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date: 20 October 2017

Decolonization in French West Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

The study of France’s relations with its former colonies in West Africa, from the colonial period to the end of the millennium and beyond, has traditionally been dominated by two approaches. The first of these has been to treat decolonization in French West Africa as a planned and reasonably smooth process, successfully managed by France’s governing elites and African political leaders who wished to maintain links with France. The second, focusing on the post-colonial period, has been characterized by a narrative of French manipulation and neocolonialism. Thanks to Jean-François Verschave, the term Françafrique has been popularized to describe the connections between African presidents, French officials and their friends from multinational companies, and the deployment of troops and advisers, which have characterized France’s relations with its former colonies in Africa in the post-independence period. These approaches give pride of place to the role of individuals in the decolonization process. Although their importance cannot be denied, the focus of this article is to show that French decolonization in West Africa was, in fact, a highly constrained process that cannot be understood in isolation from wider decolonization processes unfolding across the globe, notably but not exclusively, in other parts of the French colonial empire. Shaped by the particular history of French colonization in West Africa, the new international context after the Second World War that was dominated by the two new superpowers, the United States and the USSR, and the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs to restore French grandeur on the world stage; it was a process in which a multiplicity of French and African actors were involved who often had limited room for maneuver.