Ghana is often given the dubious distinction of being the first former colony in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence. Bypassing North Africa, some editors, journalists and history books go as far as claiming that Ghana was the first country on the entire continent to gain independence. However, these distinctions are not without their controversies. An important truth needs to be told – Ghana was not the first African country to gain independence in neither sub-Saharan Africa nor the entire continent. There are a string of other countries that arguably deserve this recognition. The fact that these distinctions about Ghana are sustained by both Ghanians and non-Ghanians alike, is indicative of a continent with a problematic identity and history that is fueled with hijacked narratives.
Ghana, A Shining Black Star
Ghana has long been celebrated as the model for African progress and development. Ghana has long been revered by institutions in the Global North as the poster child for economic success, anti-imperialism, stability and democracy in Africa. This has meant that it has been historically promoted (and propped) as a leader on the continent by countries such as the United States – it is the only sub-Saharan country that Barack Obama has visited as a sitting president. It is also a country celebrated within the continent for being at the center of the liberation struggle and therefore holds a special place in pan-African history. Ghana’s position in the global world order and political economy aids to sustain the myth that Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence. Many people would rather celebrate Ghana’s successes then question the validity of its distinctions.
There is no denying that Ghana’s independence was significant for the continent because of the central role Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah played in the liberation struggles across the continent. Ghanians are understandably proud of their role in the decolonization process and the legacy of Nkrumah. Many of them take the position that Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence and celebrate Ghana’s independence on March 6, 1957. Few Ghanians and their allies acknowledge that the African country of Sudan gained independence almost a year earlier, on January 1, 1956. Technically speaking, South Africa gained their independence even decades before both Ghana and Sudan. In a more accurate timeline, African countries received their independence in the following order:
|1. Liberia||26 July 1847||(American)|
|2. South Africa||31 May 1910||Britain|
28 February 1922
|4. Ethiopia||5 May 1941||Italy|
24 December 1951
|6. Sudan||1 January 1956||Britain/Egypt|
|7. Morocco||2 March 1956||France|
|8. Tunisia||20 March 1956||France|
|9. Ghana||6 March 1957||Britain|
|See: Full List|
So, Who was the First Sub-Saharan African country to Gain Independence?
There are many variations to this list because the order in which sub-Saharan African countries received independence is often problematic for the varied reasons. Liberia was established as the home of freed African-American slaves, so it isn’t exactly considered a colony. The second country on the list, South Africa, was a British Colony but became independent in 1910. For South Africa, which developed the system of apartheid, having a White or minority led government often disqualifies them from such distinctions. However, this argument is problematic because Liberia also had a minority ruled government comprised of people that were not ‘indigenous’ to that particular area. Although Ethiopia is often noted for never being “colonized”, that distinction is equally problematic. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935-36 (Abyssinian Crisis) which ushered in Italian settlers who stayed for six years. During this time, Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed and exiled until 1941. However, Ethiopia is often considered an occupied and not colonized territory.
Egypt, Morrocco and Tunisia are often disqualified because they are north of the Sahara. Another significant country in this debate that is often overlooked is Sudan. It is often argued that Sudan is the true country in Sub-Saharan Africa worthy of the distinction. Albeit physically being south of the Sahara though, Sudan is often disqualified by those that have historically classified it as a North African country. Others have disqualified Sudan because of internal instability that arose after its independence. However, this argument is problematic because arguably, celebrating colonial independence as an achievement on its own, it should be considered separately from the type of government that prevailed after that independence was gained. The recent secession of South Sudan though, may make a South Sudanese claim to being the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence a more a compelling case for those that considered Sudan a North African state. South Sudan is aligning politically and economically with the East African bloc and consequently, Sub-Saharan Africa. However, since South Sudan is commemorating its recent 2011 date as its official independence day, its claim may be weakened. This is where terminology would become important because South Sudan would need to promote a narrative of having both a “colonial independence” and “secession independence” in order to claim this distinction. Therefore only after having eliminated Liberia (1847), South Africa (1910), Ethiopia (1941), and Sudan/South Sudan (1956) does Ghana’s claim become legitimized.
The North – South Divide:
Another important dynamic to this debate is that all of Africa, from the Cape to Cairo, was under threat during the colonial era. After eliminating Liberia and South Africa for aforementioned reasons, Egypt can lay claims to being the first African country to gain independence. If Egypt is eliminated, then Libya is next chronologically. However, people rarely try to give Egypt or Libya a distinction for being the first countries in Africa to gain independence altogether. There is a tendency to separate the histories of and narratives of North Africa from the rest of the continent. The narrative of the first African country to receive independence would be problematic for those that subscribe to the geo-politics of the North Africa – sub-Saharan Africa divide. In the case of Egypt, its true colonial independence is also believed to be in 1952, a year after Libya. However, due to Libya’s position in the Global World order, giving such an accolade to Libya and portraying that country as a leader in Africa would be unpopular to Libya’s critics.
For Pan –Africanists and the like, the narrative of the first African nation is important in reclaiming the identity of Africa as a united continent. Africans can be both African and Arab and it is up to the continent to claim an identity that is inclusive of the dynamic cultures within the continents borders. Whether that country is above or below the Sahara is irrelevant in a united African history where all African countries shared common roots. If we consider which countries were the first African nations to receive independence, the majority of them were in North Africa. This distinction is an important part of the entire continents history. Technically, if we eliminate the sub-Saharan countries of Liberia, South Africa, and Ethiopia that are often skipped in favor of Ghana, we are left chronologically with Egypt (1922), Libya (1951). Even if we disqualify those two for various reasons, Sudan (1956), Morocco (1956) and Tunisia (1956) are next in line. This makes Ghana the ninth nation in the line-up to receive the distinction of the first independent African nation to receive independence from colonialism.
In spite of the claims made by editors, journalists and history books, Ghana was neither the first African nation to gain Independence nor the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so. The narratives of the continent need to be both accurate and clear. The decolonization process was a continent wide movement that did not discriminate between North and South. The entire continent wanted to rid itself from the system of colonialism. Africa and the rest of the world need to remember the African decolonization process first and foremost as a continental movement. In other words, it should be more important to distinguish the first African nation to receive independence because that country’s independence had an effect on the entire continent’s independence movements.
Although Ghana’s distinction as the first Black African nation in Africa to be independent is important as well, we need to consider that some distinctions contribute to continued ethnic based divisions on the continent because they are influenced by geo-politics. There should be no North-South distinction for the purpose of political or social accolades on the continent. Africa’s decolonization was not an isolated movement and Africans need to tell this story in its totality. As Nkrumah noted on Ghana’s independence, “…Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.” Likewise, it should be said that Africa’s independence narratives are meaningless unless they are linked up with the liberation movement of the entire continent.