Having spent most of his life in Switzerland, David Birmingham returned to his home country in the 1990s to concentrate on his scholarly work. Remarkably Birmingham has made two significant contributions in the filed of history: he has authored many history books especially on African history including “Kwame Nkrumah”, “Empire in Africa”, “Portugal and Africa” among others, as well as holding the chairmanship of department Modern History, University of Kent, England.
He attributes his success to many of African historians from whom he learned a lot throughout the years he interacted with them. In his book “The Decolonization of Africa” Birmingham, argues that the process of decolonization of Africa had ripple effects in other parts of the world, such as the civil rights movement in America, and the need to rebuilding of the post World War II Europe. While the title of the book is about decolonization, the contents implicitly mirror colonization of Africa. Birmingham sarcastically pokes at the European claims of brining civilization to the Dark Continent and further claims that the real civilization was gradually ushered through democratization of Africa (Birmingham 1). Birmingham, unlike many other historians, avoids making sweeping generalization to the effect that the colonizers had absolute dominance over Africa and asserts that the traditional African governments run concurrent with colonial governments, which were military based. Furthermore, he looks beyond the African continents into Asia and the Latin America and makes good comparisons with the decolonization efforts in those continents. In this regard, Birmingham portrays colonization as not only limited to Africa and in doing so makes a very good assertion that the colonizers intended to ‘civilize’ the whole world. Despite the authoritarian colonial rule, the process of democratization began before full colonization was realized.
Therefore, democratization of Africa was not instant, but characterized by arbitrary authoritarianism (Birmingham 6). “The Decolonization of Africa” is an audacious attempt at introducing an important subject in contemporary studies in history; the (de)colonization of Africa. Birmingham divides the book into five major chapters, which represents five major geographical regions. While the chapters portray Africa’s fight for independence in five major regions, Birmingham does very well to show how three major factors namely indigenous nationalism, foreign pressure and the retreat of the colonizers interplayed within all the regions and gradually lead to independence and the eventual democratization of African states (Birmingham 9, 14, 28,). Yet Birmingham manages to present a nuanced outline of the decolonization process in the five geographical regions as: nationalistic movements in the north of Africa, liberation movements in east of Africa, neo-colonial ideologies in the west, rebel movement in central Africa and race relations in the south. These nuances are discussed Vis a Vis the colonial legacies such as religious conflicts, trade and military backed colonial rulers. Birmingham confirms that “The Decolonization of Africa” is his own personal interpretation of the relationship between Africa and its colonial masters.
His assertion notwithstanding, there exist enormous factual information carefully gathered and represented to the extent that the book looses the subjective touch. Yet the book having been published in the 1990s, fails to address certain important aspects about the African history, such as the second liberation struggles spreading all over Africa in the 21st century. Such struggles are seen in the uprising movement in the Arab Africa, the end of dictatorial rule in the sub-Saharan Africa as well as the post apartheid South Africa. Furthermore, while “The Decolonization of Africa” focuses on the after effects of colonization, it should also have focused to a greater detail on the role of African traditional government towards the attainment of independence in Africa. “The Decolonization of Africa” is a fairly short book. Nevertheless it has contributed immensely towards improving the knowledge on the political as well as social history in Africa.
The book is highly recommended for any tertiary level studies, especially for those students willing to gain a broad yet informed overview in the causes and the course of the decolonization process in Africa. Furthermore, due to its broad coverage of the African decolonization themes, it can be used as a primary resource for any student willing to gain background information before venturing deeper into related studies. David Birmingham’s “The Decolonization of Africa” is not as voluminous as one would expect, but within the few gages the author is not only able to highlights how Africa fought to be decolonized but explicitly shows how democracy slowly set in.
This book provides valuable lesson to a scholar of history. One of the vital lessons is that some of the Panafricanist movement leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana overshadowed the Panafrican ideals with their own personal and sometimes selfish ideologies. Furthermore, the United States of America had its own interest in the continent and its influences, albeit indirect, greatly motivated the course of events. Precisely, the USA prevailed upon mainland Tanzania to divorce Zanzibar not for any economic or social gain but due to the fear of the spread of communism. Therefore, the book is highly recommended for any scholar who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the decolonization of Africa.
The Decolonization of Africa. London: UCL Press. 1995. Print