World History 2 254 - 14.4.4 Decolonization in Africa in the Shadow of the Cold War

Like the Vietnamese, the peoples of Africa also wished to shake off Western control following World War II. The Atlantic Charter, a 1941 agreement by the United Kingdom and the United States regarding their shared goals for the postwar world, had promised self-determination for all, and African countries wanted to make this a reality. In October 1945, the Fifth Pan-African Congress assembled in Manchester, England. Delegates from Europe’s African colonies as well as from the Caribbean, the United States, India, Sri Lanka, and Central America called for an end to colonialism.

European colonial powers were not of the same mind. Following the devastation of World War II, some regarded the natural resources and markets of African colonies essential to rebuilding their damaged economies. For example, the new constitution granted to Britain’s colony of Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1946 reflected the desire of the United Kingdom, like other colonial powers, to retain control over its African possessions. Although Africans were given additional opportunities to elect the members of a Legislative Council, the council had only advisory capacity. All real power was held by the colony’s appointed governor.

In August 1947, Ghanaians formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), which called on the United Kingdom to make the colony self-governing. Among the founding members of the UGCC was Kwame Nkrumah. In January 1948, Nkrumah and another member of the UGCC addressed a group of Ghanaian ex-service members. Like many in the Gold Coast, they were angry over the government’s failure to address problems such as unemployment and inflation and planned to petition the governor. When riots broke out in the colony a few days later, the government blamed the UGCC and arrested several of its members, including Nkrumah. In 1949, Nkrumah founded his own political party, the Convention People’s Party, and in January 1950 he called on his followers to begin a general strike to force the British to allow the drafting of a new constitution. He was jailed again and was in prison when he was elected to office in 1951, in the first election in Africa in which universal suffrage was allowed. Nkrumah became Ghana’s prime minister, and on March 6, 1957, Ghana received its independence.

Following Ghana, other British colonies also won their independence. In 1944, the Kenya African Union (KAU) was founded to call for Kenya’s liberation from British rule, and in 1947 Jomo Kenyatta assumed its leadership. The United Kingdom was unwilling to grant independence to Kenya, a colony in which many Whites owned profitable coffee plantations and controlled more land than did Black Africans. In 1952, a group called the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as the Mau Mau, began to fight for independence.

The Mau Mau, a nationalist movement among the Kikuyu people, espoused violence as a means to their goal. To spread fear, they attacked civilians, both White and Black, burning people to death or killing them with machetes. Africans who remained loyal to the British government were targeted. In response, the United Kingdom banned all Kenyan political parties, including the KAU that did not advocate violence, and struck back at the Mau Mau. Thousands were sent to internment camps. Entire villages were forcibly resettled in new areas, ostensibly to protect them from the Mau Mau. Innocent civilians were killed by forces employed by the British government. By 1956, the uprising had largely been brought to an end. In 1960, the United Kingdom began talks to discuss Kenyan independence, which was granted in 1963. Kenyatta became the country’s prime minister.

Dueling Voices

Violence in Kenya

Kenya was one of many British colonies that sought independence following World War II. There, as in other places in Africa, people were divided over the best means to achieve it. Some, like Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, proposed a peaceful solution. Others, like the members of the Mau Mau, endorsed violence. The attitudes of the two sides are contrasted in the following speech Kenyatta gave in 1952 and in a Mau Mau oath from the same period.

I want you to know the purpose of K.A.U. [Kenya African Union]. It is the biggest purpose the African has. It involves every African in Kenya and it is their mouthpiece which asks for freedom. K.A.U. is you and you are the K.A.U. If we unite now, each and every one of us, and each tribe to another, we will cause the implementation in this country of that which the European calls democracy. True democracy has no colour distinction. It does not choose between black and white . . . . We are not worried that other races are here with us in our country, but we insist that we are the leaders here, and what we want we insist we get. We want our cattle to get fat on our land so that our children grow up in prosperity; we do not want that fat removed to feed others. . . .

Our country today is in a bad state for its land is full of fools—and fools in a country delay the independence of its people. K.A.U. seeks to remedy this situation and I tell you now it despises thieving, robbery and murder for these practices ruin our country. I say this because if one man steals, or two men steal, there are people sitting close by lapping up information, who say the whole tribe is bad because a theft has been committed. Those people are wrecking our chances of advancement. They will prevent us getting freedom. If I have my own way, let me tell you I would butcher the criminal, and there are more criminals than one in more senses than one. . . .

K.A.U. is not a fighting union that uses fists and weapons. If any of you here think that force is good, I do not agree with you. I do not want people to accuse us falsely—that we steal and that we are Mau Mau. I pray to you that we join hands for freedom and freedom means abolishing criminality.

—Jomo Kenyatta, “Speech at the African Union Meeting

I swear before God and before the people who are here that

I have today become a soldier of Gikuyu and Mumbi and I will from now onwards fight the real fight for the land and freedom of our country till we get it or till my last drop of blood. Today I have set my first step as a warrior and I will never retreat.

And if I ever retreat

May this soil and all its products be a curse upon me!

If ever I am called to accompany a raid or bring in the head of an enemy, I shall obey and never give lame excuses. . . .

I will never spy or inform on my people, and if ever sent to spy on our enemies I will always report the truth. . . .

I will never reveal a raid or crime committed to any person who has not taken the Ngero Oath and will steal firearms wherever possible. . . .

I will never leave a member in difficulty without trying to help him. . . .

I will obey the orders of my leaders at all times without any argument or complaint and will never fail to give them any money or goods taken in a raid and will never hide any pillages or take them for myself. . . .

I will never sell land to any white man. And if I sell:

May this soil and all its products be a curse upon me!

— Donald L. Barnett and Karari Njama, “The Mau Mau Warrior Oath

  • What parts of the Mau Mau oath would Jomo Kenyatta dislike? Are there parts he might be willing to take himself?
  • Why does Kenyatta reject the tactics of the Mau Mau?

Nationalism and the desire for independence were powerful in the colonies of other European countries as well. Some imperial powers attempted moderate changes at first. In 1946, for example, France proposed sweeping reforms for its African colonies. It ended forced labor and racially discriminatory practices and allowed for a degree of self-rule. It did not offer independence, but that was what France’s African subjects most wanted and fought for. From 1947 to 1949, the Malagasy Revolt raged in Madagascar, costing thousands of lives. Violence brought an end to colonialism in Cameroon in 1957 as well. In Algeria, warfare lasted from 1954 to 1962, when France granted independence, and more than one million people of European descent departed the country.

In the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Cold War tensions contributed to the violence. When in 1960 Belgium promised the Congolese independence in thirty years, nationalist groups such as the Congolese National Movement and the Alliance of Bakongo responded that they wanted it immediately. Black Congolese held protests that often ended in riots, and they refused to pay taxes. Alarmed, many White residents started citizens’ militias and attacked Black residents. Realizing the strength of the nationalist protest, the government of Belgium agreed to grant Congo its independence on June 30, 1960.

This did not end the violence, however. When Émile Janssens, the White commander of the Force Publique, the Belgian Congo’s security force, made clear to Black troops a few days after independence that White officers would remain in charge, soldiers mutinied. Patrice Lamumba, the leader of the Congolese National Movement who had been elected prime minister, replaced Janssens with a Black commander of the renamed National Congolese Army and promoted Black soldiers. This was not enough to end the mutiny, however. White people were attacked across the country, and Belgian forces invaded to protect them.

In the midst of the chaos, Congo’s mineral-rich southern province of Katanga seceded and proclaimed its independence. Lamumba appealed to the UN, which had sent peacekeeping forces to restore order, to end Katanga’s secession. The UN refused, however, claiming secession was an internal political matter with which it should not interfere. Lamumba then asked the United States for help, but his request was denied. Finally, he turned to the Soviet Union, which provided weapons and military advisers. Lamumba’s acceptance of Soviet support branded him a communist in Western eyes. Taking advantage of the chaos, Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko), the new head of the security force, put Lamumba under house arrest and placed Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the leader of the Alliance of Bakongo, in charge of the government. Lamumba was subsequently killed by Katangese troops with the knowledge and support of the CIA, which provided both money and weapons to Mobutu and Kasa-Vubu.

British politicians, observing the strength of nationalist fervor not only in Kenya but also in other colonies, and fearing more violence like that experienced in Congo, moved quickly to liberate British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. In 1960, Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, visited Africa and delivered a speech called “The Wind of Change.” The wind of change was sweeping Africa, Macmillan declared, and the time of liberation had come, even though White Britons might not want it.

Unlike Britain, France, and Belgium, Portugal steadfastly refused to relinquish its colonies. The nationalistic, quasi-fascist government of the Second Portuguese Republic that had first come to power in 1933 regarded them as part of Portugal and considered Portugal to be a guarantor of order and civilization in Africa. A variety of independence movements sprang up in Angola, Portuguese Guinea (now called Guinea-Bissau), and Mozambique, just as they did elsewhere in Africa. Some groups sought to establish self-government along the lines of Western democracies, while others favored the creation of a communist system. In Angola, Portuguese troops battled the National Liberation Front (FNLA), a largely rural organization comprising Bakongo people, the Marxist People’s Movement of Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a largely urban group, and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), a rural group made up principally of Ovimbundu people. In Mozambique, the Marxist Mozambique Liberation Front fought for independence. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, another Marxist organization, led the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau.

The Cold War intruded upon the battle in the Portuguese colonies. The Soviet Union, China, Romania, Cuba, and Yugoslavia all provided aid to the various independence groups. The United States did not because Portugal was a fellow NATO member. In 1974, leftist military officers in Portugal overthrew the government of the Second Portuguese Republic and established a democratic government. The new government ended the war with the African colonies by granting independence to Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique along with Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe, islands off the African coast. Independence did not bring an end to the violence, however. In 1975, civil war broke in Angola for control of the country. The United States provided support for UNITA and FNLA in their struggle against the MPLA.

Violence also erupted in the former British colony of Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). Rejecting the British government’s plans for majority rule in its former colonies, White residents, unwilling to submit to a government controlled by Black Rhodesians, proclaimed independence from the United Kingdom in 1965 with Ian Smith as prime minister, a move that Britain opposed. Civil war broke out between the White government and two Black nationalist groups, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe. The Soviet Union lent support to ZAPU, and China to ZANU. Eventually an agreement was reached among all three parties, and the United Kingdom officially recognized Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Robert Mugabe became prime minister, and thousands of Nkomo’s followers were tortured, imprisoned, or killed until he and Mugabe combined their political parties in 1987.

Similar to the situation in Rhodesia, Black Africans in South Africa struggled for independence not against a European power but against White Africans. In 1909, the British Cape Colony, Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State had been combined to form a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Only the White minority had been allowed to rule, however, and the contest for power had been between Whites of British and Afrikaner (Dutch) descent. Laws denied Black Africans the right to vote and prevented them from laying claim to most of the country’s land. They were denied the right to live in some parts of the country, and many were forcibly removed to “homelands” apart from Whites. In 1948, discriminatory practices and racial segregation were formalized in a system called apartheid. In 1950, South Africa’s legislature passed the Suppression of Communism Act, which banned not only the anti-apartheid South African Communist Party but also any actions to end racially discriminatory practices. Thus, when in 1960 the United Kingdom allowed South Africans to vote on whether to remain a dominion, the majority of the population could not participate. In 1961, South Africa officially became a republic, but the true liberation movement was still underway.

From its very beginning, groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) had fought apartheid, with peaceful protest at first. However, following the killing of peaceful protesters in the Black township of Sharpeville and the banning of the ANC and PAC, both in 1960, anti-apartheid activists began to employ sabotage and attacks on police and military targets, along with more peaceful tactics like strikes. In 1976, protests erupted in Black townships against a new law requiring Black African students to learn Afrikaans (the language spoken by South Africa’s Dutch colonizers). In the township of Soweto, the police opened fire on schoolchildren, killing more than one hundred. Over the course of decades, thousands of activists were arrested and imprisoned, including Nelson Mandela, a leader of the ANC, and many were executed. By the 1980s, however, continued opposition to apartheid, economic sanctions imposed by foreign countries, boycotts of South African businesses, and international condemnation had begun to have an effect. In 1991, South Africa officially ended the policy of apartheid; in 1994, the first elections were held in which all South Africans could vote regardless of race. The ANC swept to victory, and the new National Assembly elected Nelson Mandela president.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax