- The End of Empire in French West Africa: France’s Successful Decolonization?
Chafer’s aim in The End of Empire is to debunk some unquestioned myths in France and Africa concerning France’s decolonization in Africa. This process was not, as many have presumed, a smooth one that integrated an independent French West Africa politically and economically and created qualified personnel who could assume leadership. Nor has France’s presence in Africa been “stable”, “natural”, and “enduring” (2). Chafer argues that the widely held narrative of Africa’s “peaceful and democratic” transition to independence was not the result of an
overarching French strategy. Rather, French tactics were subsequently dressed up as strategy, which in turn has served to underpin the conventional view of French decolonization in Black Africa as a successfully managed transition.(9)
Indeed, he contends, decolonization was an uneven process, characterized by periods of “policy inertia” when nationalist grievances mounted, ultimately contributing to a series of political crises. Those crises were resolved piecemeal, as participants in the process made political concessions and compromises. The book shows that while French and African participants in the decolonization process shared similar goals, they also held contradictory aims and strategies, and these commonalities and contradictions shaped the very nature of decolonization. It sheds light on various strands of African nationalism. And the book lends itself to broader comparisons of decolonization processes, particularly with British West Africa.
Chafer organizes this history chronologically. But he also shifts his focus from French leaders and policymakers, to West African elites, to youth, trade, and student movements, to show the piecemeal process of decolonization, from the momentary opportunities presented to African workers during the Popular Front government (1936), through the development of a French Union (1946), the creation of a French Community (1956–7), and the attendant debates to determine exactly what relationships the territories of French West Africa would have with France and with one another. He ends with an analysis of how African political leaders set about silencing more radical nationalist groups, who criticized what they perceived as a partial independence from France. In setting out this narrative, The End of Empire relies primarily upon documentary sources culled from archives in West Africa and France, but also on an extensive secondary literature published in French and English, as well as 18 interviews with African participants in the political struggles leading to colonization.
Although The End of Empire is no cliff-hanger, Chafer’s work is a useful contribution to the political history of decolonization in Africa. He provides readers with a valuable synthesis of French West Africa’s late colonial history, of its notable players, policies, and political struggles, and he effectively shows that French West Africa experienced a highly contested, uneven transition to independence. At times, Chafer takes pains to reveal some of the differences among different groups seeking to advance their own nationalist agendas, and indeed, the book’s most absorbing chapter addresses the radicalization of student, youth, and labor movements in the 1950s.
The book has its shortcomings. Chafer’s synthetic narrative explores various African participants in decolonization unevenly, focusing most of its attention upon elites. To be sure, the story that Chafer tells is one about how French-educated African elites in French West Africa managed to distance themselves from—and to suppress—more radical trade unions and student movements, so as to seize greater control of the decolonization process and post-independence states. Hence, such elites should occupy a prominent place in the narrative. But Chafer gives shorter shrift to the contributions, for instance, of non-elite urban people to these struggles; their highly politicized interests are subsumed under those of political parties, trade unions, and student groups. Readers have no sense, then, of the kinds of daily experiences and struggles that might have radicalized their demands, or the myriad ways in which people who did not fall exclusively (or at all) into categories of “workers” or “students” voiced their grievances or visions of the future. Moreover, a discussion of the other ways that people created social...