African independence: where is the decolonization of minds?

Françoise Vergès is a historian and Antoine Glaser is a political scientist.

RFI assembly

Text by: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

19 min

Françoise Vergès (1) is a historian, researcher, holder of the “Global South” chair at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme Foundation, in Paris.

Antoine Glaser (2) is a political scientist, journalist specializing in Africa.

They are the authors of several books devoted to themes ranging from politics in Africa to issues linked to slavery and colonization, including France-Africa relations.

Questioned on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of African independence, the duo evoke at the microphone of RFI the fortunes and misfortunes of postcolonial Africa as well as the results of the decolonization process which remains a "work in progress" ("evolutionary work") .

Cross interviews.


Read more

RFI: Independence was a moment of joy and celebration for the African populations.

What do we know about their expectations and their hopes


Antoine Glaser:

Only historians who worked on this period can answer this question.

And even !

Little has been written.

That said, we have to put ourselves back in the demography of the time, with 3.5 million inhabitants in Côte d'Ivoire (more than 30 million today, Editor's note), 3.2 million in Senegal, 5.1 million in Cameroon, no more than 500,000 inhabitants in Gabon ... In all these countries with very low urbanization, the proclamation of independence has often only concerned administrative circles, with the exception of countries where

movements anti-colonialist independence

were already structured.

However, it seems that there was more enthusiasm for this independence in the former British and Portuguese colonies than in the former French colonies.

It is enough to read the proclamations of the heads of state of the French “pre-square” in 1960 to be convinced of this.

Most of them thank the French Republic for its generosity.

The most caricatured is Gabonese President

Léon Mba

, who expresses his deep gratitude to General de Gaulle, " 

champion of black men and of the Franco-African community,

 " he said.

A statement that contrasts with that of the Congolese Patrice Lumumba, who notes that we must never forget that the independence of the Congo was conquered by the struggle.

This difference in reactions is explained in large part by the assimilationist approach of French colonization, which dangled the idea of ​​a community of destinies between Africa and France.

This idea was reinforced by the integration of African leaders into the power structure in France, with




in particular sitting in the French government.

Patrice Lumumba, President of the Council of the Republic of Congo, leaves Idlewild airport in New York on July 24, 1960, escorted by American police officers.

The independence of the Congo was proclaimed on June 30, 1960. AFP

Françoise Vergès:

For the African populations, independence marks the end of a system which reduced them to sub-human beings, sub-citizens.

This hard-won sovereignty allows them to find themselves fully in their existence.

We are witnessing, with these independence, a reversal of the perspective according to which there is, on the one hand, a humanity that counts and, on the other hand, a humanity made up of sub-men who do not count, that we can traffic, that we can sell, that we can buy.

And now, we are here

 ", proclaimed

Patrice Lumumba

in his speech during the ceremony of the accession of the Congo to independence, June 30, 1960. It is undoubtedly this reaffirmed presence of Africa that we had been denied for so long and which can no longer be erased despite the blood which will flow and the postcolonial turbulence which gives meaning to the historic struggle for independence in the colonized countries.

The Congo crisis, which broke out in 1960 in the wake of the independence of this former Belgian colony, did it not immediately demonstrate that this decolonization was anything but liberation?


I would distinguish independence from decolonization, which is a process whose beginnings date back to the first anti-colonial struggles and the realization that we must put an end to colonialism and colonial status.

Decolonization is a very long historical and cultural process, which affects politics, but also the fields of economy, art, languages ​​... In Africa, this process of decolonization has gone through successive phases, in particular the

national conferences

, the emergence of youth movements and civil society.

The process continues today with the demands for the decolonization of minds, teachings, institutions and the demand for real independence.


Each independence has had its particularity.

With its exceptional mineral resources, the former Belgian Congo was immediately one of the major issues in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Without real means, Belgium was very quickly out of the game, in particular after the secession of the rich province of Katanga by Moïse Tshombe and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba on January 17, 1961. After the coming to power of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, it is the American CIA which is in the maneuver.

Kolwezi's Franco-Moroccan operation in May 1978 against the Cuban-backed “Katangese” was already a “cold war” operation to prevent the Soviets from gaining access to Congolese cobalt.

That said, Marshal Mobutu had some leeway to manage the country as he pleased.

At the end of the 1970s, he even led the Zairians to believe that they were now totally “ 


 ” by launching an operation of “Zairianization”: the Congolese franc is replaced by “ 


  ”, Léopoldville becomes Kinshasa, deletion of names Christians, the abacost (" 

down with the costume

 ") replaces the Western costume, certain mines are nationalized for the benefit of the inner circle of the " 



In the early 1980s, Mobutu Sese Seko (Mobutu the warrior) was one of the richest men on the planet.

What are the main achievements of African independence?


The first achievement of African independence in the 1960s was access for a number of countries to manage their states.

But it is a limited independence because, barely out of colonization, Africa has become a geostrategic stake between the two blocks: the East and the West.

African independence was largely granted under pressure from the two winners of World War II: the United States and the Soviet Union.

At the end of the war, the Americans and the Soviets put pressure on the colonizers in order to be able to replace the colonial order and quickly install a new world order.

Africans therefore had to quickly choose their camp between colonial powers and the pursuit of a postcolonial policy as in the French


or Soviet support for liberation movements in return for a zone of influence.

Secondly, the achievement of African independence was solidarity between liberation movements, such as between Algeria and South Africa.


Independence has nevertheless transformed the map of the world.

Suddenly, we saw African countries take their place in the UN General Assembly.

They made the voice of Africa heard at the world's podium.

In retrospect, this may seem like a minor development, but it is not entirely, even if the voices of African countries are often instrumentalized by the great powers.

The fact remains that the presence of African states at the UN has given them leeway that they did not previously have.

Moreover, without independence, there would have been neither the Organization of the African Union, which has become

the African Union

since 2002, nor the regional organizations which, by the admission of member countries themselves, play a major role. in the democratic evolution of Africa.

And of course, all the work around the unity of the continent, the abolition of the borders inherited from colonialism, the South-South solidarities, would not have been possible without the end of the political stranglehold of Europe on the continent.

Léopoldville, ex-Belgian Congo, August 27, 1960. Frantz Fanon (right) and M'Hamed Yazid represent the Algerian National Liberation Front at the Pan-African conference.


Today we are witnessing the realization that the liberation promised by independence cannot be effective without the decolonization of imaginaries, knowledge and cultures.

Where are we in this fight?

FV: We're full in it.

This fight for the decolonization of minds has gained momentum in recent years thanks to social networks, youth and women's movements which promote the circulation of ideas and debates.

But this reflection began with Aimé Césaire, Amilcar Cabral, Ngugi wa Thiong'o or even

Frantz Fanon

, who wrote brilliantly on this subject.

Fanon explained that colonialism does not only exploit the bodies, but also has psychic effects on the colonized (s).


Black Skin, White Mask

, his essential book on this theme, Fanon reminds us that one cannot free oneself from colonial dependence only by building a strong economy or a strong State.

For him, the process of colonial liberation also involves the decolonization of the self, that is to say the work on oneself which consists in getting rid of the complexes that the West has put in the heads and imaginations of the colonized (e ) s.

African feminists, black or from the global South, have taken this reflection further by calling for epistemological decolonization or structures of knowledge.

I often quote the famous phrase of the black American feminist “queer”,

Audre Lorde

 : “ 

You don't destroy the master's house with the master's tools

 ”, which sums up the effort that we must make.

We have seen this movement of decolonization of the mind at work in the huge demonstrations of students in South Africa, but also in England, around the campaign "Rhodes Must Fall", calling for debunking the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

These questions also feature prominently in novels, films and artistic works from the continent.


It seems to me that this question of the decolonization of minds is still topical only in the former French colonies where a policy of " 

dependence in interdependence

 ", according to the formula of Edgar Faure, continued. throughout the postcolonial period, in particular for a whole generation which bathed in "Françafrique".

In Nigeria, a Nollywood country, far from a “British-Africa”, the question does not even arise.

In South Africa, it is above all economic decolonization which is under debate, not that of minds and cultures.

For intellectuals in French-speaking countries, such as Felwine Sarr or Achille Mbembe, the challenge is to get out of the close Africa-France dialogue in which the postcolonial development of their countries has locked them.

What interests them is the Africa-World perspective and not France-Africa.

They call for “

provincializing Europe


How do you understand this formula?



Provincializing Europe

 ” means that Europe is no longer at the center of the world and above all that it no longer embodies this universal history which would include that of Africans.

Hence the creation of endogenous African intellectual movements around the

workshops of thought

in Dakar precisely to write " 



Africans must purge themselves of the desire for Europe

 ", insists Achille Mbembe, founder of these Workshops with the writer Felwine Sarr.

It's interesting to see that Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr, both think they will find in American universities, beyond the material means, a working autonomy that they have not found in Europe.


I understand this expression as a call to constitute another epistemology, another way of seeing the world from the South and from this long history which precedes colonial history.

While slavery and Western colonialism are indeed part of African history, it is not the whole story.

The history of Africa is made up of millennial exchanges between the cities of the east coast and Asia and the Middle East, it is made of the circulation of texts and ideas which pass through


and Al-Azhar, South-South geopolitical relations illustrated by the Bandung conferences and the tricontinental meeting in the twentieth century.

All this defines other maps in which Europe is peripheral, even “ 



Even if Europe still prides itself on possessing military forces which are capable of hindering the rise of other powers, one cannot but note that the centrality of Europe as an epistemic force is diminishing. .

At the entrance to the medieval Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which has been an exceptional hub of thought and ideas in the Arab world since the 10th century.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Photo taken by Daniel Mayer

Western universalism seems to be the main enemy to be defeated in this fight for the decolonization of imaginaries.

Isn't it rather paradoxical to want to reject universal Western humanism, when the fights against colonial oppression were inspired precisely by the universalist thought of the Enlightenment?


The universalism articulated by Western thinkers has never existed in practice because of the separation of humanity between whites and blacks, between what I called "those who matter and those who do not".

Europe has built its superiority on a “white privilege” based on the exploitation of the men and women of other continents, on the plundering of their resources and their imaginations.

The universality to which non-Western intellectuals aspire today requires the abolition of this white privilege and the real equality of all human beings.

These promises of equality and universality were already part of the ideals that animated the Haitian revolutionaries of the 18th century.

We have forgotten that the Haitian revolution was one of the greatest revolutions in the world, because it was anti-colonial, anti-racial and anti-slavery.

It was also the only revolution to keep its promises by instituting open citizenship based on modern values ​​of integration and not exclusion.

Neither the French revolutionaries, nor the Americans nor the English succeeded in keeping their promises of universality.


It must be recognized that there has often been a gap between the proclamation of the universal by the West and its defense of national, patriotic interests.

The universalist thought of the Enlightenment was very largely distorted by political actions on the ground which aimed to perpetuate colonial and postcolonial domination.

In recent years, there has been an intensification of campaigns demanding that the statues of former slavers and honored colonists be debunked and that works of art looted in colonized countries be returned.

Beyond their symbolic value, would these actions make it possible to repair History?

Demonstration for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College in Oxford, June 9, 2020. REUTERS / Eddie Keogh


In my opinion, the toppling of

the statue of Cecil Rhodes

, the English colonialist who gave Rhodesia its name before it was renamed Zimbabwe in 1980, only makes sense if it is accompanied by a real work of historians of this country on decolonization.

As for the restitution of looted works of art, it remains to this day largely a symbolic Franco-African affair.

No African leader has so far really made it his hobbyhorse in the name of an Africa anxious to find its roots and its culture.

Thus, the future Abomey museum, which is to house the 26 works that will be returned to Benin, will be largely financed by the French taxpayer


the French Development Agency (AFD).

It seems to me that for young Africans, the approach would be more credible if their respective countries seized on the issue rather than leaving the initiative to the former colonial powers like France.


The debunking of statues and the return of looted works of art are not only symbolic steps.

They are in fact linked to a policy of repairing history which has barely been started and which the West is resisting with all its force.

The looting of the African continent, whether in the field of artefacts or raw materials, has been absolutely massive.

The arguments put forward by the Western powers to refuse the restitution of works of art demonstrate blatant bad faith, marked by racism.

However, it is on the one hand by debunking statues of colonial leaders who tortured, massacred and humiliated the colonized who had opposed their brutal force, and on the other hand by returning the works of art which is theirs by right, that we can really exorcise the slavery and colonialist past of European countries and advance this decolonization of imaginaries to which Frantz Fanon called.

In your personal journeys, at what moment did you become aware of this essential decolonization of the imaginations and the mind?


During my studies in sociology and ethnology, it quickly became apparent to me that the social reality and the extraordinary richness of the imagination on this continent were totally denied or ignored.

The complexity of kinship systems and community values ​​quickly intrigued and fascinated me.

An interest in what was happening on the other side of the looking glass which helped me a lot later in my work as a journalist.


It is undoubtedly the incredible injustices perpetrated against a background of racism and affirmation of superiority that I saw with my own eyes growing up in Reunion in the years 1950-1960 that made me sensitive to this question. .



was a former slave colony and past felt in the power relations between the state and the population, it still feels.

When slavery was abolished, the colonial power brought in from Madagascar, the east coast of Africa, southern India and China, a workforce that could be cut and fought at mercy.

Economic and state power was in the hands of a small white elite.

This had institutionalized the exploitation and racism on which the prosperity of the island was based.

My parents, who were anti-colonial activists, allowed us to spend a few days from time to time with working-class families they knew or had become friends with.

It was these life experiences that made me aware of the colonial and racial condition, even if at the time, as I was still very young, I did not understand all the issues.

Later, along the way, the readings, the cinema, the meetings allowed me to make sense of this experience.

It was in Reunion that I understood that we must always listen to the most vulnerable, the most vulnerable, that we must fight racism and colonialism in all their forms.

(1) Feminist and specialist in issues related to the slave trade, Françoise Vergé is the author of several books.

Her latest book is called

Le Ventre des femmes

(Albin Michel, 2017).

(2) Antoine Glaser is the author of several books on Franco-African relations.

In 2017, he published

Africa France: When African Leaders Become the Masters of the Game



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