The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter French West Africa and British West Africa

French West Africa was a federation of eight French colonial territories that existed from 1895 to 1960. These territories include: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (Mali), French Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Dahomey (Benin), and Niger. French West Africa encompassed over 1.8 million square miles and over 25 million people. The French did not consider the native residents of these countries to be French citizens, so they did not have any rights under French law. The one exception was the Four Communes of Senegal, a part of Senegal that abolished slavery in 1848. Any Africans who could prove that they were born in those four towns could vote in French parliamentary elections. The Four Communes of Senegal even had a Deputy represent them in the French Parliament, albeit infrequently.

The French occupied these colonies during the European scramble for Africa that took place during the last few decades of the 19th century. During World War II, the French colonies sided with the Vichy government once France fell to the Nazis. There were two subsequent battles to recover the lost colonies, after which only Gabon and French Equatorial Africa remained under free French control. French West Africa remained under Vichy control until Operation Torch in November 1942.

After World War II, France began the process of extending some political rights to its colonies and granted French West Africa ten seats in the Constituent Assembly engaged in drafting a new French Constitution. France was renamed the French Union in 1946 after the constitution of the French Fourth Republic was complete. The African territories were now able to elect local representatives but their electoral bodies did not have full power. 1956 marked the first elections with universal suffrage. In 1958, the French turned their colonies into "protectorates" with consultative assemblies. In 1960, after struggles in Indochina and Algeria, the French finally allowed their colonies in French West Africa to change their constitutions and become independent countries.

British West Africa is the term for Britain's various colonial territories from the late 1780s until the 1960s, including Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone, Gambia, Western Nigeria, Eastern Nigeria, and Northern Nigeria. Britain relied on these colonies to aid the Royal Navy's West African Squadron in taking control over Africa's various resources and exports. A governor-in-chief stationed in Sierra Leone presided over all the colonies. The British endeavored to "modernize" these areas, implementing education programs and encouraging the erosion of native culture and traditions.

Like French West Africa, the British slowly abdicated their control over their colonies after the end of World War II. Nigeria gained independence in 1960, Sierra Leone achieved self-rule in 1958 and independence in 1960, Gambia became independent in 1965, and the British Gold Coast was self-governing until 1957 and became Ghana after gaining independence.