Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.
At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements.
Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France.
Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.