Nationalism and Decolonization in Africa during the Cold War

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On April 8, 2008 Dr. Elizabeth Schmidt, professor of history at Loyola College in Maryland and Dr. Gregory Mann, professor of history at Columbia University, presented summaries of their most recent books Cold War and Decolonization of Guinea, 1946-1958 (2007) and Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century (2006).

In September 1958 Guinea claimed its independence by rejecting the French Constitution that would have given French colonies a subservient position in the French Union. Rejection of the constitution meant, as French President Charles DeGaulle had made clear, immediate independence. In her analysis of Guinea's path to independence, Schmidt addressed several key issues including the agency of grass root activists, the French reaction to the unexpected secession, and the post-referendum rise of Sékou Touré as a dictatorial leader. According to Schmidt, all these factors, placed in the context of the Cold War, stirred certain attitudes among French and international elites and shaped the process of decolonization in Guinea. Being the only colony to cast a "no-vote" in favor of direct independence, Guinea is recognized as a unique case, Schimdt stated. The historical roots of this outcome, however, still remain obscure. In Schimdt's terms Guinea's decision could only be understood in the broader politics of the Cold War in France, where the communist threat determined to a varying degree the country's foreign policy.

Guinea's break of constitutional ties with France was the result of an intense, almost 10 years long struggle among different groups in the country including the ruling elite, the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) leadership, and the grassroots activists. In 1958 the RDA had already turned away from its alliance with communists, and Guinea had rebuilt its own party from within. Initially, scholars attributed the victory of the "no-vote" to the strong leadership of the Guinean RDA. Early studies considered the party to be static and deemed its actions as entirely motivated by its leader - Sékou Touré. Scholars often rendered the Guinean path to independence as a "top-down" affair. In Schmidt's perspective, this misconception stems from the influence that Sékou Touré attained post-independence. Although he was an opportunist and a pragmatist, evidence and analysis suggest that organized grassroots activists compelled him to accept the "no-vote."

Following Guinea's independence, the French retaliated by moving out of the former colony and bringing its development to an utter halt. This reaction ran counter to Sékou Touré's plans. He did not intend to sever ties with France completely, but rather sought recognition for Guinea as an equal member in the international community. In search for support, Guinea turned to the "East," and asked for aid from communist countries. France used this "left turn" as a retroactive justification for its initial condemnation of the former colony and pressured the "West" not to accept independent Guinea.

In conclusion, Schmidt posed the question, "If this moment was so progressive, how does one explain what happened afterwards – a one party state with no opposition?" The preconditions for the events that unfolded in Guinea post-independence could be traced to the pre-referendum period. There were not enough people to take on leadership roles, Schmidt explained, and Sékou Touré found himself in a position where too much power rested in his authority. French conspiracy plots aimed at toppling the regime gave Sékou Touré legitimate excuse to persecute not only those who participated on the side of the French, but also opposition leaders who threatened his power.

Dr. Gregory Mann presented the roots of decolonization and its far reaching consequences from the perspective of West African veterans who fought on the side of France in WWI and WWII. Mann described his book as seeking to unfold the intricate connection between French political influence and its reception in the colonies among the most influential, non-elite class of society – African veterans. Mann placed the aspects of this dynamic relationship in the context of decolonization, by examining some of its key features including the creation of new states, the rise of a new international system, and the crisis of political membership.

Leadership in the 4th and 5th French republic, Mann argued, exploited notions of political membership as constitutional means of succession with the intent to tame the colonial "periphery." France had a distinct and particular approach with regard to offering privileges to West African veterans from the end of WWII up to 1960. The material benefits received by veterans brought along social status and represented French-African ties in the aftermath of 1945.

West African veterans did not seek independence from a nation, but from the idea of a nation. They knew what empire meant and objected to imperial paternalism, yet remained strong advocates of close relations with France. After 1950 the word independence acquired new layers of meaning, which represented multiple concepts.

In the late 1950s, the internal struggles between the two major parties in French Soudan (Senegal and Mali) – Union Soudanaise-Rassemblement Democratique Africain (US-RDA) and Parti Soudanais Progressiste (PSP) – reached a peak as their leaders confronted one another on the same constitution vote, which would grant Guinea independence. The US-RDA was a strong proponent of independence, while the PSP defended the old social order. In the midst of this political fight, the veterans stood for a "yes" vote and upheld the notion of African federalism. The dilemma of unity vs. independence split radicals from conservatives. Nationalism emerged as a form of anti-colonialism and the nation-state as a direct result of a failed "Pan African" movement. Finally, in 1960 Mali declared its independence from France with the intent to sever completely the ties with the French community. Two years later, Mali established its own currency and expelled the French military.

In Mann's perspective, anti-colonial struggles in Asia influenced strongly the independence movements in French West Africa and contributed to the referendum's outcome. The Cold War as an ideological background provided context for certain political calculations at the time, but on the overall it did not have a direct role in determining the path of French Soudan.

Christian Ostermann, Director, HAPP
Drafted by Kristina Terzieva