In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Wars of Independence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Algeria, 1954–1962

Military History African Wars of Independence
Tim Stapleton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0022


While most African states gained independence through negotiation with outgoing European colonial rulers during the late 1950s and 1960s, some experienced wars between stubborn colonial and white settler regimes, and armed African nationalist insurgents. During the 1950s Kenya and Algeria, with British and French settlers respectively, experienced uprisings that led to the metropolitan regimes abandoning settler interests and granting independence in the early 1960s. Insisting that its three African colonies were integral parts of the mother country, fascist Portugal fought African nationalist insurgencies in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, during the 1960s and early 1970s which led to a military coup in Lisbon in 1974 and a sudden withdrawal from Africa. In white settler ruled Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), South African occupied South West Africa (today’s Namibia), and apartheid South Africa, African nationalists became frustrated with increasingly deadly state repression and abandoned non-violent protest in the 1960s to embark on armed struggles to liberate their countries. Given the Cold War context of the time, the colonial and settler states portrayed themselves as champions of Western civilization and appealed to Britain and the United States for assistance and the exiled African nationalists received support from the Eastern Bloc which required that they adopt revolutionary socialist rhetoric. Newly independent African ruled countries, such as Tanzania and Zambia, were often sympathetic to the armed nationalist movements and allowed them to establish staging areas in their territories which meant that these states were often drawn into the conflicts as well. The sudden withdrawal of Portugal from Africa dramatically changed the balance of power in Southern Africa which led to the negotiated independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. The winding down of the Cold War led to South African withdrawal from Namibia, which gained independence in 1990, and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa that resulted in that country’s first democratic elections in 1994. Given the number of African countries involved and the international dimensions of most of these conflicts, the relevant literature is vast and contains numerous debates.

General Overviews

Although there are many books and articles on specific wars of independence in Africa, there are surprisingly few general overviews of the subject. Broader works on the European decolonization of Africa cover both the negotiated and violent paths to independence though they tend to focus more on the former as well as the broader international context and changing imperial policies. Birmingham 1995, Hargreaves 1996, and Falola 2002 offer general overviews. Clayton 1994 looks at wars of independence in French colonies in Africa and Asia, Clayton 1999 examines warfare in Africa after 1950, which includes independence conflicts, Turner 1998 explores insurgencies in Africa, which also includes wars of independence, and Edgerton 2002 devotes a chapter to these conflicts.

  • Birmingham, David. The Decolonization of Africa. London: University College London, 1995.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203169452

    A general overview of Africa’s decolonization including wars of independence.

  • Clayton, Anthony. The French Wars of Decolonization. London: Longman, 1994.

    A synopsis of French counter-insurgency struggles in Madagascar, Indo-China, and Algeria.

  • Clayton, Anthony. Frontiersmen: Warfare in Africa since 1950. London: Routledge, 1999.

    This book surveys the history of armed conflict in Africa during the second half of the 20th century including wars of independence.

  • Edgerton, Robert B. Africa’s Armies: From Honour to Infamy: A History from 1791 to the Present. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002.

    Within this concise military history of Africa, one of the chapters provides an overview of the continent’s wars of independence.

  • Falola, Toyin, ed. Africa Vol. 4: The End of Colonial Rule: Nationalism and Decolonization. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

    Part of a series intended to introduce university students and the public to African history, this volume contains essays that examine the end of European rule in Africa including the wars of independence.

  • Hargreaves, John D. Decolonization in Africa. London: Longman, 1996.

    A classic account of decolonization in Africa originally published in 1988 that does not focus much on warfare.

  • Turner, John W. Continent Ablaze: The Insurgency Wars in Africa 1960 to the Present. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1998.

    An overview of insurgency in late-20th-century Africa with chapters on Rhodesia and South West Africa (Namibia).

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