Decolonization of British and French West Africa

Subject: History
Pages: 10
Words: 2513
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College

Introduction and background

History records that European interests and contacts with West Africa started as early as the fifteenth century (Johnston 2011, p.98). Okoth (2006, p.210) points out that European contacts with West Africa can be traced back to this period when traders from Portugal started linking with people of the West African coast. Later in the sixteenth century when the Trans Atlantic slave trade had expanded, the French began to carry out their activities with West Africa. The British people were also not left behind in the preceded scramble in which the European nations aimed at increasing their stake in West Africa. Huillery (2011, p.265) has noted that the rule of Britain and French in West Africa proceeded concurrently although their interests were diverse. By 1890, these nations’ quest for West Africa had resulted into control of vast areas.

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According to Duara (2004, p.1), European retreat from West Africa was one of the most momentous and sudden transformations in history. Notably, decolonization of West Africa by Britain and France occurred after the end of Second World War (Birmingham 1995, p. 30). It is imperative to note that after the post World War period, there were tremendous imperial transformations. In this case, the colonial powers opted to declare their colonies independent in order to safeguard their imperial interests (Duara 2004, p.275).

Historians lament that the reason behind decolonizing West Africa was to device a dramatic strategy for colonial powers to spearhead a wave of change in the region through imperialism (Le Sueur 2003, p.1). In this case, scholars have raised profound questions as to why the colonial powers decided to call off their influence shortly after the Second World War. Therefore, there exist impending assumptions that the colonial powers wanted to protect their own interests.

It is against this backdrop that this paper intends to expose how the interests of France and Britain were preserved by decolonizing West Africa.The paper also keenly elaborates the specific economic, social and political interests which both Britain and France had in West Africa. The paper offers an intensive discussion of the several ways through which the general interests of Britain and French rule were preserved by the decolonization of their territories. It also gives a wrap up of the objectives of the strategic withdrawal of British and French rule in West Africa.

The interest of France in west Africa

It is notable that the decolonization process in West Africa was a bit complex (Birmingham 1995, p. 30). Historians suggest that the random change was due to the aftershocks of the Second World War that compelled the imperialists to end colonization in West Africa. Research has revealed that the primary cause of decolonization was to uphold and protect imperialists’ interests (Le Sueur 2003, p.34).

Nevertheless, this assumption still puzzles scholars to date. From a careful review of literature, studies have shown that the chain of events that occurred during decolonization process acted as evidence that imperialists were after their own selfish gains (Duara 2004, p.). Therefore, it is arguable that the phenomenon was not meant to benefit countries in West Africa. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that the major aim of decolonizing West Africa was to foster nationalism in the region (Birmingham 1995, p. 42).

In line with this, evidence has shown that the process of decolonization took a false start and led to incompatible expectations since the imperialists did not have a clear strategy to disengage themselves from the colonies. Moreover, the powers faced external and internal pressures to decolonize their colonies. One of the major reasons for decolonization was the suggestion that colonization could grant the colonies a remote future (Le Sueur 2003, p.127). This caused pressure from world super powers against the colonialism. For instance, the US pressured France and Britain to decolonize their colonies (Birmingham 1995, p. 42).

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In this case, the imperial powers felt threatened and had to disengage themselves with the colonies in order to safeguard their political and economic relations with other super powers. Notably, historians have revealed that it is only after the post war period that the powers decided to decolonize West Africa due to global sentiments against colonial rule (Le Sueur 2003, p.1). One can also argue that after the Second World War, the idea of colonization was not welcomed in many quarters and hence the powers were compelled to withdraw their influence.

Besides this, it is imperative to note that African servicemen in the war learnt so many tips about their colonial masters. This increased their agitation to fight for freedom. Definitely, African experience in the war developed a mass conscious of imperialism, racism and unjust colonial rule (Le Sueur 2003, p.1). Therefore, the imperialist realized that once African servicemen came back, they spread new ideas about their adventure in western world. This heightened the anti-colonial militancy since Africans had persistently demanded freedom.

According to Birmingham (1995, p. 30), it is evident that social, political and economic revolutions in West Africa emerged shortly after the war. It is essential to note that the colonial powers faced hardships and a lot of resources were used to finance the war (Duara 2004, p. 34). Therefore, they found that it was no longer economical to maintain the colonies bearing in mind that they were to silence the national struggles that were at their peak in Africa. Moreover, European powers had their economy being more stringent and this made it hard for them to control the territories in West Africa (Duara 2004, p. 134). In this case, it is arguable that the need to salvage the imperialists’ economy from collapsing led to decolonization of West Africa.

That notwithstanding, it is important to note that the experience in war made Africans to device tough strategies to resist colonial rule and imperialism. Such strategies included strikes, boycotts, formation of unions and guerilla warfare (Le Sueur 2003, p.121). These activities also rendered colonial regimes powerless. Notably, organization efficiency and the potential created by frequent strikes served as a serious warning to the imperialists in Africa (Birmingham 1995, p. 42).

Therefore, the European powers used decolonization as a strategy to exit West Africa. In line with this, it is apparent that decolonization was not a benevolent gesture to benefit West Africa but was a way of spearheading diplomatic and economic relations with the colonies. Consequently, this would allow colonial powers to exploit the territories better. Notably, France and Britain administrators realized that the easiest way of spreading their imperialism to Africans was by decolonizing them. This was due to the fact that the territories objected colonization and the best way to calm them was to offer the much needed freedom.

Furthermore, the colonial powers wanted to safeguard their position in the international arena (Le Sueur 2003, p.122). In this case, other super powers that rose after the war such as Soviet Union highly opposed colonial rule. Needless to say, Marxist scholars perceived colonialism as the worst form of capitalism. In this case, the imperialist power pretended to decolonize Africa yet they still benefited by exploiting African territories through neo-colonialism. It is arguable that the global power shift from European nation to Africa was a channel for colonial power to spearhead their imperial interests easily and indirectly (Duara 2004, p. 17).

The British in West Africa

In the process of decolonizing Africa, the colonial powers pretended to help Africans to formulate policies and institutions that would help them to self-govern their territories. However, it is imperative to note that some of the policies largely favored the interests of the colonial masters. For instance, the period after the war, the colonial powers established polices to foster colonial development and provided welfare funds to the colonies (Duara 2004, p.8).

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However, research has revealed that these aids were geared towards ensuring that African governments adhere to the needs of their colonial masters and without resistance. Two decades after independence, African leaders realized that the situation had even become worse than it was the case before decolonization (Le Sueur 2003, p.397). They faced many hardships to an extent that their citizens began to question whether they were still independent or not. This was due to the fact that neo-colonialism had made African economy worse than it was before and hence independence at that time lacked meaning.

The major interests of the French were economic in nature although there were also basic social and economic interests. Huillery (2011, p.269) points out that the French government had a chief goal of exercising full control over the trade in the region of West Africa. He adds that the government of France wanted to create a channel through which the wealth in West Africa would be channeled into France (Huillery 2011, p.269). The major focus was on the trade in slaves and gold. The traders from France were after making sure that they dominate the whole market to ensure that the goods flowed towards France.

However it could be impossible to exercise economic influence in the region without having political power. Johnston (2011, p.230) describes the French tactical invasion into West Africa as an absorption whereby the Africans finally found themselves fully absorbed. The French created a base by socially assimilating the Africans and finally, they obtained the chance to rule and control the activities in the region. They established arms of French rule and the nations of West Africa became political and economical provinces of France (Huillery 2011, p.269).

The British too, like all other colonial powers that colonized West Africa had prioritized the aspect of assimilating the economic endowment of the region in their influence. Okoth (2006, p.309) explains this by pointing out their main goals. He mentions that they were after raw materials for their industries overseas. In addition, it is also worth to mention that they wanted to control slave trade in order to ensure labor supply for these industries and also to exploit the economic resources available in West Africa (Okoth 2006, p.309). The British were geared towards step by step civilization of the colonies of West Africa. They had to wait until the nations of this region realized the benefits they could get by keeping their relation with the developed Britain. They were determined to create a broad market for their finished industrial goods.

Decolonization and British interest in West Africa

The decolonization of Africa at large was not really an intentional act that was done by the colonial powers (Huillery 2011, p.266). The latter author argues that in an economic and tactical point of view the nations which used assimilation to rule Africa decolonized their colonies more purposely than any political analyst could have ever imagined (Huillery 2011, p.267). The British in West Africa purposely withdrew their colonial power after they made sure that their interests would be preserved ever even when the West Africans were independent.

The colonies were already fine tuned by the fact that they operated jointly with Britain. The economic gains that Britain accrued from their colonies would continue being obtained. When the colonized West Africans started operating independently, they realized how they really needed their relation with Britain. The flow of raw materials into the economy of Britain continued because the West Africans had no industries. Moreover, the ready market for finished goods like clothes, utensils, household goods and fire arms continued to exist since West Africans had no other options to acquire them.

The political influence of Britain was retained because the West African nations retained the same structures which were put in place by the British colonial government. Johnston (2011, p.230) describes the decolonization of West Africa from British colonial rule as a step which was taken after a season which blackened the Africans by showing them that here was only one way of getting economic development by following the example of Britain.

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The interest of France in West Africa preserved

The interest of France in West Africa was also preserved after decolonization.

The French rule in West Africa was rated as one of the most successful. Johnston (2011, p.239) defends this by stating that the assimilation of nations used by France achieved all social, political and economic alienation of the colonies in West Africa. He adds that the interests of France in West Africa is well felt even in this century, quite a number of decades after the independence of French colonies (Johnston 2011, p.239).

It is also worth to note that the process of colonization left long lasting impacts in West Africa bearing in mind that the aftermath of the process is still being felt in modern day West Africa. The decolonization of West African nations like Senegal, Ghana and Mali was done in a strategic way and style which left France with huge influence of the region. The incorporation of their colonies (provinces) in all affairs of France made decolonization a strategic tool of attaching these nations to France economically and politically.

Okoth (2006, p.400) denotes that France would continue benefiting from West Africa now that there was Africans living in France as legal citizens. Post colonial trade would thrive and experience a great stability now that the colonies had learned how to do it right from their colonial masters (Huillery 2011, p.266). The Africans both in France and in West Africa had adopted the French culture and were comfortable with the French language. Decolonization put West Africa in a position where they had to choose either to remain or to pack and go a choice which would retard them in all aspects of development-political, social and economic. France safeguarded its economic and political dominance over West Africa by ensuring a smooth interchange of foreign and internal self governance.

In addition, it was tactful for France and Britain to decolonize West Africa in a way that ensured that their contact and involvement were retained. The cooperation with the West Africans ensured that economic and political- social engagements were preserved. This has resulted into great interdependence of West African nations with the two European nations. This has greatly resulted into the safe guarding of Britain’s and French special interest in West Africa.


To recap it all, it is certain that decolonization of Africa by Britain and France was not meant to benefit Africa but to safeguard their selfish interests. Certainly, the colonial powers wanted to spearhead economic and political interests in West Africa indirectly. Moreover, the colonial powers wanted to maintain good relations with West Africa in order to exploit them through neo-colonialism.

This was indeed made possible by the fact that the imperialists manipulated African policies and institutions to ensure that they adhered to the interest of their former colonial masters. Moreover, the imperialist realized that they could exploit the colonies effectively by decolonizing them since this would minimize armed struggle. Additionally, they realized that colonizing territories to exploit them was uneconomical since much resource was being used to avert armed struggle. It is evident that even after decolonization; colonial powers did not end their links with African states, a factor that suggests that neo-colonialism is still being used to exploit states in West Africa.


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Duara, P 2004, Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then, Roputledge, New York.

Huillery, E 2011,“The Impact of European Settlement within French West Africa: Did.

Pre-colonial Prosperous Areas Fall Behind?” journal of African Economies, vol. 20 no. 2, pp. 263-270.

Johnston, H 2011, A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Le Sueur, D 2003, The Decolonization Reader, Routledge, New York.

OKoth, A 2006, A History of Africa: African societies and the establishment of colonial rule, East African publishers, Nairobi.