There are often at least two versions of the story. Africa’s colonial past is not an exception. On the one hand, the research in legal and political sciences, sociology, history and many other disciplines directly link the way in which Africa was “apportioned” by European empires at the time (mainly but not only, the British and French empires) with the current struggles in most parts of the continents. On the other hand, scientific literature assesses the same facts under a very different light by either negating the European responsibility in relation to the African experience or highlighting the good intentions behind the partition and some positive results.
As a way of example, two documents below offer these two very different views about the same facts:
In the aftermath of World War II, the two most powerful colonial powers, Britain and France, needed both to expand the economic utility of their African territories and to reinforce the legitimacy of holding colonies to a world in which such claims were becoming increasingly contested. For both economic and political reasons, colonized people could no longer be regarded as passive subjects. If they were to remain in the imperial polity, the basis of their belonging would have to be taken seriously: as active contributors to economic development, as people with legitimate interests in raising their standard of living and levels of education, and as participants in political institutions.
The costs of tutelage, investment, and the containment of disorder or revolution turned out to be something neither France nor Great Britain wanted to pay. The modernization argument instead proved useful in convincing enough of the political elite at home that African territories could become self-governing, that they could be brought enough into the world economy and international institutions, that they would have an interest in further interaction and cooperation, and that European norms really were universalistic aspirations that Africans themselves would seek to emulate. The development process went from something that had to be directly controlled to something that painful implementation of which could be passed on to African elites. The main difference was that Europeans could now pass onto Africans responsibility for the consequences of a history in which they had been prime actor.
Empire was in some ways more essential than ever. Damaged economically by World War II, both powers saw in their colonies the only real hope of earning hard currency via the sale of tropical products for dollars. Both powers recognized that the legitimacy of empire was now a more salient and delicate question than it had been before.
The initial reaction in Africa of both British and French governments was to deepen commitments rather than to end them: to forge a development-oriented colonialism that would allow for colonies to contribute more effectively to the recovery of imperial economies, while raising the standard of living of the colonized, sustaining a slow and carefully controlled evolution toward fuller participation of Africans in political affairs, whether at the territorial or the imperial level. It was a project that turned out to be vulnerable in its own terms, and that is why focusing on the politics of citizenship reveals a great deal about how France and Britain convinced themselves that they could and had to give up empire. The claims that were being made upon colonial regimes in terms of citizenship were certainly for political voice, but they were also quite material – about wages, benefits, access to public services on a nonracial basis, for education and health services equivalent to those available in the metropole. If empire were to be reformed and made into a meaningful unit of participation, then workers, farmers, students, and others might pose a claim on the resources of the empire as a whole. Such claims revealed that people working within the ideology and institutions of empire could make empire unsustainable.
Decolonization and Citizenship in Africa
There is no reason why, in Africa, the border between Ghana and the Ivory Coast, or between Nigeria and Niger, should be regarded as more artificial than, for example, the border between Hungary and Yugoslavia, that between Switzerland and France, or the frontier between the United States and Canada. The description of African borders as artificial is sometimes intended to suggest that they were drawn in total disregard of local conditions. This view is inaccurate-although the consideration and attention given to local circumstances was indeed insufficient. Many African colonial borders took shape gradually, in several stages, in the course of which attempts were made to take various local considerations into account, and they were changed and amended over the years by demar- cation commissions. Sometimes the location of villages with respect to their lands influenced the drawing of a frontier. More often, the delimitation was influenced by the requirements of the respective colonial governments, such as their concern with administrative con- venience, communications and access to certain areas, or trade routes. The arrangements then made today serve the independent African states, and, to the extent that they were satisfactory, they contribute to the present relative stability of borders in Africa.
Jorge Emilio Núñez
02nd October 2018