Book Review : "The End of Empire in French West Africa" by Tony Chafer
The French colonial empire at its peak in the interwar possessed nearly a tenth of the world's total area and a twentieth of its population, yet within barely 15 years after the end of the Second World War it had all but vanished, reduced to a cluster of islands and a few continental enclaves. This was no orderly transmission process, but instead one which happened in distinctly different ways in every region where the tricolor flew, from the Levant, to Indochina, to North Africa, to Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Sub-Saharan Africa, and its most prominent region of French West Africa (Afrique-Occidentale française), were unique in that independence for the region as a whole happened in a generally peaceful and organized way. For this reason, scholar, particularly English-language scholars, have been mostly content to glance over this region, focusing their attention upon the more exotic battles for independence waged by the Viet Minh or the FLN in Vietnam and Algeria.
Thus enters The End of Empire in French West Africa: France's Successful Decolonization, by Tony Chafer, to explore the dynamics of decolonization. End of Empire provides for a history of the political process of decolonization, from before the Second World War (starting truly with the French Popular Front), to the independence of the West African states in 1960s. It has brilliant detail about how Fthe region was integrated into the French empire, in a process which was certainly not a French attempt to prepare the region for independence - conversely, the French,, up amazingly to just a few years before the independence, plwere constantly trying to figure out how to incorporate the region into a reformed French empire, essentially roe rebuild and renovate colonialism.
Along the way they constantly shifted their political framework and reforms utilized in the region, within an ideological framework that was still functionally based upon assimlationism and associationism - the belief that colonized people should be turned into Frenchmen and incorporated into France, or that they should evolve in their own millieux. While both existed, the French were able to utilize the two to be able to keep control, utilizing assimilation to delay independence as long as possible, and to paper over the inherent impossibility of full scale assimilation, although the costs associated - increasing bureaucrat salaries, labor payrolls, and social benefits - increasingly drove up the costs of colonialism and ultimately encouraged independence for West Africa.This was a political game that the French engaged with with the elites in the country, who cooperated with the French as the interlocutors with African nationalism, constraining and confining the alternate groups - students, bureaucrats, and labor unions - while simultaneously utilizing them at times in their own agenda. The interchange between these groups is well covered, the motives of the French government and the various other factions lovingly detailed. The peculiar effects of the French political system upon the political destiny of West Africa are expounded upon : with allowing colonial leaders to be represented in the French parliament, basing their radius of political action at the nation and at the regional level, rather than at the West African level, and empowering territories (the later nations) in an attempt to circumvent troublesome bureaucrats who were intent upon a continued union with France, and student leaders enamored with pan-Africanism, the French, despite never really consciously doing so, drove the balkanization of French West Africa into its constituent territories. This is something which is tremendously interesting for the wider question of how nationalism and nations is formed. All of this is done with a great deal of detail and an easy writing style which makes it fascinating to read while still conveying a great amount of information. The political struggles which characterized West Africa are exposed, and the social composition of actors and their objectives well illustrated. All of this points towards an excellent book about French West Africa's political evolution in the post-WW2 era and a strong work on French colonialism, which breaks down traditional myths with a wide array of information and sharp analysis.
There are of course, some shortcomings. There is little about the final transitions to "managed" independence, which has been so (in)famous in regards to neocolonialism under purview of Jacques Foccart, who established much of the network of personal relationships which sustained French influence with the now "independent" nations. In this regards, the influence of the French Vth Republic is underrated. Its attention upon the everyday lives of nationalists and the influence of nationalist activity beyond the groupings of bureaucrats, students, labor unions, and elites, is limited. There has been fascinating work published about anti-colonial mobilization from below, in particular in Guinea, such as "Top Down or Bottom Up? Nationalist Mobilization Reconsidered, with Special Reference to Guinea (French West Africa), by Elizabeth Schmidt, which shows the ways in which nationalists in Guinea among the common people protested against French colonialism. While the focus on interest groups is important and helps to simplify affairs to a few key factors, it misses some of the complexity of politics in the colonies. And finally, it has little about the role of foreign, non-French, political activity and pressure, asides from occasional notes about the way in which it constrained the activities of the French colonial government. How did the United States, United Kingdom, and the USSR affect French colonialism? And how did the independence of nations like Ghana, the former British colony which won her independence in 1957, affect the rest of West Africa? Both have little discussion contained within, something which is disappointing and an oversight.
But these flaws are ultimately ones which are not very serious, or explainable within the intent of the book. There is very in the way of books (at least, or above all, English-language books) which are devoted specifically to West Africa and which concern themselves purely with the decolonization process. For anybody interested in the history of West Africa, or decolonization in general, the book makes for an excellent reading about the details of the political transition. It is a book which clearly showcases not merely how the countries of West Africa became independent, but also why West Africa didn't become a nation (a fascinating question with broader import in regards to nationalism and nations), the choices made upon the way, which shatters the myth of a long-term French plan, and which provides detailed information about French colonial ideology in the post-WW2 era. For all of these reasons, I think of it as an excellent and well-written book, well suited for both those with little knowledge about the region but interested in learning, and specialists as well.
© 2017 Ryan Thomas