How the stage was set for African liberation

As Chatham House marks 20 years of its Africa Programme, Christopher Vandome recalls momentous visits from some of the continent’s independence heroes.

The World Today
3 minute READ

African leaders and statespeople who have spoken at Chatham House over the past year – such as President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, the Nigerian Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, and former president of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete – continue a long tradition of engagement with the continent. Most notably, Chatham House hosted some of the most significant names of Africa’s independence era six decades ago. 

If independence began as a trickle, starting in North Africa then rolling through Sudan in 1956, Ghana the next year and Guinea the year after, the flood came in 1960 when 17 countries gained independence – 14 of them away from French rule. 

These new nations were of clear interest to Chatham House and its funders, who were keen to understand the impact of their independence on global power relations. To this end, the Rockefeller Foundation extended its research grant to the institute to support two areas of research: ‘The international relations of newly independent states’, and the ‘Growth of China as a world power’. 

We do not believe that independence will bring a paradise on Earth

President Sékou Touré of Guinea, at Chatham House in 1959

The issuing of invitations to the new presidents was a mix of strategy and chance, capitalizing on those travelling through London. Invitations to those still engaged in liberation struggles were even more opportunistic, taking advantage of those in Britain as students, as study visas provided useful means for political leaders to travel.

For independence leaders and liberation figures, Chatham House provided an international audience in order to define foreign policy positions, engage on constitutional development and reassure vested interests that majority rule would not lead to racial violence or repercussions. 

As one leading humanist independence figure noted in a meeting under the Chatham House Rule – whereby, to encourage open dialogue in meetings, neither the identity nor the affiliation of a speaker may be revealed – ‘We have no victors, we have no vanquished.’ 

Desire for cooperation and demand for equality

The first independent African leader to address a Chatham House audience was President Sékou Touré of Guinea on November 13, 1959. He was representative of some of the first liberation-era speakers at the institute who came from francophone states, reflecting the speed and scale of French decolonization.

‘We do not believe that independence will bring a paradise on Earth,’ he said. ‘We are conscious of our need to unite, and independence is, for us, a means to that end. We are realists. We want to increase our understanding of, and our cooperation with, other peoples.’ 

Sékou Touré’s desire for cooperation and demand for equality were common aspirations of the new African nations. 

President Modibo Keita of Mali stressed his support for ‘all peoples struggling to be free from a foreign yoke’ and outlined his position of ‘positive neutralism’ – signalling that Mali would be assertive in cooperating with countries across the Cold War divide on a pragmatic basis. Keita’s speech was well received by the institute’s members, especially his use of a new map showing newly independent Mali produced by the British government for the occasion.  

Counter to Keita’s revolutionary stance, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Côte d’Ivoire spoke of ‘friendship and cooperation with the former tutor power’. That prompted the pan-Africanist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon to describe Houphouët-Boigny as ‘the travelling salesman of French colonialism’.

Chatham House also hosted several liberation leaders who advocated for independence. Hastings Banda, who would become the first president of Malawi, spoke twice at the institute in the 1950s on the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. 

Give us the chance to establish a democracy, in spite of the fact that we have these racial difficulties

Julius Nyerere, future first leader of Tanzania, at Chatham House

Tanzania’s future first leader, Julius Nyerere, used the platform to dispel fears of what black rule would mean for a settler population in what was then Tanganyika: ‘That is what we are asking the Colonial Office to do,’ he said. ‘To give us the chance to show that it is quite possible in our country to establish a democracy, in spite of the fact that we have these racial difficulties.’

The institute also hosted figures coming to London with the more specific aim of defining the future of their own countries. Most notably, in February 1962, Kenyan independence activist Tom Mboya attracted a crowd of more than 630 people to Chatham House’s small lecture theatre to speak on the side of the Kenya Constitutional Conference that was taking place in London.  

The meetings staff noted that Mboya, who had previously spoken at Chatham House, ‘was rather more conciliatory than on some previous occasions. Dealt brilliantly with the questions, some put on behalf of the settlers.’  

A further 18 African countries would go on to gain their independence during the 1960s, and Chatham House hosted only a fraction of the total number of new leaders. Perhaps the most significant absentee was Ghana’s pan-Africanist father of the nation, Kwame Nkrumah, who did visit London during that period but did not speak at the institute. 

Targeting Rhodesia and South Africa after the Sixties

The attention of Chatham House, like the British government, became increasingly directed towards southern Africa, including on Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, where the racial politics of settler populations and higher global economic integration complicated decolonization. By the end of the 1960s a study group had been formed to deal specifically with these issues, influencing government thinking through the 1970s and 1980s. 

Liberation leaders continued to use the institute as a platform for engaging a powerful audience, including Eduardo Mondlane, the first leader of the freedom movement Fremilo in Mozambique, who visited in 1968; and Oliver Tambo, then leader of South Africa’s African National Congress, who spoke at the institute in 1985.  Mondlane’s and Tambo’s speeches were the subject of a Chatham House event in 2020 to celebrate the centenary of the institute and to mark Unesco’s honouring of Mondlane on the 100-year anniversary of his birth.

The historical significance of their speeches was reflected upon by senior family members, highlighting how their anti-racist message and assertion of African agency transcended generations and resonated with a new generation, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Additional research by Joseph Hills. A book on the history of Africa at Chatham House will be published in 2023