Independence Movements

Between 1957 and 1993 nearly 50 African states achieved independence from colonial rule. The first sparks of resistance to foreign control took shape much earlier, though, in some cases hundreds of years earlier. Independence movements developed throughout Africa in the mid-1900s. Although they followed different paths, they shared a common beginning: resistance to domination by foreign powers. Unfortunately, once in control, many of these independence movements imposed their own form of domination. As a result, modern Africa continues to wrestle with many of the same political problems that motivated the independence movements of the past.


The first stirrings of what could be considered African nationalism came in response to criticism of African civilization by outsiders. As early as the 1500s in SUDAN, African writers were defending indigenous culture by describing the achievements of powerful states such as the Songhai Empire. However, it was the growing Atlantic SLAVE TRADE of the 1700s and 1800s that produced the most powerful early attacks on foreign domination.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade was marked not only by the physical repression of Africans but also by cultural and spiritual domination. Europeans tried to justify the slave trade on Biblical grounds. They also argued that their more advanced culture proved the natural superiority of Europe over “backward” African societies.

In the late 1700s, a number of former slaves, including black abolitionist Olaudah EQUIANO, wrote searing accounts of the horrors of the slave trade and the reasoning used to justify it. In addition to his tales of outrage, Equiano also tried to show the European colonial powers that an economic system built upon cooperation and shared economic power would be much more beneficial to both sides than the existing system of slavery. Free, industrious African nations would be much more productive, he argued. These writings were part of a general tide of opinion that helped to end the European slave trade in the early 1800s.

However, Arab slave traders continued to operate in northern and eastern Africa for nearly 100 more years. This led some Africans to attack Islam as a destructive influence on African life and culture.

During the mid-1800s European interest in Africa shifted from the slave trade to the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. Attracted by the promise of wealth from gold, diamonds, exotic hardwoods, and other natural riches, European nations claimed large portions of Africa for their colonial empires. Besides seizing the land of Africans, the Europeans also destroyed many of their freedoms and their institutions of government. In time, missionaries took over the education of African children. Their churches and schools promoted the Christian religion over traditional beliefs and European social and political ideas over African practices. In this way the colonization of Africa by Europeans involved cultural domination as well as physical and political control.

Responses to Colonization

The first African reactions to European colonization focused on cultural elements. In books and other writings, Africans examined the strengths of indigenous culture and the impact of European influence. Books by the YORUBA minister Samuel JOHNSON and John Mensah SARBAH of Ghana defended traditional African societies against European accusations of barbarism or backwardness. Other African writers sought to obtain greater participation for Africans in colonial administrations.

Rarely did these early responses to colonialism call for political independence or the formation of national identities. Before the colonial era, much of Africa was made up societies with little or no central authority. Political organization was basically local in nature and based on KINSHIP or other forms of personal association. The European idea of nationhood did not exist. A few Africans, such as historian James Africanus HORTON of Sierra Leone, argued that Africans could benefit from the formation of independent nations just as Europeans had. However, such ideas were overwhelmed by the spread of European colonialism.

Faced with European military and economic superiority and hampered by ethnic group rivalries, Africans were unable to seek any meaningful form of independence during the colonial period. However, protests against the repressive practices of colonialism occurred frequently. European rulers managed to prevent serious unrest by encouraging traditional rivalries that kept opponents divided and disorganized. Only after World War II did conditions favor true political independence for Africa.


Two factors played a significant role in accelerating the pace of political change in Africa after World War II. First, the moral basis of the war against imperialist and racist dictatorships provided a weapon for those desiring independence from foreign rule. The nations allied against Germany and Japan claimed to be fighting for self-determination—the right of people to rule themselves. This call for self-determination made it difficult for European powers to deny the same freedom to their colonial subjects in Africa, who had provided soldiers for the war effort. Secondly, World War II imposed a severe financial strain on Europe. Britain and France, in particular, suffered physical and economic devastation, and maintaining their colonial empires became increasingly difficult.

African Political Parties

Before World War II, organized protest against colonial rule was centered in organizations such as labor unions, student groups, social clubs, and religious groups. After the war these associations became better organized and focused increasingly on political issues. The first local and regional African political parties grew out of these groups. Many of them opposed colonial rule and supported freedom movements.

Where strong and capable leaders emerged, the early political parties broadened their bases of support to include members of different social, cultural, and economic groups. Parties such as the Convention People’s Party in GHANA and the African National Congress of southern Africa were able to overcome their differences to challenge both European authority and the Africans who worked with colonial officials.

Despite some early success in unifying diverse groups, these political parties still had enormous obstacles to overcome. Most developed in towns and cities, where Africans could easily get together and share ideas. Building ties to rural areas was limited by the lack of communication, poor transportation, and the vast distances of the African continent. Within urban areas parties were often organized along traditional lines and drew support from certain ethnic or social groups. Including a broader range of groups in the parties was essential to success, but this goal was difficult to achieve.

Two general types of political parties arose in Africa at this time. “Patron” parties sought to recruit leading members of local society who could attract support and organize voters. This type of party reflected a traditional approach that relied on the personal authority of established African leaders. “Mass” parties bypassed prominent individuals, working instead through local party branches to build support that was not based on personal or tribal loyalties.

The political organization of patron parties reflected existing social structures and power relations. Mass parties, on the other hand, received support from the masses and gained power as a result of popular calls for liberation from colonial rule. These two types of parties differed in their strategies for achieving independence. Patron parties typically chose to work for gradual independence within the existing colonial power structure. Mass parties often rejected any compromise with colonial authorities and insisted on immediate freedom. In time a great variety of individual political parties and independence movements arose to challenge colonialism.

European Response

As the opposition to foreign control increased and became better organized, colonial powers adopted different strategies. Some European nations understood the difficulty of maintaining total control over their colonies. They began to work with African political parties to expand the rights of Africans and increase their participation in government. Other European nations, fearing the loss of political power, colonial wealth, and international prestige, cracked down harder on indigenous peoples and placed greater limits on freedoms.

The Portuguese chose the second path, increasing their military force in Africa and intensifying political repression. As a result, independence for Portuguese colonies such as ANGOLA and MOZAMBIQUE came much later than it did for most other African colonies. In addition, during the 1960s and 1970s, ideology divided the independence movements in these two colonies. In Angola the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) adopted communist principles and had support from the Soviet Union and Cuba. Meanwhile, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) received backing from SOUTH AFRICA, the United States, and other Western powers. When Portugal finally granted independence to Angola in 1979, a civil war erupted between MPLA and UNITA that only began moving toward a peaceful conclusion in the late 1990s.

Britain and France took the other path, gradually expanding political freedom in their colonies. Beginning as early as the late 1940s, both nations granted many colonies local self-rule, with Africans assuming various leadership positions. Final authority, however, still rested in the hands of the colonial powers. With many British colonies, this arrangement gradually gave way to independence within a commonwealth system. NIGERIA and Ghana, for example, came to enjoy the same relationship with Britain as other commonwealth countries such as Canada or Australia.

The French were less committed than the British to total independence for their African colonies. In some places France tried to crush African political parties and independence movements, which led to increasing unrest and violence. Even after granting independence to a colony, the French often continued to influence local political parties, interfere in elections, and send in troops to reverse developments considered unfavorable to French interests.

Even colonies that enjoyed local self-rule often turned to violence to achieve full independence. In KENYA, for example, the political rights of Africans expanded significantly after World War II. However, it took the violent MAU MAU uprising of the 1950s to convince Britain to give Kenya full independence. The French faced growing unrest in their North African colonies. In 1954 they granted independence to MOROCCO and TUNISIA so they could focus efforts on ALGERIA, their most important colony. But after committing huge sums of money and tens of thousands of troops to fighting in Algeria, the French were finally forced to pull out in 1962.

After Independence

Many Africans today face the same kinds of political and social challenges that independence movements and political parties promised to solve by expelling colonial masters. African nations inherited artificial boundaries that divided ethnic groups and led to future border conflicts. In many states the parties that hold power still reflect ethnic and social divisions that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Urban groups continue to control power and too often ignore the needs of rural populations. Powerful leaders have often used their positions of authority to promote their own allies, punish political enemies, and enrich themselves and their friends.

Despite such problems, the growth of independence movements and political parties established important traditions of democracy and the rule of law that had been absent under colonial rule. Their achievement in winning independence also serves as a reminder to Africans that people can change society, even in the face of repressive government. (See also Boundaries in Africa, Colonialism in Africa, Ethnic Groups and Identity, Government and Political Systems, History of AfricaNationalism, Neocolonialism, Unions and Trade Associations.)