French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française)

French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française)
French West Africa (Afrique occidentale française)

French West Africa came into being in 1895 when France decided to consolidate its African holdings. Initially, French West Africa was a temporary combination of Senegal, French Guinea (now Guinea), French

Sudan (now Mali), and Côte d'Ivoire. In 1904 it became permanent, with territories including Dahomey (now Benin), French Guinea, French Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, Mauretania, Niger, Senegal, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso).

The federation was ruled by a governor-general first from Saint-Louis and then, after 1902, from Dakar, both in Senegal. The federation supported Vichy France during World War II before accepting the Free French in November 1942.

The federation occupied an area of 4,689,000 square kilometers, most of which was desert or semidesert in the interior of Niger, Sudan, and Mauretania. One of the largest colonial possessions in Africa, the federation reached from westernmost Africa at Cape Verde to deep within the Sahara. Population at its creation was over 10 million. When the federation dissolved, its population was about 25 million.

West Africa was not a primitive area when the Europeans arrived. Precolonial empires and states included Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Hausa. The precolonial era was also a time when Islam expanded into West Africa. The Europeans entered and disrupted a highly complex society.

The slave trade in West Africa expanded greatly beginning in the late 16th century and continued to grow into the mid-19th century. By the 18th century the slave trade was an important ingredient in the European interest in Africa, especially for providing slaves to New World plantation economies. The increasing New World demand coincided with Islamic jihads and rivalries between the precolonial states.

The capture and transfer of Africans into slavery became the dominant commerce for the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British and French. The British, Dutch, and Portuguese controlled the major slave ports between Ghana and the Cameroons. Africans also facilitated the slave trade.

The French early on regarded their African possessions as overseas provinces. The early efforts to colonize were unsuccessful, though, and in the mid-19th century interest shifted from colonization to mercantile prospects. Trade with the savanna of the interior coincided with the race for Africa of the late 19th century.

The Berlin Act of 1885 formalized the partition of Africa, including West Africa. By 1890 the French had signed treaties with African leaders that in theory authorized their annexation of much of western Sudan. Military superiority allowed the French to acquire large territories, most of it desert or otherwise worthless. The French did not turn to commercial development until early in the 20th century.

In the early 1890s France conquered Dahomey, made Côte d'Ivoire a formal colony, and obtained territory in Upper Volta. French Africa ran from Algeria to the Gulf of Guinea.

The administrative unit known as French West Africa included the coastal colonies— Senegal, French Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire—as well as the French Sudan, the large interior territory that included present-day Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Dahomey became part of French West Africa in 1899. French Sudan became Haut Senegal-Niger in 1904.

Mauretania became a protectorate in 1905. Upper Volta separated from Haut Sénégal–Niger in 1919, and the remaining Haut Sénégal–Niger became French Sudan once more. Mauretania became a colony and part of French West Africa in 1920. Niger separated from French Sudan in 1922.

Senegal was the only part of French West Africa with even token assimilation, and participation by Africans in French affairs was confined to Saint-Louis. Elsewhere in French West Africa, inhabitants were subjects, not citizens. The European French were increasingly skeptical about the ability of the Africans to become "suitable" French citizens.

The assimilationist philosophy of the original exploration was gone by the time of the French West African Federation in 1895. Rather than allow local authority, the French established direct rule in the form of a governor-general taking his orders directly from the minister of colonies and the government in Paris.

The governor-general relayed orders and financing to his lieutenant governors in the territories. Senegal had representative government as a residue of the original assimilationist impulse—citizens could represent the Senegalese in France.

The French effort to make the colony pay its own way led to their pushing the productivity of groundnuts and cotton where suitable. Extraction of valuable resources was also emphasized. Taxes forced the population into the cash economy.

Inhabitants of areas where cash crops were impractical were encouraged to migrate to wage-earning areas. Servitude nearing slavery was tolerated in the interest of profitability. The French did provide at least a small amount of missionary effort as well as minimal educational and health services. The economic benefit accrued to the French only.

After World War I France relaxed its rule somewhat. Occasional revolts as well as a rediscovery of African tradition encouraged the easing of the slavery and aristocratic rule that had characterized the decades from the mid-1890s until the war. Tribal leaders were more respected after France reinstated them.

Initially loyal to Vichy France during World War II, French West Africa shifted to the Allies after the U.S. invasion of North Africa and the occupation of Dakar, Senegal, by the Allies. The Free French under General Charles de Gaulle took control of French West Africa.

When World War II was over, the Europeans were worn out, unwilling politically, and unable economically to resist demands for political reform in colonies that were increasingly an intolerable financial burden.

The Europeans living in Africa were an issue. Also, the colonies provided valuable resources. But the benefits were far from matching the costs. And independence came in the 1960s. France also had an ego at stake in the postwar era. Defeat and occupation were not preconditions for an easy abandonment of the empire.

After World War II France's overseas colonies in Africa became overseas territories. Their inhabitants became eligible for French citizenship. They also received the right to organize political parties and have representation in the French legislature.

When given the choice of complete independence or self-governance as members of the new French Community (France and its former colonies), which was intended for common defense, foreign policy, education, and other common matters, all elected to join the community except French Guinea, which became independent Guinea in October 1958. With the establishment of the French Community, French West Africa was no more.

The autonomous states of French Sudan, Senegal, Upper Volta, and Dahomey united into the Federation of Mali, named for the ancient African Mali Empire, in 1958. Upper Volta and Dahomey withdrew before the federation became operational in January 1960. By August 1960, when Senegal withdrew, the federation was defunct.

Postwar nationalism and the example of the newly independent English colonies, led by Ghana in 1957, produced a strong impulse toward independence in French West Africa. Between August and November 1960, Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, and Mauretania gained their independence.