in those areas which proved rather more resistant to change. In some places, indeed, the experience of colonial rule had lasted little more than a couple of generations; the consequences may on certain levels have been profound, but in other respects what followed was a reversion to an earlier, nineteenth-century, pattern of relations between Africa and Europe. This may or may not have been the ultimate objective of colonial administrators, depending on how much we believe there to have been a “grand plan” in Rome, London, Paris, Lisbon or Brussels; but the speed with which colonial rule itself came to an end was certainly not anticipated. The empires set up in the 1890s and 1900s were meant to last rather longer than they did; in the end, they were overcome by both unforeseen, external events, and the organic pressures manifest in African protest and the power of militant African identity – whether violent or otherwise.

Individual dates are usually arbitrary, in so far as they are used to indicate “turning points” or “watersheds”; but 1945 did indeed herald a new era, and the onset of a new world order in which the imperialisms of the late nineteenth century would be increasingly obsolete. The 1940s, indeed, was a decade of profound change for colonial states and African nationalists alike. Among the former, Britain and France now sought to exploit their territories rather more efficiently (it was believed) than had been the case previously; for African nationalists, there were both opportunities to be seized and obstacles to be overcome in the building of mass movements and political parties, and in the creation of forces for change. As the Pan- African Congress met in Manchester, England, in 1945 and demanded an unconditional end to colonial rule, colonial strategists devised ways of securing their territories for the foreseeable future. For Portugal and Belgium this meant a refusal to move much beyond limited political concessions, and a conviction that their African colonies were essential to their economic and geopolitical survival in the post-war era. Britain and France also perceived their colonies as essential to post-war recovery, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s developed policies aimed at their commercial development; at the same time, this would be accompanied by the gradual incorporation of Africans into administrative structures to appease nationalists. In the course of the 1950s, however, successive governments in London and Paris recognized both the power of nationalist movements, and the fact that they might be able to exercise continued economic (and indeed cultural) influence without the trouble of political administration. In the metropolitan mind, thus, African sovereignty was often seen as the happy coalescence of various interests – even if the actual process was invariably messier in reality.

Belgium and Portugal would ultimately lose control of events, as violence erupted in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, and chaos threatened to consume Congo; but the British and French would also be shaken by violence, in Kenya and Algeria respectively. Events in those territories – driven as they were in large part by the presence of large European settler minorities – ultimately persuaded London and Paris of the dangers, and the inimicality, of violent confrontation with rebels and nationalists. The French conceded defeat to the Algerian rebels directly, while the British crushed the Mau Mau insurgents before handing power to a moderate elite. Elsewhere, there were largely peaceable, if at times Byzantine, negotiations with African politicians across much of sub-Saharan Anglophone and Francophone Africa, which led to a constitutional transfer of power in those zones. Late-nineteenth-century imperial high-handedness had a final throw in Egypt in 1956 when British and French troops invaded the Suez Canal zone in response to Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal Company; but final throw it certainly was, as in the face of international condemnation Britain and France were forced into a sharp and humiliating retreat. The age of empire, indeed, seemed to be finished as 1957 dawned; but white settler regimes became entrenched, oblivious to any “winds of change” that might have been blowing elsewhere, and governments in South Africa and Rhodesia, for example, presented particularly difficult obstacles for nationalists fighting for “internal” decolonization. Settlers created political and cultural frameworks within which the likelihood of violence increased dramatically.

But what of African protest itself? It was manifest in different ways in different places before the 1940s, although there were broadly similar trajectories and forms of action; but now nationalists had to develop political parties through which to channel such protest, and to develop wider territorial consciousness. The elections organized by colonial authorities in many territories provided a platform on which such parties could posit national agendas. Nonetheless, the conflicts which emerged between various groupings – ethnic, regional, religious – were frequently continuations of nineteenth-century struggles, sharpened in most cases by the experience of colonial rule which added new elements to the competition, not least in the provision of a “national” space within which such competition was now to be played out. The divisions between Africans which were obstacles to “national” identities were also opportunities in the struggle for the future, as subnational groupings competed for the political and material resources of the nation to come.

Across much of tropical Africa genuinely nationalist movements were novel in the immediate postwar years; only in northern Africa, and in the Union of South Africa, were the roots of nationalism rather deeper. In Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, political activists drew on a range of precedents and inspirations, including Islamist thought, European nationalism, and Arab identity; in South Africa, an educated elite set a precedent for the wider region in founding the South African Native National Congress as a vehicle for political lobbying. Of course the forms taken by political movements were very much influenced by the challenges they had to overcome. In the Gold Coast, or Senegal, or Tanzania, it was a matter of image-making and careful combination of negotiation and veiled threat when it came to dealing with retreating colonial authorities. In Uganda or Nigeria, nationalists of different hues spent as much time in the 1950s squabbling with each other about the future of their territories as they did combating the evils of colonialism. In these instances colonial officials became brokers of deals and negotiators. The achievements of the generation that would lead much of Africa to independence were many, not least in terms of political creativity, but so were the problems confronting them; they were not necessarily the builders of stable and durable political orders, such was the nature of decolonization – which was, arguably, as rushed and unplanned as had been the original partition of the continent. The two biggest problems confronting nationalist leaders were, firstly, that they were operating in unfamiliar territory, a uniquely twentieth-century landscape into which they had been thrust by colonial rule; and secondly that a great many tensions and divisions represented unfinished business from the pre-colonial era, and the nineteenth century in particular. Their problems were new, and they were old.

There were further challenges for those politicians attempting to negotiate with colonial regimes which clearly did not take such negotiations seriously – except in the sense that they were aimed at maintaining the status quo. The result, in the course of the 1950s and 1960s, was the eruption of armed struggle in South Africa, Rhodesia, Algeria, Mozambique, Angola; the politics of these nationalist movements became the politics of violence, and the violence that ensued shaped these territories and their peoples in the most fundamental of ways. For guerrillas, the challenge was not only the overthrow of intransigent racialism and foreign capital; it was also the construction of new order out of bloody sacrifice, the creation of life out of death among shattered communities.

In the end, Africa became independent – politically, at least – through both compromise and conflict, negotiation and violence; sometimes it was both simultaneously, in other cases it was one or the other. Nationalists might claim victory over colonial masters, and the fulfillment of the people’s destiny; they could hardly do otherwise. Governments in the metropole might claim that missions had been completed, and that the transfer of power to African governments was simply the last stage in the discharge of the imperial mandate. Neither position was sustainable. While nationalist movements might occasionally have subdued colonial militaries by sheer force of arms, such triumphs rarely represented the total destruction of extant political systems, and only slightly less rarely did they represent the will of entire populations. More commonly “nationalist victories” were in fact negotiated settlements, and no less remarkable for all that. While outgoing colonial authorities may occasionally have left behind “friendly” regimes, with governments run by people themselves educated within the system, ideologically and culturally “reconciled,” they also left behind social and political structures noteworthy only for their inequity and instability, and which were unsustainable over the longer term. Again, however, it is important to emphasize that this was not merely a matter of the failures of decolonization, although these were manifold; also in evidence is the resurgence of various nineteenth-century dynamics in African political culture and economic development – notably the struggle to win access to scarce political and material resources, a struggle often characterized by violent upheaval, the forging of new communities and the consolidation of old ones. Ultimately, for both former colonial rulers and new African governments, decolonization only represented the latest stage in ongoing political, economic, and indeed cultural struggles which are as yet unresolved.