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In the mid-to-late 1950s, most observers of African affairs viewed Ghana and Algeria as representing the best hopes and worst fears of what decolonization had to offer the African continent. To many, Ghana proved the model for a peaceful and orderly transfer of power, as control over the Gold Coast government gradually shifted from European to African hands, culminating in the country's independence in 1957. In the following years, Ghana would continue to play an important role in the world's understanding of African decolonization as the prime minister, and, after 1960, the president, Kwame Nkrumah, continuously evoked the Ghanaian experience with decolonization to illustrate the supposed political and moral authority of nonviolent resistance in the continent's fight for self-determination. As Nkrumah explained, a commitment to nonviolence--as expressed in a form of political activism he called "Positive Action"--promised to instill in the so-called "African Personality" the political and moral power necessary to guide the continent toward its postcolonial future.
In Algeria, another story of decolonization was playing out, as the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN)--entrenched in arguably the world's bloodiest anticolonial struggle--was fighting to liberate the Algerian people from the control of the French settler-state in North Africa. Beginning in November 1954 and concluding with Algeria's independence in 1962, the "Algerian Revolution" took the lives of more than one million Algerians and displaced countless others. For nearly the entirety of the 1950s and up to the early 1960s, no end to the conflict appeared in sight, as both sides made political and historical claims to the land and its resources. In the midst of this chaos, the FLN--aided by its prime theorist, Frantz Fanon--came to promote a philosophy of liberation that celebrated the emancipatory and creative value of anticolonial violence in the African fight for self-determination, for, as Fanon would argue in his 1961 classic, Les damnes de la terre, decolonization was always a " phenomene violent" (2002:39).
This essay reconstructs the role of the Algerian conflict in reshaping African debates over the use of violence in decolonization. Taking postcolonial Ghana as its setting, it traces the Algerian presence in the pan-African sphere of Nkrumah's Ghana by exploring the ways in which debates over the Algerian armed struggle helped transform African perceptions of decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s. First coming to the Ghanaian capital of Accra for the 1958 Conference of Independent African States (CIAS), the FLN initially sought to elicit the political and moral support of Africa's self-governing states for its struggle at home, yet the FLN presence in Accra and its influence over the larger African Freedom Fighter community in the Ghanaian capital soon came to challenge the nonviolent revolution Nkrumah envisioned for the continent, as Fanon and his colleagues in the FLN insisted upon the necessity of violence in the broader struggle for African self-determination.
Many scholars have recognized and emphasized the place and (in some cases) importance of violence in such events as the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion, the Algerian war of decolonization, and--a little more than a decade later--the liberation movements in Zimbabwe and Lusophone Africa, but few have sought to understand how African nationalists and anticolonial leaders themselves understood and debated the use of violence in the continent's decolonization. In the heady days of the late 1950s, debates over the merits of violent and nonviolent forms of anticolonial resistance evolved out of more than a concern over tactics. Rather, debates over anticolonial violence represent part of a larger moral and methodological dialogue on the continent, in which African radicals sought to define the nature and shape of their envisioned postcolonial communities and of those communities' relationships to a broader global and pan-African project. This essay interrogates violence not simply as an option thrust upon Africans by circumstances created by Europeans: instead, it shows the use of violence in decolonization as an issue and strategy, which Africans cautiously and thoughtfully deliberated as they began to imagine Africa's place in the burgeoning postcolonial world. However, as this essay will show, by 1960, the political and intellectual terrain upon which these debates was composed had irrevocably shifted as events in Africa--the continual escalation of the crisis in Algeria, French nuclear tests in the Sahara, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and the massacre at Sharpeville--came to weaken even Nkrumah's faith in nonviolence. More importantly, these events resituated the concept as a whole--vis-a-vis armed struggle--as a viable form of anticolonial resistance in African debates over the promises and possibilities of the postcolonial future (Allman 2008:96-97).
Accra, the Algerian Revolution, and the 1958 Conference on Independent African States
Perhaps more than any other country in the 1950s and 1960s, Nkrumah's Ghana celebrated a national identity defined through the continental struggle for an independent and united Africa. In his midnight address at the country's independence festivities, Nkrumah outlined the mission of his emergent state when he famously declared: "The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent" (1967:52). Expounding on this point further in his autobiography, he explained:
I have never regarded the struggle for the Independence of the Gold Coast as an isolated objective but always as part of a general world historical pattern. The African in every territory of this vast continent has been awakened and the struggle for freedom will go on. It is our duty as the vanguard force to offer what assistance we can to those now engaged in the battles that we ourselves have fought and won. Our task is not done and our own safety is not assured until the last vestiges of colonialism have been swept from Africa. (1957:290)
According to Nkrumah, at least in early 1957, at a moment in which only eight African states--with the exception of the South African apartheid regime--were self-governing, Ghana had the obligation to organize the independent states of Africa into the voice of the continent's liberation movement. As he saw it, the political and cultural differences separating the populations of these states and their leaders were of little significance, for, as he would argue countless times throughout his rule, they were all "Africans." As a result, just days after the March 6 independence celebrations closed, he announced his intentions to host a conference that would bring together the leaders of Africa's independent states in the hopes of forging a united voice for the continent's future decolonization. By early 1958, he seemed to have had his wish, as, from 14 to 22 April, representatives of all eight states--Ghana, Liberia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, and the United Arab Republic (UAR)--met in Accra for the first Conference on Independent African States (CIAS).
The CIAS must be understood in the context of a decolonizing continent eager to define itself to a burgeoning postwar international community. Reflecting on the achievements of the conference, historian Thomas Hodgkin (1958) reminds us that the mere fact the conference took place "is itself ... important," for it showed a continental attempt to adapt the pan-African ideas of the early twentieth century to the perceived political and social realities of mid-century Africa. The conference, Hodgkin argued, harkened to the birth of a new era in Africa, one in which "Independent African states reached a stage at which they would like to see African conflicts settled in the African family." In Accra, CIAS delegates from the purportedly distinct "Arab" north and "Black" south adopted this theme of a single "African family" as they began to theorize the resurrection of a so-called "African Personality": a shared political, social, and cultural identity that many believed would guide the continent to its destined independence. For instance, during …