What the Future of Africa Looked Like in 1959

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Britain's top diplomat got plenty wrong, and right, about where the continent was going.

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Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, inspects the Second Battalion the King's African Rifles near Bullawayo, Rhodesia on July 8, 1957 (AP)

On October 2nd, the South African website Politics Web published an extraordinary historical document, a 26-page memorandum from then-British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Loyd detailing the issues that he thought would affect British policy in Africa over the next decade. The memo gives a sense of just how much was at stake for a British empire in its twilight, an Africa on the verge of independence, and a wider world riven by Cold War-era rivalries. It's a long and engrossing time warp (would the Southern British Cameroons fall into Ghana's sphere of influence?), a return to a world where colonialism in its actual, classical sense -- as well as Nasserism and Marxism in their actual, classical senses -- were still a factor in international politics. More importantly, it was an attempt to think through "what kind of world would follow empire," according to Frederick Cooper, a New York University professor and reigning expert on the imperial history of Africa.

According to Loyd, in the Africa of the 60s, the British and French would have to counter the ideological and political encroachment of Nasser's United Arab Republic and the Soviet Union -- although "ultimately the two Governments may well clash," as a "twentieth century version of The Scramble for Africa" unfolded. Loyd writes at length about the new political order that France and Britain would dictate to an Africa that both countries realized would eventually be independent of imperial rule.

For Loyd, "The guiding principle should be that retaining empire in the long run is no longer an option," Cooper explained. "The questions are: how is one going to devolve it , at what pace, to whom, and how are British interest going to be protected in doing so?" Even then, Loyd's assumptions would be thoroughly debunked in the years after the memo was written. "What you see in the actual text is that he was pretty clueless about timing, and had illusions of Britain being much more in control than they in fact were."

* * *

Some of Loyd's predictions were right: Nigeria did fracture along regional lines, and South Africa's apartheid government certainly became more violent and more isolated as the next decade progressed. Others were wrong: There was to be no trans-national French "federation" in East Africa, headquartered in Dakar and Brazzaville.

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Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, at Kenya's independence ceremony on December 13th, 1963. (AP)

Accurate or not, the memo is certainly the work of a man who would be considered a racist by modern-day standards. "The West will in many cases be surrendering power to peoples who are not far removed from primitive savagery," Loyd writes; only a page in, he ruminates on West Africa's enthusiasm for western-style education, and somehow declares that this is "due partly to the ... greater virility and adaptability of the Negro and Berber elements as opposed to the Bantu." This in an official document, written by a cabinet minister.

Yet at other points, Loyd concedes that African populations have produced educated elites and charismatic local leaders that Britain will have no choice but to work with. "Are we dealing with sophisticated politicians or are we dealing with primitive people? Both tendencies are in the document," says Cooper. Loyd was thinking realistically about where things were headed in Africa -- but this wasn't enough to counteract a basically-racist view of Africa and its people.

This is hardly the only tension in the memo, and it's far from the only one having to do with the connections between British national interests and racism. In 1959, Britain faced a major dilemma in southern and central Africa, where European settlers were on the cusp of becoming a serious headache for the former colonial power. South Africa was an independent state under minority rule, and in Rhodesia, a restive and decreasingly-controllable European minority seemed poised to dominate the British colony's political and economic life to a degree that could embarrass or discredit its ostensible masters.

At the same time, Loyd believed that the British government couldn't just cut and run:

We have a particular responsibility to do everything we reasonably can in order to ensure that peoples of all races who have made their homes in such territories with the encouragement of successive British Governments will be able to live there in security and to contribute to the development and prosperity of their own part of Africa.

Cooper says that British policymakers were "afraid that the settlers in Rhodesia might abandon the British empire in favor of South Africa, and you'd have a greater South Africa instead of a greater Britain." One solution was a "federation" that would merge present-day Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi into a single political unit. "If it holds together," Loyd wrote, it could be "sizable and viable," a well as a way for Britain to maintain control over both white Rhodesians and its imperial holdings.

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Britain's imperial holdings in Africa, with the years of their independence. Note: Rhodesia seceded from the British Empire in 1965 but rescinded its declaration of independence in a 1979 peace agreement, shortly before the onset of majority rule. Although technically a British colony because of a post-World War I League of Nations mandate, Namibia was not ruled by Britain when it won its independence from South Africa in 1989. (Wikimedia)

And federation would have another benefit as well. In the memo, Loyd warns of the dangers of the "balkanization of Africa," and the emergence of a continent of small sates which were, in Cooper's words, vulnerable to "political machinations by relatively small elites." Loyd dreaded the idea of an archipelago of small, non-viable, and politically weak countries destined to generations of authoritarian rule and external meddling (from one perspective, this is exactly what has happened in the decades since the memo was written). In 1959, big, diverse states were a way out of this problem. Loyd believed their creation was within Britain's capabilities.

It wasn't. In 1965, Rhodesia seceded from the British Empire and established an apartheid state, and Zambia and Malawi won their independence in 1964. And the multi-racial (in other words, partially white-ruled), British-dominated Kenya that Loyd envisioned would seem like an absurdity just a few short years later. In the memo, he writes:

Our policy is to build up a viable, non-racial State, in which the interests of all communities will be secure, and to maintain full responsibility until this has been achieved. Our aim is unlikely to be realised by 1970; and on present indications Kenya will lag behind Uganda and Tanganyika in attaining responsible self-government-as is probably inevitable if the legitimate interests of ail communities are to be safeguarded.

In reality, British rule only really lasted until 1963, and the country's independence was basically guaranteed when future prime minister Jomo Kenyatta was released from prison in 1961. Almost all European settlers would leave, and Britain's ability to mold the future of one of its most-prized colonial properties would evaporate.

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In a sense, Loyd's analysis assumes that Africa and the wider world would remain essentially unchanged -- that the continent would still be the venue for struggles between great world powers, and that Britain could impose its interests and maintain its spheres of influence on precisely its own terms. Despite major upheaval, this strategic balance would still endure: The former colonizers would remain dominant, and international rivalries would play out well over the heads of the supposedly-primitive locals, who were perhaps decades away from being politically and economically cohesive, self-sustaining, or even all that relevant. Loyd couldn't see beyond his present framework, one that wouldn't allow for an Africa where Britain would be forced out of the continent by 1965, and where an often highly-volatile process of state formation and political self-definition would prove far more consequential than the tinkering of the imperial powers. Arguably, the defining conflicts of the next decade wouldn't be between England, France, the Soviet Union and the United Arab Republic (which wouldn't even exist in 1970), but between regional and ethnic political movements.

The memo didn't escape the prevailing assumptions of its day; but every era has its assumptions that are so dominant, and so basic to the functioning of the contemporary international order, that almost no one in power can step back and assess them critically. Within only a few years of this memo, both Britain and the Africa were dramatically changed, and the assumptions Loyd shared with the power structure around him had become obsolete. History can shock itself like this. Just a few years from now, the idea that China and India would become superpowers -- or that multilateral institutions like NATO or the UN would maintain their primacy, or that most of Europe would remain pluralistic and democratic -- could similarly read like quaint reminders of the arrogance or credulousness of an earlier age. And by 2060, they could seem like hopelessly deluded relics of a vanished world.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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