Adom Getachew is a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and raised in Gaborone, Botswana, and Arlington, Va., she is the author of “Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.”
An academic conference is rarely an occasion for world-historical predictions, but, addressing a meeting on African politics at Wellesley College 60 years ago, Ralph Bunche made one.
Bunche, the United Nations under secretary for political affairs and the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, declared that “1960 will be ‘the year of Africa’ because at least four, but maybe seven or eight, new member states will come from the continent,” as The New York Times put it in February of that year.
By December, not seven but 17 new African states had joined the U.N.
The Year of Africa, as it came to be known, was a victory for the black world. It emerged from longstanding global movements for racial equality and gave rise to political and cultural revolutions that forever transformed Africa’s place in the world. Along with the triumph of African independence, however, the political crises of decolonization revealed central quandaries — from the place of ethnic identity in politics to the role and legitimacy of state power — that still trouble the continent and the wider world.
For more than a decade before independence, nationalist organizations like Ghana’s Convention People’s Party and the Tanganyika African National Union had built mass political movements across the continent, using strikes, boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience to challenge imperial rule. This was a strategy that echoed the civil rights movement, whose leaders keenly watched developments in Africa. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and A. Philip Randolph attended Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957.
In her essay here, Luvvie Ajayi returns to a famous anecdote from that event when an African-American guest explained to Vice President Richard M. Nixon that he did not know what freedom felt like because he was from Alabama. The implication is clear: By 1960, Africa paved the way, showing that what Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, called “positive action” could realize the goals of racial equality and democracy.
Brutal violence during the Algerian War of Independence, which entered its seventh year in 1960, and at the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa made clear that a peaceful transition was not always on offer.
But the Year of Africa did close with a landmark diplomatic victory. On Dec. 14, 1960, the new African bloc in the U.N. led the effort to pass Resolution 1514, the Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. The resolution legitimized the hard-won victories on the ground and provided a new moral and legal framework for the struggles to come.
It described imperialism as “a denial of fundamental human rights” and insisted that underdevelopment can never “serve as a pretext for delaying independence.” It called for “complete independence and freedom” in all colonial territories. Nine states — including the United States, Britain and France — abstained, but Resolution 1514 otherwise passed unanimously. As Amílcar Cabral put it in 1962, as he was leading a guerrilla war in Guinea-Bissau, the resolution made colonialism “an international crime.”
The moment was about more, however, than the emergence of new states. African independence, in Mr. Nkrumah’s words, “means much more than merely being free to fly our own flag and to play our own national anthem.” According to the Martinican political theorist Frantz Fanon, it required the making of new men out of colonial subjugation.
For the new postcolonial leaders, this often meant industrializing rapidly and spending more on education and health care, without heeding Mr. Fanon’s caution against imitating European history. And in fact, during the first decade of African independence, economies grew, while investment in social services paid off in declining mortality rates, increased life expectancies and higher literacy rates. However, these transformations happened as increasingly authoritarian states repurposed the repressive tools of the colonial regimes.
Among these political contradictions, bottom-up experiments in self-fashioning and collective reinvention sprang up. From the stalwart young boxer to the playful pose of the woman standing in front of the Afro Negro nightclub, the images here reveal the ways in which everyday people latched on to the promise of independence and the mantle of the Afro-modern. And as Yvonne Orji notes, these images counter persistently negative views of Africa by insisting that “we’re all an accumulation of our dreams, our experiences, our misfortunes, our gains, our losses.”
The cultural revolution captured in these images happened all over the continent. It could be found in the photography of Sanlé Sory of Burkina Faso, the dance floors of Bamako captured by Malick Sidibé, the rumba of the Congo, the jazz of Ethiopia and Tanzania, the literary renaissance that included the novels of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the plays of Ama Ata Aidoo and many more. Africa’s swinging ’60s melded nationalism and pan-Africanism with global sounds and aesthetics. As Mr. Ngugi would famously put it, “decolonizing the minds” of Africans was just as important as reclaiming the land.
With the political and cultural triumphs of African independence, however, there were also deep challenges. This new world of independent states struggled to be born.
Weeks after the Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence, for instance, the southern province of Katanga seceded. The Congo crisis brought the first of many large-scale U.N. peacekeeping operations to the continent, and showed the shearing pressures of decolonization. If self-determination was now a universal right, what could it mean for Katanga and other subnational units to claim this mantle? Would the new postcolonial states accommodate ethnic and religious pluralism? How might state power be decentralized and delegated?
These questions — and the political violence they generated — came to the fore again with the 1967 Igbo bid for independence from Nigeria, which precipitated a civil war; the Rwanda genocide of 1994; and the current crisis of citizenship in Cameroon. The generation that celebrated the coming of African independence did not foresee the pitfalls of decolonization and the failures of the postcolonial state.
As the novelist Imbolo Mbue writes in this section: “Did any of them imagine a day would come when Cameroonians would risk their lives to flee their independent nation for Europe? Did any of them imagine that 60 years after independence Cameroon would have had only two presidents, both of them dictators, one for 22 years, one now in his 38th year?”
During the Congo crisis in 1960, many experts and observers concluded that decolonization had indeed come too early to Africa, that “development” should have been a prerequisite for independence. But this judgment misses what was ultimately at the heart of the critique of imperial rule: a vision of equality that insisted self-government is not just for the educated, the elite and the white. For the photographer Omar Victor Diop, this vision means that unlike his parents’ generation, “we did not have to yearn for independence: We were born entitled to a passport, our own.”
The full promise of that passport remains unrealized, though, for the migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the hopes of making a living, and for those whose ethnic, religious and sexual identities are used to undermine their claims of political membership.
But out of this paradoxical experience of postcolonial citizenship, a new African diaspora has emerged. The reflections on the Year of Africa included here from members of this diaspora capture the many meanings of independence. Recovering family histories, offering personal narrative and reading the photographic record, they insist that revisiting this past is a way to reimagine the continent’s future.