The United States and the Post WWII Decolonization of West Africa:
Senegal and The Gambia
Wars are often used as a means of revolution (examples include the Revolutionary War and the Civil war in America). For West Africa, World War II served as just that, a way to revolution by ending European colonialism in Africa. At the end of the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had risen to be the two main super-powers, and both were opposed to colonialism. Because of this, the United States played a key role in the decolonization of West Africa after WWII, both in large scale ways via the government (especially pertaining to the interpretation of the Atlantic Charter), and on a smaller scale during its own civil rights movement by means of figureheads such as W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr..
The Gambia is a small country bordered on three sides (north, east, and south) by Senegal, another West African Country. Both countries have borders on the Atlantic Ocean. During the 17th and 18th centuries, France and England struggled for political control over the regions during the “Scramble for Africa,” a period during which European powers fought over the rule of territories in Africa. Eventually, England gained control of The Gambia, while Senegal went to the French.
The United States had a history with The Gambia long before WWII took place. During the slave trade, ships would stop at Juffureh, a village in The Gambia, and bring slaves over to North America. This is where the famous slave, Kunta Kinteh, was held. Kunta Kinteh’s story is most well known due to Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a book about Kunta Kinteh and the six generations that came after him. Remnants of the site are now a common tourist attraction in The Gambia.
The United States, being strongly opposed to colonialism, (given its history of being a colony under British rule) pushed colonial powers (mainly France and Great Britain) to “liquidate their positions” in West Africa. Pressure was particularly strong during WWII and continued when the war ended (Pedler 267).
World War II acted as a means for the stimulation of the political consciousness of Africans, giving emphasis to “more representative and liberal institutions of government,” (Hargreaves 27).
America’s entry into WWII following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and an unclear interpretation of the Atlantic Charter, only added to the stimulation of political consciousness.
The Atlantic Charter, an agreement between the United States and Great Britain, was signed on August 14, 1941, four months before the United States entered the war. The charter sought to outline the U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill’s vision for a post WWII world. This vision can be summed up in eight points.
First, the United States and Great Britain agreed to seek no territorial gains resulting in the outcome of the war. Second, peoples affected by territorial adjustments would have their wishes taken into consideration. Third, self-determination was a right of all people. Fourth, there would be a collaborative effort to lower trade barriers. Fifth, advancement of social welfare and economic cooperation on a global scale were deemed as decidedly important. Sixth, the United States and Great Britain would make an effort to establish freedom from fear and want. Seventh, they stated the importance of freedom of the seas. And finally, eighth, they would work toward post-war disarmament of aggressor nations.
It is, in particular, the third and sixth parts of the Atlantic Charter that had a significant impact on West African decolonization. The second part of the charter also had a significant impact on the United States’ role in the decolonization (which will be discussed later).
Part three states that self-determination is a right of all people. Self-determination is the freedom of the people of a territory or national group to decide their political status and governing ways without the influence of other countries. Because Africa was largely colonized by European countries, it seemed to be in direct violation of the Atlantic Charter.
Part six of the Charter states that they would establish freedom from fear and want. It would then seem logical to incorporate this into Africa’s struggle for independence because the colonies “want” to be free of colonial rule.
Later, Winston Churchill stated that he did not intend to include the British Colonies of Africa in the Charter (especially in regards to self-determination.) United States President Roosevelt, however, was adamant that the post-war goals drawn up in the charter should include the colonies (Meredith 35).
Being president of a country that was once a colony under British rule, a nation “bred in the tradition of anti-imperialism,” Roosevelt believed in any venture to end colonial exploitation and to dismember the world’s empires. Roosevelt’s feelings were only intensified when he stopped in The Gambia briefly in 1943 on his way to the Casablanca Conference. There, he witnessed the disease, poverty, and poor living conditions there. “He wrote to Churchill describing the place as a ‘hell-hole,’” (Meredith 35). Roosevelt is quoted as saying to his son, Elliot, “…and I looked it up, with a little study, and I got to the point of view that for every dollar that the British, who have been there for two hundred years, have put into Gambia, they have taken out ten. It’s just plain exploitation of those people…. they’re given a half-cup of rice. Dirt. Disease. Very high mortality rate…. Life expectancy – you’d never guess what it is. Twenty-six years. These people are treated worse than livestock. Their cattle live longer!”
In addition, Roosevelt was displeased with the barriers of trade the French and British maintained around the colonies. Such barriers prevented outsiders, the United States included, from having access to the raw materials of the colonies. Such barriers seemed to be another direct violation of the Atlantic Charter (part two). For this reason, the decolonization of West Africa was of particular importance to the United States (Meredith 36).
Because America took such a strong stand in the defense of decolonizing West Africa, colonial rulers were forced to take a closer look at how they handled colonial affairs. It also encouraged humanitarianists and socialists to press for social reform. Largely due to America’s strong opinion on the matter, (because America was a vital ally to the British,) Oliver Stanley, British Colonial Secretary, announced in 1943 that Britain was committed to self-government as a goal, (Meredith 36-37).
In 1948, the United States enacted the Marshall Plan, a program whose goal was to rebuild and create a stronger economic foundation for the Western European countries. In 1949, president Truman added that it would “make money available to the poorest countries of the world to save them from ‘hunger, misery, and despair.’” America gave a total of 94.7 million dollars to West Africa, including 2.1 million to Senegal in 1963 (Pedler 96).
The 1950’s were a time of embracing African cultures and languages in the United States, and in 1958, the U.S. State Department began an independent Bureau of African Affairs.
In 1955, The U.S. House of Representatives stated “that the United States should administer its foreign policies and programs and exercise its influence so as to support other peoples in their efforts to achieve self-government or independence,” (Pedler 267).
British Parliament passed The Colonial Development and Welfare acts, largely as a response to America’s criticism of colonial practice. The acts signaled the commitment of Britain to the development of the empire. After the war, they tried to expand agriculture and promote technology (Duignan 284). The war had depleted West Africa’s resources considerably because their mother countries were using the resources in the war.
U.S. president John F. Kennedy viewed anti-colonialism as a weapon in the Cold War. He even went so far as to say that Africa could be an influence that would “’undermine the great communist colonial empire,’” (Duignan 288). The Cold War was a period of time after WWII ended during which the Soviet Union and the United States were in political conflict and economic competition. The U.S. feared Communism, which the Soviet Union practiced. Communism is a social system in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a dystopian state.
The United States’ foreign policy toward the decolonization of Africa, especially under president Kennedy, is often seen as a an “extension of America’s traditional support of self-determination.” It is believed that, if the United States did not vehemently express their disapproval, Europe would have dragged the decolonization out, making it last for the entire century (Metz).
It was not only the United States government that played a role in the decolonization of West Africa. The Civil Rights Movement in America also had an influence on West African People and prompted them to push for a faster decolonization process. Following WWII, many of the more educated West Africans began seeking higher education. Studying at Universities in Europe and the United States introduced the ideas of people such as W.E.B. DuBois. Such exposure provided effective training and grounds for African Nationalism (Mendonsa 378-379).
William Edward Burghart DuBois, more commonly known as W.E.B. DuBois, was a civil rights activist in the United States and a Pan-Africanist. He was the first African American graduate of Harvard University in Boston, where he earned a Ph. D in History in 1895. He became the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Pan-Africanism refers to various movements in Africa with the intention to unite Africans and eradicate colonialism and white supremacy. The main catalyst for this movement was the European colonization of the continent. It has been made clear that the United States government was opposed to such colonization, but leaders of the civil rights movement such as DuBois, were also opposed. As a Pan-Africanist, DuBois organized Pan-African congresses around the world, which included people from Africa, the West Indies, and the United States. In 1961, he became the director of the Encyclopedia Africana per the request of Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana. DuBois remained in Africa until his death on August 27, 1963, one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the civil rights march in Washington D.C..
Martin Luther King Jr., another civil rights leader in America, also spoke out against the treatment of blacks in Africa. He stated that “the struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and peoples,” (Reddy). King worked for independence through non-violent protest in America and gave speeches about gaining independence for people in Africa as well. He was assassinated in 1968.
Through the social and political pressure the United States put on the colonial leaders, and the influence that figureheads such as DuBois and King had on the citizens of these African colonies, an eventual decolonization took place, and it is believed that it occurred much sooner than it would have, had the United States not been involved.
In 1960, universal adult suffrage was introduced to The Gambia. During this time, a ministerial form of government was also established consisting of four British departmental heads, the governor, and six African ministers. Elections in 1962 brought David Jawara into office as Chief Minister. He conducted discussions with Britain and, through his influence, the Gambia became an independent country in 1965 (Pedler 43-45).
Senegal elected an assembly using universal suffrage for the first time in 1957. Senegal and the French Sudan merged in 1959 to form the Mali Federation, marking Senegal’s full independence from France on June 20, 1960. The Mali Federation, however, broke up in August of 1960 due to internal political differences, at which time Senegal and the French Sudan proclaimed independence (Pedler 171-177).
The efforts of The United States Government, combined with the influence of American civil rights activists and Africans who desired independence from their colonial rulers, led to the eventual decolonization of West Africa.
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