home | 1945-21st century


previous | next

Independence South of the Sahara

The Atlantic Charter created by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941 had stated that their principle in fighting World War II was to "respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live." Many colonized people, especially the educated in sub-Saharan Africa, wondered why this should not apply to them, and they wanted that freedom.

During the war, Africa benefited from demand in Europe for its exports, and Africa by the end of World War II had experienced considerable economic growth and social change. In greater numbers people were moving to cities. Then came a temporary setback as the demand for African goods diminished. But by the 1950s prosperity was returning, and Africans were exporting more than ever before. They were building roads and harbors and dredging rivers. They were building more extensive rail and telegraphic networks. In 1951, Cocoa exports from Britain's Gold Coast colony rose to 230,000 tons, up from about 1,000 tons in 1901. In 1954, Uganda exported 398,000 bales of cotton, up from 500 in 1906. Africans were participating in this economic growth and benefiting from it. And they wanted to have a voice in maintaining and increasing their prosperity.

The Gold Coast becomes Ghana

Queen Victoria's statue down in Guianaolonialism

Empress Victoria down in Guiana

Some who favored independence believed in individual enterprise, profits and incentives. Some African intellectuals held to leftist dreams and demonized capitalism. One of them was Kwame Nkrumah, a man Christianized by missionary schools. In 1939 he had graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology and economics from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast after World War II and joined the independence movement. In 1949 he led a split within the movement from its more conservative, middle-class adherents. Nkrumah was more interested in mobilizing the masses than were the conservative intellectuals, and Nkrumah formed his own political party, the Convention People's Party.

In 1954 the British approved a new constitution for the Gold Coast and established a cabinet for the area composed of African ministers drawn from an all-African legislature chosen by direct election. Nkrumah's party won a majority of seats in the new Legislative Assembly, and Nkrumah became the Gold Coast's prime minister, with Queen Elizabeth II the chief of state. In May 1956, Nkrumah's government presented the British with a white paper containing proposals for Gold Coast independence. The British agree to a firm date for independence if a reasonable majority for such a step were obtained in the Gold Coast Legislative Assembly after a general election. That done, the Gold Coast became an independent dominion on 6 March 1957. The Gold Coast was renamed Ghana and was a parliamentary democracy with Nkrumah as prime minister and Queen Elizabeth as chief of state. Nkrumah maintained personal ties with the British, and he kept some British around as advisors. In his speeches he was inclined to include references to such men as Edmund Burke and Aristotle. And in 1960 he replaced Queen Elizabeth as chief of state, taking of title of president.

More Independent States

With Ghana having won its independence in 1957, other African nations increased their demand for independence, putting more pressure on France and Belgium as well as Britain. While the French were heavily committed to their war in Algeria, Sekou Touré in Guinea led a movement that sought complete independence from France. The French responded with hostility and pulled out of Guinea, taking all they could with them, including phones from the walls of their offices.

In 1960 the French granted complete independence also to Senegal, Niger, Togo, Dahomey, Gabon, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ubangi-Shari, which became the Central African Republic, and the area that includes the cities of Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, which became the Congo Republic.

In 1960 the British granted full independence to Nigeria. And in 1961 they granted independence to Tanganyika – which they had been ruling under a UN mandate. In 1962, the British gave Uganda its independence. That year, Belgium granted independence to Rwanda and Burundi (west and southwest of Lake Victoria), former German colonial territory that Belgium had been administering as trust territories.

Cold War Concerns

Observers in the Kremlin had no illusions about Africa being on the verge of Communist revolution. They described African nationalist movements as "bourgeois" and thoroughly un-proletarian. But the Soviet Union did what it could to improve relations with the newly independent African states, including offering low-interest loans for economic development. The Soviet Union opened an embassy in Ghana in 1959. Anti-Communists in the United States and Europe were alarmed – as Vice President Richard Nixon had been when he returned from a visit to Africa in 1957 and reported that Africa was a new area of conflict "between the forces of freedom and international Communism." The Eisenhower administration feared that nationalist movements in Africa would be dangerously leftist, as had been the nationalist movements in Asia. The Eisenhower administration gave only unenthusiastic endorsement for independence in Africa. And when Sekou Touré, an avowed socialist, requested aid for economic assistance for Guinea the Eisenhower administration ignored it.

The Belgian Congo

Abruptly in 1960 the Belgians pulled out of the Congo. They had done little to prepare the Congo for independence, and the Congo erupted into factional fighting. The southeastern part of the Congo, Katanga, attempted separation. In Katanga were copper mines owned by Belgium's Union Minière. The mining company and Belgian troops backed Katanga's independence and its leader, Maurice Tshombe. The duly elected prime minister of the newly independent Congo was Patrice Lumumba, who opposed Katanga's break-away. Lumumba sought help from the United Nations. He had the support of other African leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah. The United Nations dithered, leaving Lumumba frustrated. The United States offered Lumumba no help, so Lumumba sought help from the Soviet Union. A CIA dispatch to Washington on 18 August 1960 labeled Lumumba as "a commie playing the commie game." CIA chief, Lawrence Devlin, had close contacts with the Congolese commander Colonel Joseph Mobutu and the US ambassador in the region, Clare Hayes Timerlake. Lumumba was taken prisoner by Mobutu's forces, degraded, beaten and murdered. And across Africa anti-American riots erupted.

The British in Kenya

Because of the greater number of white settlers in East Africa, working toward independence there was more difficult for the British. The whites were as opposed to the sharing of power as had been the European settlers in Algeria. Colonies with large settlers populations were appearing more difficult to decolonize. In Kenya, frustration among the Kikuyu (about 20 percent of the population) led to rebellion in 1952 – known as the Mau Mau uprising. The Kikuyu were unhappy about their lack of power, their having been driven off much of their land, their unemployment and the poverty they suffered in the city of Nairobi and other towns. The Mau Mau uprising was loosely organized, or perhaps it was more of a spontaneous rising of uncoordinated groups who hid in Kenya's jungles and struck at the fringes of white held areas. On the British side was the Home Guard, composed of loyalist Africans. The Home Guard killed 4,686 Mau Mau, amounting to 42% of the total insurgents. The capture of the Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi on 21 October 1956 essentially ended the five-year Mau Mau military offensive. Kikuyu had been put into concentration camps and civilians had been shifted into "secure" areas.

The British emerged from the Mau Mau conflict wanting to appease the black majority in Kenya – an appeasement in their view not at all craven. Britain was making adjustments, and it looked forward to passing power to a government in Kenya that represented blacks but also respected the white and Asian minorities and maintained economic ties with Britain. They found such a government under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, who had been the undisputed Kikuyu leader since the 1940s. Kenyatta had studied anthropology in Britain and had worked hard since the 1930s for reform, and he was revered by the Kikuyu. Kenyatta had denounced Mau Mau terrorism, but in Kenya he was put on trial in 1952 on charges of "managing and being a member" of the Mau Mau Society. The defense argued that Kenya's white settlers were trying to scapegoat Kenyatta and that there was no evidence tying him to the Mau Mau., but the court sentenced him to seven years' imprisonment with hard labor. He became another hero-prisoner among black Africans, and in August 1961 he was released. Kenyatta became a member of Kenya's Legislative Council, and he led a delegation from the Kenya African National Union party to the Lancaster Conferences in London, where Kenya's independence constitution was negotiated.

In 1963, the British granted Kenya its independence. Most of the Europeans – 50,000 of them – chose to remain in Kenya, confident that they could survive well enough under black rule. Kenyatta was prime minister, the head of government, and Queen Elizabeth was chief of state. Kenyatta asked white settlers not to leave Kenya and he consistently supported conciliation. On 1 June 1964, Kenyatta had parliament amend Kenya's constitution. Kenya became a republic – no more monarch as the chief of state. Kenyatta became president.

Kenyatta believed that with independence difficulties lay ahead. In his first speech as president he warned of the hard work which lay ahead and the need to save themselves from poverty, ignorance and disease, to educate their children and to have doctors, to build roads and to improve or provide all day-to-day essentials.


Rhodesia had experienced impressive economic growth, the benefits of which were far from equally shared between Europeans and blacks. In 1961 the Europeans earned on average fifteen times that of blacks. In an effort to surrender more power to blacks and prevent more uprisings like that of the Mau Mau rebellion, Britain separated Southern Rhodesia from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. On July 6, 1964, Nyasaland became the independent state of Malawi. And on October 24 that same year, Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.

Southern Rhodesia remained a British colony, 250,000 persons of European descent there holding power over 16 times their number: 4,000,000 blacks. Europeans continued calling it simply Rhodesia. And in November 1965 the Europeans there, led by their prime minister, Ian Smith, unilaterally declared itself independent – within the Commonwealth of Nations.


"Indonesia's war for independence,"

India after Gandhi: a History of the World's Largest Democracy, by Ramachandra Guha, 2007

"Mohammed Ali Jinnah's March 22, 1940, demand for a Separate Homeland for Muslims."

"Mahatma Gandhi,"

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, 2006

The War Without a Name: France in Algeria, 1954-1962, by John Talbott, 1980


Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough, starring Ben Kingsley, 1983

Battle of Algiers, 1966

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.