Between January and December of 1960, no fewer than 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained independence from European colonial powers, including 14 former French colonies. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at a watershed year in the modern history of the continent.
The events of 1960 – with so nations many gaining independence in a short span of time – were partly the result of a long process following the tumult of World War II.
In the post-war period, Africans involved in pro-independence movements put pressure on the colonising powers, reminding them of the promises they had made to secure African support for the war effort. The Europeans, urged on by the United States, were ultimately obliged to let go of their colonies.
Speaking in the Congolese capital Brazzaville in 1944, General Charles de Gaulle suggested the time had come for France to follow “the path of a new era”. Two years later, France’s colonial empire was replaced by the French Union, which in turn became the French Community in 1958.
In quick succession, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, Ghana and Guinea won their independence, while unrest in Algeria continued to exhaust the French and damage France’s reputation.
Cameroon – January 1, 1960. A former German colony divided between France and the United Kingdom in 1918, Cameroon acquired its independence thanks to armed movements. Less than a year after the United Nations announced the end of French control, French Cameroon proclaimed its independence. A year later the southern part of the country, under British control, merged with the north. On May 5, 1960, Ahmadou Ahidjo was elected as the country’s first president.
Togo – April 27. A former German colony, Togo subsequently fell under French and British mandates in the aftermath of World War I. The part of the country administered by the French held the status of an “associated territory” of the French Union established in 1946. The country became an autonomous republic – albeit within the French Union – by referendum in 1956. In February 1958, victory for the Togolese Unity Committee, a nationalist movement, in legislative elections opened the way to full independence. Sylvanus Olympio, elected first president of the new republic, was later killed in a January 1963 coup d’état.
Madagascar – June 26. A French overseas territory as of 1946, the island was proclaimed an autonomous state within the French Community, an association of mainly African former French colonies, in 1958. In 1960, President Philibert Tsiranana succeeded in convincing General de Gaulle to grant Madagascar total sovereignty and, in doing so, became the first president of the republic.
Madagascar celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence
Democratic Republic of the Congo – June 30. In January 1959, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, riots broke out in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. Belgian authorities summoned Congolese leaders to Brussels and decided to withdraw from the country, fearing a war of independence similar to the one that was ravaging Algeria at the time. Renamed Zaire in 1971 under former leader Mobutu Sese Seko, the Democratic Republic of the Congo reverted to its former name when Mobutu was deposed by Laurent Kabila in 1997.
Congo celebrates 60 years of independence
Somalia – July 1. A former Italian colony, Somalia merged with the former British protectorate of Somaliland on the day it became independent in 1960 to form the Somali Republic. Somaliland had itself gained its full sovereignty five days earlier. The objective was to reconstitute the pre-colonial era “Greater Somalia”, which had included Kenya, Ethiopia and the future nation of Djibouti, which was at that time under French control.
Benin – August 1. A referendum on September 28, 1958, proposing a plan for a French-African Community paved the way for the independence of what was then the Dahomey two years later, when power was transferred to President Hubert Maga. The country, renamed Benin in 1975, has had a tumultuous political history in recent years, with critics saying the current leadership is undermining the country’s democratic traditions.
Niger – August 3. Niger had been the subject of French colonial interest since 1899 despite fierce resistance from the local population. A 1958 referendum propelled the country’s first president, Hamani Diori, to power and the Republic of Niger was first proclaimed on December 18 of that year. Independence was officially declared on August 3, 1960. Diori was subsequently overthrown by a coup d’état in 1974.
Burkina Faso – August 5. A French protectorate, the Republic of Upper Volta was proclaimed on December 11, 1958, but remained part of the French Community before gaining full independence on August 5, 1960. The country took the name Burkina Faso in 1984 during the presidency of Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated in 1987.
Ivory Coast – August 7. A 1958 referendum resulted in the Ivory Coast becoming an autonomous republic. Two years later, in June of 1960, the pro-French Félix Houphouët-Boigny proclaimed the country’s independence but maintained close ties between Abidjan and Paris. The Ivory Coast subsequently became one of the most prosperous West African nations.
Chad – August 11. Two years after becoming a republic, Chad won independence on August 11, 1960. The prime minister at the time, François Tombalbaye, became the first president of a country that deteriorated rapidly into civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian-majority south.
Central African Republic – August 13. Under French control since 1905, Ubangi-Chari became the Central African Republic on December 1, 1958. Poised to become the nation’s first president was Barthélémy Boganda – a national hero, committed pan-Africanist and anti-colonialist who presided over French Equatorial Africa (a federation joining colonial territories Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon) for two years, working for the emancipation of Africans. But Boganda died in a March 1959 plane crash and when independence was proclaimed in 1960, it was a relative, David Dacko, who became president.
The Republic of the Congo – August 15. Ninety-nine percent of the Congolese people voted to join the French Community in a 1958 referendum that also made the country an autonomous republic. The following year violence broke out in Brazzaville, triggering a French military intervention. On August 15, 1960, Congo gained full independence with Fulbert Youlou serving as president until 1963.
Gabon – August 17. Criticised by opposition parties for being anti-independence, Prime Minister Léon M’Ba nevertheless proclaimed Gabonese independence on August 17, 1960. He would have preferred that Gabon become a French department but had to back down when General de Gaulle refused.
Senegal and Mali – August 20 and September 22. The independent republics of Senegal and Mali were born from the ashes of the short-lived Federation of Mali – established on January 17, 1959 – made up of Senegal and what was then French Sudan. The two countries initially intended to form a union but after significant differences between Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Senegalese president of the Federal Assembly, and Modibo Keita, his Sudanese prime minister, the authorities in Dakar withdrew from the federation and declared independence on August 20. Authorities in Bamako followed suit a month later.
Nigeria – October 1. Divided into a federation of three regions – North, East and West – by the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954, Nigeria, with its population of 34 million, was already considered the giant of the African continent. As soon as independence was declared on October 1, the former British colony was forced to confront its deep ethnic and religious divisions, which quickly became the cause of political instability.
Mauritania – November 28. Mauritania proclaimed its independence despite opposition from Morocco and the Arab League. The country’s constitution, established in 1964, set up a presidential regime with Prime Minister Ould Daddah becoming president. He remained in power until 1978.