This blog accompanies Ismay Milford’s Historical Journal article Federation, Partnership, and the Chronologies of Space in 1950S East and Central Africa

In 1952, Kenyan activists formed an Anti-Federation League to oppose plans for a white-ruled Central African Federation on East Africa’s doorstep. They fought, in their own words, to ‘save Africa from the creeping paralysis’ of South African apartheid, on the basis that ‘once Federation has been imposed on Central Africa it will only be a matter of time before it spreads North to include East African territories’. Despite the transnational anti-colonial campaign of which they were a part, a year later, in 1953, the Central African Federation was imposed. By 1955, according to Dunduzu Chisiza, a Malawian activist resident in the Federation, Central Africa ‘was heading for unmasked apartheid’ with the southern chunk of the Federation already harbouring ‘adolescent’ apartheid. East Africa, he reported, was ‘much better’.

What did these sorts of declarations, about how oppressive regimes could come of age, could ‘spread’ and ‘creep’ across territorial borders, mean for how an emerging political elite constructed the region in which they lived and worked? What implications did their specific mapping of historical chronologies onto geographical space have for the versions of decolonization which they pursued?

My recent article takes a closer look at the way that East and Central African activists, during the decade before countries in the region won independence from British colonial rule, wrote about this space and its interdependence, drawing on overlooked scraps of archival material, like those above, where the region was described in temporal terms.

Despite growing interest in federalism and regionalism in twentieth-century Africa, ‘East Africa’ (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania) and ‘Central Africa’ (present-day Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe) continue to be studied in isolation. Meanwhile, as historians earmark regional projects as utopian or realist, liberatory or oppressive, they are accused of neglecting to explain why the global-historical process of decolonization saw the nation-state prevail.

Addressing this, my article traces four ‘sketches’ of East and Central African interdependence, charting how the Federation constrained possibilities for wider regional anti-colonial coordination. The Nairobi Anti-Federation League shows that in 1952 the Federation was considered an East African problem too. But Central African students at the ‘East African’ Makerere College discovered that this display of solidarity could not survive the imposition of the Federation in 1953. Malawian activists continued to discursively pull (parts of) Central Africa into an East African historical trajectory, most visibly through the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa in 1958. And East African publicity representatives sought to reconnect these trajectories when a Central African Emergency gained international recognition in 1959.

This is not a story of a grand solidarity project or a federal blueprint, but of precarious and interwoven campaigns for democratic government that seemed constantly threatened by the realness of regional connectivity. These activists wrote, and lived by, a version of the region where bordering countries with more oppressive regimes loomed as possible futures; where different parts of the region were plotted onto a timeline, stretching from apartheid to ‘partnership’ to democracy, on which history could move in either direction. If we want to understand why decolonization took the form it did, these thinkers have some telling answers.

Read the full article here.


Image credit: Ruth Schechter Morgenthau, through Cooperative Africana Materials Project

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