Africans resisted colonial rule from the outset, trying to hold on to their land,  but were not strong enough to defend themselves against European conquest. As a result, most of Africa was colonized by 1900. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained free. After the First and Second World Wars colonial control of the continent began to come apart. This was the result of a new political climate, the rise of nationalism and the waging of independence campaigns in various colonies as well as the new domestic priorities in the post-war period for colonial rulers.

The climate before WW2

By the early 1900s European countries had succeeded in establishing their control in Africa. In some cases like the Igbo people of Nigeria, colonial rule was achieved in 1910 shortly before the First World War in 1914.

Colonial rule in Africa is studied in two periods, divided by the First and Second World Wars. Africa's involvement in these two wars helped fuel the struggle for independence from colonial rule. This was partly because participation of Africans in these wars exposed them to ideas of self-determination and independent rule.

The First World War changed things in Europe and Africa. It destroyed the economy of European countries. To rebuild their economies they turned to Africa's mineral and agricultural wealth. Europe's growing interest in Africa's minerals led to her expansion into the interior. The great depression that followed worsened the already failing economies of Europe. The mining of mineral wealth from Africa required the reorganization of colonial rule, which meant that the autonomy chiefs and kings in Africa had maintained over the years would be increasingly dissolved to make room for a more 'progressive' form of government. The result of these changes was that land was taken away from Africans and given to white settlers and colonial companies like the British South African Company for farming and mining. This was also largely because shortly before the war, in many colonies, the presence of Europeans was increasing, because by this time colonial officers were chosen according to the requirements of colonial civil administration. Experts were called in to help in the improvements in areas-like agriculture and the collection of taxes from African people.

After the war colonial governments began to introduce agricultural reforms aimed at improving the revenues collected from African farmers. African societies were deeply affected by these changes because most of them were still dependent on agriculture for survival. Africans were now forced to sell their crops to colonial markets at lower prices that would in turn sell these crops to an international market at a much higher price. Colonies made a lot of profit in this way. Many African farmers and rulers blamed the colonial government for decreasing profits and as a result, people began to demand an end to colonial rule.

After WW2

Colonial Developments in the Gold Coast

Following the Second World War, colonial governments became increasingly aware that colonial rule could not be maintained forever. They were under pressure to justify why they were keeping African societies under their rule despite the United Nations declaration that all people have the right to self-determination. People in Africa had the right to be free and independent from colonial rule and colonial governments had an obligation to co-operate in this.

Colonial governments responded by saying Africans were being prepared for future self-government. But many of them were not ready to hand over rule to African people. Most European governments thought that colonial rule would end much later. In colonies like Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, and Kenya African people were forced to fight wars to win their independence.

As part of the steps toward African self-governance, colonial governments began to invest in education and schools in the colonies. This resulted in a growing number of young educated black people whose social and political mobility was restricted by colonial rule. These growing numbers of educated elites were frustrated with the limited prospects they held under the colonial state. They were increasingly driven to fight for an end to colonial rule. Self-rule became the slogan. Nkwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, the former Gold Coast, changed that slogan to 'independence now'. He captured the aspiration for self rule with his popular slogan: "seek ye first the political kingdom, and the rest shall follow". What he meant was that independence from colonial rule was the only way to guarantee a better life for all Ghanaians.

In response to these growing demands for self-rule, the British colonial government introduced the Burns constitution in 1946. The Burns constitution, based on the Westminster model, incorporated the elites, chiefs and kings of Ghana into the colonial government. The majority of the people, many of them blue-collar workers were excluded from government. Though rejected by Kwame Nkrumah's party, the Burns constitution proved an important step towards independent Ghana's constitution.

Other Colonies

Most colonies in Africa followed a route similar to that pursued by Britain towards her colonies. There were differences. France believed that the colonies should become French instead of independent and wherever possible sought to encourage African colonies to accept this. Portugal on the other hand followed a different route. After the Second World War, Portugal fell into the hands of Salazar's regime. Salazar was a Nazi nationalist who believed that Portuguese colonies were extensions of Portugal. Under his regime, Portuguese citizens were encouraged to settle in the colonies. There was very little education and effort on the part of the authorities to 'prepare' black people in the colonies for eventual take over.

Instead of the gradual and more peaceful approach characterized by the decolonisation of British and French colonies, Portuguese colonies gained independence after a long armed struggle. The war for independence ended when the Portuguese regime of Salazar was overthrown by the military. The military had suffered huge losses in the war. As a result, when they took control of their government they were not interested in continuing a war they blamed for the economic problems of their country. In 1975, the new Portuguese military government began to negotiate with liberation movements in their colonies for independence.

Collections in the Archives