It is sometimes difficult to resist the temptation to entertain a controversial question – was Africa ready for independence when it happened? Was the independence Africans envisaged and anticipated the independence they lived? The evidence is troubling. Africans have certainly not enjoyed the rights and freedoms in whose name their independence was sought. They have not enjoyed the economic promises either. In 2015, colonial culture continues to manifest itself in the parochial mentalities of African leaders. Like the old white colonial officials, most African leaders are more preoccupied with their political survival than with the wellbeing of their people. Ultimately, we must also ask whether Africa was ready for the nation-state system into which it was inducted overnight.
Africans may rightfully answer yes to the second of the two questions we opened with. However, they would hesitate to answer no to the first question because like everyone else, we feel naturally worthy of freedom, especially freedom from oppression. This makes it hard for us to say we really don’t think we were ready for independence when it happened. There is a hint of indignity in the admission that we may conveniently avoid and still remain in good company. Asking whether Africans were ready for independence is potential recipe for defensive indignation and misinterpretation especially in scholarly circles where profound argumentation may be proffered in support or defense of controversial notions. In any case since freedom is an inalienable right which may never be taken away, only circumscribed, we can safely conclude that colonialism never took away Africans’ freedom to be Africans even though it wielded draconian power over those aspects of African life it could control.
By the end of the 1940s, no one needed much convincing of the need for decolonization, especially since Uncle Sam himself was so saying. Moreover, there emerged during and immediately after World War Two an array of newly minted international rights instruments from which African nationalists freely drew to justify independence. They cited the universal rights and freedoms provisions of the Atlantic Charter and reaffirmed their subscription to the egalitarian creeds of the Commonwealth, the United Nations, and all the “civilized” nations of the world (the uncivilized ones were not yet born). The Atlantic Charter’s affirmation that all peoples have a right to self-determination was particularly potent in the hands of eager nationalists. They thrusted it into the face of Winston Churchill, the eccentric British war-time prime minister, who resolutely insisted that the provision did not apply to Africa because Africa was considered part of empire at the time the Charter was issued in Newfoundland, August 1941. Both Africans and Uncle Sam politely and not so politely put it to Churchill that his interpretation could not be more selective. Churchill insisted that he did not become prime minister in order to preside over the dissolution of Her Majesty’s empire. In addition to the Atlantic Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was a favorite hobbyhorse for African nationalists and they rode it to good effect. But once independence ceremonies were over, people were forbidden to make reference to such weapons of neocolonial control as human rights, the rule of law and similar un-African things.
African independence ceremonies look curiously unreal. Most were little more than local stages for the performance and reaffirmation of imperial hegemony. They were glittering spectacles conjured, not so much to affirm African freedom, but to accord imperial majesty an opportunity to showcase its legendary glory. With eyes on the prize, the nationalists helped organized and foot the bill for the glittering spectacles, complete with dukes and duchesses, princesses and queens, lords and earls there on Her Majesty’s behalf. The evidence suggests the British had a rich pool of dukes and duchesses who represented Her Imperial Majesty at African independence ceremonies. This perhaps gave these imperial dignitaries a sense of self-importance without diminishing the relative unimportance of African independence to Her Majesty’s Government. In practical terms, Britain was really not losing an empire as much as she was shedding an increasingly heavy burden. African nationalists hardly considered it serious that the heavy burden of imperialism was headed straight for their own shoulders. Or perhaps in the dizzying frenzy of the moment, they simply did not think in terms of burdens. Independence suggested a certain lightness of being which was easy to take for granted if you were so inclined.
For example, during Gambia’s independence ceremonies, the Queen dispatched the Duke and Duchess of Kent as her official representatives, and both London and Bathurst actively encouraged the attendance of white dignitaries. Only after a long list of often expensive ceremonies in which the Duke dutifully re-enacted the entire spectacle of imperial power as he understood it was independence formally granted, through a royal charter signed by Her Majesty. The days leading up to February 18, 1965 were days of pomp and ceremony in Bathurst and its environs. Guards of Honor were held for the duke with the PM by his side. Expensive gala dinners were held at which the majority of the guests were colonial officials and other white people. The fact that more Europeans than Africans were invited to and attended these sumptuous dinners angered many African nationalists who loudly and publicly complained about the fact. Because it was African independence, they reasoned, Africans must enjoy more than other people at these dinners.
The speeches made by both colonial and local officials during African independence ceremonies were revealing. In Enter Gambia, his highly entertaining and profoundly edifying work on Gambia at independence, Berkeley Rice, who was present, reports that at a civic reception at Gambia High School, the Duke presented to Bathurst city officials “the Royal Charter by which Queen Elizabeth granted Bathurst ‘the status and dignity of a city’.” Until then, presumably, Bathurst was to Great Britain a mere colonial outpost, without status and without dignity. The two virtues – status and dignity – were owned and could only be conferred upon Bathurst by imperial authority. Rice reports how the duke claimed at the same event that “as I flew over your city an hour ago, I saw exciting possibilities for development” (Rice, 43). Needless to say, the duke saw no such possibilities from the air. The duke also presided over a Mansa Bengo (chiefs’ meeting) at Brikama at which a senior chief read an officially prepared statement of welcome and thanks from Bathurst to Her Majesty’s Government. The chief dutifully declared “it gives us confidence to know that as a Monarchy within the Commonwealth of Nations, we are members of that family of which Her Majesty is the Head” (Rice, 45). In response, the duke wrote piece of invented history by proclaiming that “your proud record over the past years enables you to look forward to the future with every confidence” (Rice, 45). Obviously, whatever they had, Gambians could hardly boast of a proud record under colonial rule. The duke’s statement reveals the extent of imperial hypocrisy and the relative lack of importance attached to African independence. An English reporter covering the Mansa Bengo observed that the ceremony “Looks like a bloody circus.”