Socialist Worker

African independence: A dream of freedom derailed

It’s fifty years since the high tide of the anti-colonial movement. Ken Olende looks at what happened to the ‘wind of change’, and hopes for a new era

Issue No. 2224

During 1960 a total of 17 African countries gained independence from their colonial masters. This was the highest in any single year and, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan said, it signalled that a “wind of change” was blowing across the continent.

The media often view the colonisation of Africa with rose tinted nostalgia. But the reality was brutality, rapacious exploitation and savage racism.

In 1897 Sir Arthur Hardinge, the first British governor for what would become Kenya, justified naked conquest, stating, “These people must learn submission by bullets—it’s the only school; after that you may begin more modern and humane methods of education”.

The main function of empire was to extract resources from the colonies and make them dependent on goods manufactured in the “mother country”.

For example, African economies were tied into the world market by producing food for export—often tropical fruit, coffee or cocoa. But this meant that farmers were forced to accept volatile international prices for their products. And they became reliant on imported food instead of growing their own.


The same applied to minerals. From 1930 until independence, copper production constantly increased in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Yet the majority of the population felt no benefit. Half the surplus was transported abroad as dividends.

When Zambia gained independence in 1964, the country had just one secondary school that provided useful qualifications.

As the Second World War ended, the rulers of Britain and France regained control of their empires. Liberation movements in Asia had forced them to rethink the amount of territory they could control. But in Africa they believed they could return to business as usual—exploiting local people.

A British cabinet committee stated that African colonies were so primitive that “it must be a matter of many generations before they are ready for anything like full self-government.”

After Indian independence in 1947, the colonial office was blunter, “Africa is now the core of our colonial position; the only continental space from which we can draw reserves of economic and military strength.”

Indeed for many Africans the situation was made worse as they were made to work harder to help pay off the colonial powers’ vast war debts.

But by 1970 all but a couple of African states were independent and the age of colonial empires had passed. The empires retreated following string of setbacks elsewhere.

The European powers faced pressure from the US to open up their colonial markets. They were also under

pressure from colonised peoples who had seen the imperialists’ weakness during the Second World War and were inspired by the victory of Indian’s ­independence movement.

Britain’s rulers were forced to rethink their place in the world after their humiliating defeat by Egypt in the Suez Crisis in 1956. French establishment followed suit after a war of resistance forced it in 1959 to promise Algerian independence.

But as late as 1958 president Charles de Gaulle believed he could hold France’s West African empire together through a referendum.

The vote offered a blunt choice, remain in the empire—now renamed as a “Commonwealth”—or face draconian financial and trade sanctions. This blackmail led most political leaders in the colonies to recommend a vote for empire and all but one country voted to stay with France.

However in Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, a radical leftist, led a ­campaign for a no vote, and 95 percent of the population there voted no.

The French government took revenge by breaking off all trade relations with Guinea. In an act of petty vandalism it even went as far of pulling up phone lines and even smashing all the government’s crockery.

It was a warning to other African nations thinking of breaking with French rule about the price of “disloyalty” .

But Guinea’s act of defiance had revealed the emptiness of the empire’s new clothes and soon the whole sham collapsed. Only two years later all the countries that had been pressured into voting yes became independent, creating the flood of new nations during 1960.

Fourteen of the states gaining their freedom were former French colonies, most of them in West Africa.

Living standards across Africa rose rapidly in each newly independent country as new schools and hospitals opened and the burden of ­imperial control was lifted.


Economist Giovanni Arrighi has shown that African economies were far from “basket cases” in the 1960s. Indeed, 16 economies in sub-Saharan Africa had growth rates that were comparable to the best in the West.

Hopes were raised that independence would allow a full-scale economic transformation that would end the desperate poverty of millions across Africa once and for all.

Many of the new African leaders, like Sekou Touré in Guinea, called themselves Marxists. But they drew heavily upon a version of socialism that was influenced by Stalinism.

Their inspiration was not the radical democracy of workers’ power that lay at the heart of the October 1917 revolution in Russia. Rather, they were impressed by the rapid economic growth that initially characterised the Stalinist states—first in the Soviet Union and later in its mirror images in Eastern Europe and China.

Stalinism appeared to show a path to industrial development for national economies whose growth had been stunted by imperialism. But strong economic growth was based on brutal exploitation. Workers were denied any say over how society was organised.

“African socialism” was in reality a programme for national economic development. But states whose borders and internal structures were all designed to supply the needs of empire would have had difficulty overcoming the destructive legacy of empire—even if they had been left alone.

But even after the formal end of empire, Western rulers continued to meddle in African affairs to further their own interests. The colonial powers wanted to withdraw from empire while maintaining as much influence and economic control as possible.

French military forces intervened 12 times between 1960 and 1963, and military intervention by Western powers has continued, whether by the French in Rwanda or the British in Sierra Leone or more recently the US in Somalia.

The Cold War gave the West an excuse to back brutal regimes that furthered its business interests. The West had no intention of relinquishing its economic control.

The first state to run into crisis was Congo, which had suffered terribly under Belgian rule.

While some new leaders chose their independence day to thank their former colonial masters, newly elected Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba took a different approach.

He came to the podium and reminded the crowd—including the Belgian king, who was expecting a gentlemanly hand over—that independence was “an end to the humiliating slavery that was imposed on us by force.”

The imperialists were outraged, but what they hated most was his relatively moderate plans to make sure that the majority of the country’s vast mineral wealth no longer simply benefited Western companies.

Lumumba was killed in a coup aided by the Belgian government and the CIA. By 1965 the brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was in power and received support from the West as a reliable ally who would not rock the boat.

Then came the recession of the early 1970s which hit African economies hard. The belief among many African rulers that national development or self sufficiency could avoid capitalist crisis was pushed aside. This was not through any fault or inherent weakness of African people, but because of the savage logic of capitalism.

Even after colonialism, most economies still depended on one or two agricultural or mineral products. Attempts at developing home grown industry were quashed by the return of the free market, which favoured established Western producers.

As neoliberalism began to ravage the heartlands of the capitalist system it cut a swathe through Africa. The first International Monetary Fund imposed “Structural Adjustment Programme” was foisted on Ghana in 1979.

This array of austerity plans, not an inherent weakness among African people, has created a seemingly endless crisis in Africa.

Learn more

  • Africa: a Modern History, by Guy Arnold, Atlantic, £15.40 - A comprehensive and wide ranging history
  • Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader, by Leo Zeilig Haus, £9.99 - Story of Congo’s independence and imperialism’s counter attack
  • Half of a Yellow Sun , by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Harper, £7.99 - Superb novel on the Biafra War
  • Ken Olende talks about revolution in Africa

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Tue 19 Oct 2010, 18:53 BST
Issue No. 2224
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