Book Spotlight “Nationaliser le panafricanisme. La décolonisation au Sénégal, en Haute-Volta et au Ghana (1945-1962) [Nationalising Pan-Africanism: Decolonisation in Senegal, Upper Volta and Ghana (1945-1962)], Paris 2023”

At the end of the Second World War, a new international order was to be defined, requiring reconfigurations in and around colonial societies. Empires becoming obsolete as a form of power were to be dismantled and colonial societies were longing for a fundamental change. As the socio-political order was being redefined, how was the new belonging imagined by African people? What visions did different generations hold for the future of their societies and how were these visions integrated into the post-war reconstruction process? How did this local and global social reorganisation gradually acquire on a decolonising dimension? By focusing on the use of the term “Africa” by those who acted in its name, this book shows the extent to which its multiple and evolving definitions reflect the political and social transformation processes. Throughout these processes, a tension emerges between two major dynamics: Pan-Africanism and nationalism. While belonging to the community that is “African” was at some point synonymous to being anti-colonial, national independence eventually became a key to the decolonising process. This study explores how the processes of national and African identity formation were connected or combined within the emerging frameworks of the independent states.

The book focuses on the cases in three colonised territories of Senegal, Ghana (former Gold Coast), and Upper Volta (present-day Burkina Faso). These West African societies were fundamentally disrupted by long years of slave trade before becoming strategic spaces of colonial domination. Senegal and the Gold Coast, which had long-standing relationships with Western powers, were also central to West African imperial and regional circulations. These factors, in turn, shaped the political and African consciousness in the region. By examining both French and British colonies, this study aims to uncover a dynamic that is transcending imperial boundaries, often overlooked by imperial history. Upper Volta provides an interesting example of a territory that is more firmly rooted in a regional dynamic which extends well beyond imperial borders. As a colony created and suppressed along the lines of French imperial policy, its destiny was tied to French West Africa as a whole, while still maintaining connections with British West Africa through neighbouring Gold Coast.

The analysis does not solely focus separately on these three territories. The socio-cultural context of the West African region often enabled Africans to envision a wider sense of belonging beyond the confines of the colonial framework. Following global circulations, these practices of imagining a wider belonging extended to pan-African solidarity movements. By simultaneously studying multiple spaces and engaging in asymmetrical comparisons, we can challenge certain analytical categories such as colony, metropolis, and empire, and bring forth alternative perspectives. This approach avoids reducing colonization and decolonization as a mere metropolitan-colonial relationship and instead favors a transimperial perspective.

The multiplicity of scales is reflected in the lives of the actors examined in this study. While African political elites played a prominent role in negotiating reforms within the imperial regime, other social forces that strongly influenced policy decisions are also discussed in the book. Political parties, trade unions and student associations, among others, organised themselves at various levels. They sought to anchor themselves in a local community with a vision that was “African” while simultaneously engaging with international movements. These actors were not confined to one particular space or dimension. Instead, they navigated complex networks of socio-political relationships, both within their immediate communities and on broader regional and international level. The trajectories of individual activists could sometimes bear the marks of different dynamics, be it local or global, national, or pan-African.

Private archives, both written and oral, produced by these actors themselves are of primary importance for this study. Some students’ associations’ newsletters and some political parties’ organs are kept in European libraries. Other documents are reproduced in memoirs or studies left by former members. Despite their different political affiliations, the paths of political activists intersected at various levels. In this respect, the testimonies collected from former members of the National Liberation Movement and the African Independence Party are particularly valuable. While the parties that came to power at independence shaped national narratives, traces of the opposition parties that went underground for a long period are scarce in the proto-national collections of public archives. For instance, Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s visit to Kwame Nkrumah to ask him support for the newly formed National Liberation Movement illustrates the strategy of transimperial resistances adopted by these actors. Although some of these testimonies are being shared for the first time, these witnesses are ageing and their numbers are decreasing: this challenge underscores, in a way, the increasing importance of the collected stories.

However, it is crucial to critically contextualise the narratives of activist careers in order to assess the range of possible options that were available to the actors at the time. These first-hand sources are compared with public archives, which consist of documents produced or collected by colonial administration bodies as part of their surveillance activities or imperial reform projects. Although these documents should be approached with a certain level of caution, the preparatory drafts of political meetings and numerous pieces of correspondence attest to the oscillations and detours in the decolonisation process, contradicting the notion of a univocal narrative presented in colonial or nationalist historiography. Additionally, the registers of surveillance provide insights into both the norms that the colonial authorities thought to establish and the emergence of movements that subverted these very norms. The surveillance measures and censorship that were put in place, along with travel bans, paradoxically attest to the actual movements that crossed imperial borders to forge a Pan-African connection.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter examines the socio-economic situations of the West African colonies in the aftermath of the Second World War and the resulting claims from African people for better living conditions and more justice. It analyses the ways in which these social claims influenced the negotiation of eventual imperial reforms. In view of the reconstruction, the future of “African” societies was debated. To better understand the characteristics of the new emerging dynamic, the second chapter focuses on the organisation of two Pan-African congresses: the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945 and the constitutive congress of the African Democratic Assembly in Bamako in 1946. The third chapter changes the focus to look more closely at the itineraries of the three territories within which a “national” political scene was gradually being forged. The fourth chapter examines how, within each national scene, a political party came to be dominant. It analyses the political and discursive strategies of the new leaders who have built their legitimacy by attributing an “African” quality to themselves while disqualifying their “traditional” opponents.

While the reference to Africa was thus omnipresent, on the international scene the new national representatives disputed its definitions. The last three chapters question the increasingly apparent tensions between Pan-Africanist and nationalist dynamics. Chapter five highlights the Cold War context within which “African” positions were shaped. The international networks developed in both East and West sides could become simultaneously a gathering point for African activists and a platform for competition between them. For instance, while students from the British and French colonies agreed on the importance of forming a united front, disagreements arose as they delved into the practical details of its implementation, leading to disputes between the Makerere College Guild and Union Générale des Etudiants de Tunisie over control of the initiatives. Competitive tendencies were reinforced, as is described in chapter six, as each territory gained autonomy and independence. Pan-Africanism was never absent from the process, however. The final chapter examines the place given to this ideal within each “new nation”, through the many cultural projects that were put in place in the early years following their independence.

This history of the end of colonial empires is therefore also one of constant reinvention of Africa. In 1962, on the eve of the foundation of the Organization of African Unity, Pan-African ideals were almost all torn into national pieces. The nation-building processes took over to mobilize Pan-Africanism to their own end. While transimperial resistances against colonial domination were fueled by Pan-African ideas, the decolonizing process that ultimately led to the independence of nation states had the effect of once again confining this dynamic to a restricted national framework.

Author profile

Sakiko NAKAO is an assistant professor at Chuo University (Japan), where she teaches courses in African history and French area studies. She earned her Ph.D. in History from École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France. Her research interest is centered on the making of African identity and the processes of decolonization in West Africa. She analyzes Pan-African movement and its connection to anti-imperialism from a transimperial perspective. Her recent project focuses on the function of the concept of “race” as a form of belonging and its impact on the Pan-African movement, as well as its eventual linkage with Pan-Asianism, which developed in the same period.
Among her publications are: Nationaliser le panafricanisme: décolonisation au Sénégal, en Haute-Volta et au Ghana (1945–1962), Paris, Karthala, 2023; “Fighting for national liberation in Africa: pan-African itineraries and national settlements”, in Anaïs Angelo (éd.), Politics of Biography in Africa: Borders, Margins and Alternative Histories of Power, Routledge, 2021; “Panafricanisme ou nationalisme ? Présence Africaine : une tribune des politiques culturelles au temps de la décolonisation », Présence Africaine, no 198, 2018 (pp. 193-210) ; “Fighting Marginality: The Global Moment of 1917-1919 and the Re-Imagination of Belonging”, L’Atelier du CRH, no. 18, 2018, co-authored with Fabian Krautwald and Thomas Lindner.

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