The End of Colonial Rule in West Africa

Classic Pamphlet

By John D. Hargreaves, published 4th April 2011

Of 'Decolonization' & 'Liberation'

The dissolution of colonial empires since the Second World War is a major theme of contemporary history, and one which will challenge historians for many years to come. There are still sharp disagreements as to how this change should be described. European scholars tend to use the term ‘decolonization' (at the International Congress of Historical Sciences of 1965 this was the title of a session introduced by Soviet scholars); citizens of independent states, and their friends, may prefer to speak of ‘liberation'. This is not just a pedantic quarrel; the two terms reflect different views of what has actually taken place, and attitudes taken towards present regimes in the successor states may depend on which view is adopted. The subject is an immense one; generalizations applicable to all empires and all continents are hardly possible. This essay therefore attempts to consider these alternative lines of historical interpretation with reference to the specific case of the British and French empires in West Africa.

This example may appear a relatively straightforward one. The period of colonial rule was shorter here than in most parts of Asia, and national movements may appear to have a simpler history; opposition to independence was much less dogged than in other parts of Africa, where liberation struggles still continue. The end of empire was thus rapid, and relatively (though not completely) smooth. The ‘model colony' of the Gold Coast, together with the British Trust territory of Togo, became the independent state of Ghana in March 1957; Guinea claimed its independence from France in 1958; and 1960 saw the independence not only of Nigeria, but of seven states formerly incorporated in the federation of French West Africa (A.O.F.) - Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali (formerly Soudan), Mauritania, Dahomey, Niger, and Upper Volta; also the two French Trust territories of Togo and Cameroun (which next year was re-united with the former British Cameroons). The independence of Sierra Leone in 1961 and The Gambia in 1964 removed the last colonial administrations from the region, with the exception of the Portuguese colony of Guine; here the achievement of independence in 1974 was a very different story, which will not be discussed in this essay.

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