Why did some African leaders in French West Africa consider federalist models as an alternative to the nation-state?

By Anne Kimunguyi

Léopold Sédar Senghor takes the oath to become the first president of The Republic of Senegal. Photo taken from AFP via Getty Images

When studying the history of decolonization across much of Africa in the twentieth century, and indeed, throughout the globe, the prevalence of histories of emerging nationalisms as a means of striving towards self-determination is all too apparent. However, despite the victories of the nation-state over all other political models in this period, this was not always considered the default post-colonial state formation. Political figures in the French empire such as Leopold Senghor treated federalism as a superior alternative to the territorially, economically and culturally independent nation-state. Their federalist utopia was characterised by the unification of former colonies and the metropole as juridically equal, associated, self-governing members of a decentralised system of association with the French polity.

Fashioned to supersede the economically independent nation state, such a federation would oppose the common culture instrumental to upholding the nation. Noting that opposition to territorial independence was conceived as synonymous with anti-colonialism, this essay will firstly explore the pre-existing federalist system specific to colonial rule and the perception that if reformed, would in turn provide the highest degree of economic, and by extension, political security for the African peoples. Thirdly, a study of the way in which the envisioned ‘EuroAfrique’ was lauded by some for its ability to accommodate to the cultural plurality created by imperialism is required. By focusing primarily on the most well-known advocator of federalism – Senghor, this essay will argue that the federalist structure through which French West Africa was ruled provided the necessary conditions for a radical reimagining of empire through egalitarian lens, according to these African political thinkers and leaders.

Federalist and distributive French imperial rule in West Africa was identified by figures such as Senghor as providing useful conditions through which the democratization of a Franco-African polity could take place. From the late nineteenth Century onwards, the eight territories of French West Africa were unified in a federation – Afrique Occidentale Francaise. This structure saw most territories reporting to Dakar, the capital, whose administrator in turn reported to Paris.  At the centre of this federation were the Four Communes (made up of the Senegalese cities of Saint-Louis, Goree, Rufisque, Dakar). Assimilationist policies characterised the treatment of these Communes in relation to the rest of French Africa. Despite their general instrumentalization for oppressive and dehumanizing methods of African subjugation, limited opportunities for political and social mobility ensuring greater engagement between Senegal and the metropole existed. The Four Communes were thus granted theoretical citizenship in 1916 – significant not only because it preceded its African counterparts, but also because it highlighted the potential for greater African inclusion in the French imperial system.       

Similarly, the pre-1945 African representation in parliament, beginning with Diagne’s election to the National Assembly, gave additional reason for such thinkers to capitalise on the potential for further advancement of African rights and status within the existing framework. Despite the continued status of Africans as second-class citizens, for Senghor, this was evidence that the distributive mechanism for cross-cultural unity and equal co-existence was already there. Instead of a complete reinvention in the form of nationhood, a reformulation of this mechanism was required. 

Conversely, this idea is also identified as a focal point for Senghor’s criticism – Drawing on Fanon’s work, Cooper flags up Senegal’s historical pre-requisites, and the advantages of travel, education and enfranchisement that its ‘evolue’ elite such as Senghor enjoyed.. Political privilege, therefore, can be used as an optic to nuance Senghor’s support of a continued Franco-African federation, not only to provide an objective understanding of the potential for African advancement. As Wilder notes, ‘imperialism created the opportunity for intense cultural interaction between the metropole and Africans’. What must be added, however, is that this interaction, manifesting into distributive political representation crucial to Senghor’s federalist vision, was accessible for the few, not the many . Similarly, The Jeunes Senegelais, despite their more fervent support of assimilationism, fought for the inclusion of originaires in the French political system.  The recognition that ‘the most assimilated of Africans…sincerely wished to see an extension of French institutions and practises’ to their more disadvantaged counterparts, through federalism, facilitates an understanding of the value placed on efforts to retain and reform these institutions, not discard them completely.

Elitist or otherwise, this priority suggests that Senghor and his fellow supporters problematised the existing political structure not necessarily by virtue of its existence (which would necessitate its total dismantling), but by the oppressive and unequal way it was upheld. Transforming this framework into a liberal, democratic and inclusive one was not only deemed as a possible and preferred solution to the colonial problem by Senghor. Nevertheless, the reduction of Senghor and his fellow Federalist adherents to mere products of assimilation to explain their opposition to a full Franco-African divorce is too limiting of an interpretation. Moves towards a more egalitarian political dominion within the imperial federation in the period following the Second World War give reason for Senghor’s optimism regarding colonial reform. The 1944 Brazzaville conference, despite its disappointing implementation signified the beginning of the elaboration of the French Union, which saw forced labour abolished, as well as an official abandonment of the distinction between subject and citizen. The 1946-53 labour strikes, succeeded in granting greater equality and rights for workers in Senegal, through a universalistic code guaranteeing better working conditions passed in 1953. From 1945, increased calls for France to acknowledge the moral and practical debt it owed to the sacrifices of African soldiers involved in the war against fascism meant that at the very least, considerations of progressive measures had to made by the metropole. Despite De Gaulle’s vehement support for the upholding of colonial rule, such democratising measures explain Senghor’s belief in the possibility and capability of a redefinition of the colonial union. Overall, support for the pre-existing federalist framework, on the condition that it was transformed from a means of oppression to a mechanism ensuring equality, combined with a post-war climate of political change within this structure gave reason for Senghor to call for its reform.

Secondly, according to Senghor, the federalist unification of former colonies with the metropole was the only political framework capable of producing the best economic condition for Africans through its guarantee of political strength and ensuring accountability. This argument is three-fold: Firstly, they believed that a federalist state would economically strengthen the territories. A reformed Franco-African union would facilitate an access to the socio-economic resources of partner countries, and crucially, to those of the metropole, due to a culture of ‘economic solidarity’ between independent nations. Senghor believed thatfinancial capital, combined with metropolitan aid and investment into mass education and cultural preservation was the only way to fully advance African territories for all its citizensUnlike the ‘bourgeois phenomenon’ of the nation state, which would ‘not help Africans respond adequately to economic problems such as…unemployment…and raising the standard of living’’, a federalisation of economic resources would provide means of resisting the typical problems of newly independent states.  

Secondly, this socio-economic strength would in turn guarantee political strength, permitting colonial emancipation.  The envisioned economic interstate system would protect these territories from general imperial encroachment. Senghor, referencing the cold-war climate of these discussions, says, ‘For us, too weak to live in autarchy, we will turn towards one of the two superpowers, alienating precisely the liberty that we had wanted to conquer Indeed, despite writing retrospectively, Wilder supports Senghor’s argument’ by pointing to a historical post-independence exploitation of the economic fragility of newly independent nations by former colonial powers, as a means of retaining imperial influence. A federalist structure, in which local political autonomy would be retained, cultural multiplicity would be embraced, yet economic interdependence and political association would be introduced, was viewed as the only mechanism to achieve this.       

This framework was deemed to ensure accountability – the third crucial benefit required for successful state-building. Decolonization which gave way to territorial independence, Cooper notes, allowed empires to absolve themselves of any accountability.  Relieved of any responsibility to address the plunder to which their colonies were subjected, the late twentiethand early twenty-first century saw a comparative decline in the economic and political progress of newly autonomous nations. Whilst Moyn flags up the retrospective nature of such an analysis, its usefulness in explaining Senghor’s reasoning remains valid when contextualising such discussions in their cold war climate. Through aforementioned fears of superpower coercion, Senghor emphasises the necessity of financial communal strength to prevent rendering imperial emancipation efforts counterproductive. Consequently, an inherent legal claim to metropolitan capital by virtue of the historic resource and labour contributions of Africans would ensure its proportionate and just distribution.True decolonization, Cesaire and Senghor argued, entailed an acknowledgement of the intertwined nature of the colonies with the power of the metropole  and the guarantee of a federal system which would hold it accountable for its past and potential future exploitation. 

Finally, the argument for the adoption of a reformed federalist structure at the expense of unitary states in French West Africa revolved around an inherent claim to the cultural and political heritage of France. Through his redefinition of French identity, rejecting France as an ethnic category, Senghor’s vision characterised all colonial peoples from Africa and the Caribbean as heirs to not only France’s resources, but also to its identity. This principle of ideological heritage was traced to the origin of the revolutionary principles of 1789. Senghor and his fellow federalist idealists argued that this revolutionary spirit could only be invigorated by both France and its true citizens through engaging with France’s ‘imperial history’ . Acknowledging the ‘cultural multiplicity and transcontinental solidarity’ of the fabric of the French Empire, was to be done along unifying, federalist lines. This recognition necessitated the abandonment of the unitary state, they asserted, based on its inability to encompass the pluralistic dimension that constituted this reinvented French identity.  Senghor asserted that ‘Africa’ and ‘France’ were reciprocal and inextricably linked entities.  As such, the process of decolonization needed to be applied to France just as much as Africa and the Caribbean. The entire framework of empire would have to be restructured – transformed into a multi-layered polity which embraced territorial, pan-African and Franco-African’ relational existence. Cesaire’s rejection of ‘Senegality’ for a broader African identity further underlines his desire for a unified culture within this political framework. A nationalistic focus on decolonizing individual territories would not achieve this, in a way that federalism claimed it could.

Furthermore, such cultural multiplicity facilitated by federalisation would not only do justice to the multi-national condition which imperialism had created, but also ensure the maximisation of a cultural and biological ‘metissage’. This is important because it was believed that intense cultural interaction was necessary for achieving the best possible historical civilisation. ‘It is a good thing to place different civilisations in contact with each other’, Cesaire notes. He locates France at the heart of a cultural crossroads as ‘the meeting place of all sentiments’ and as such, suggests that a union with it is needed for such progress. This rejection of homogeneity constituted the cultural basis for opposition to nation-states. Perhaps drawing on his own participation in the Negritude movement, a cultural and ideological attempt to reposition black people within the French intellectual scheme, Senghor’s advocation for federalism was premised on the inherent right of Africansto ‘France’ by virtue of there being no mutually exclusive nature to these two categories. His ‘EuroAfrique’ was as much ideological as it was pragmatic. As such, claims to a cultural heritage to provide reason for a decentralised, federalist unification of France and its colonies were made, on the basis that the continued, yet reformed existence of this polity was the only mechanism for their access. 

To conclude, African political thinkers such as Senghor and Cesaire constituted a select few leaders whose support for the advancement of a Franco-African (and Caribbean) federation was premised on the existence of a framework encapsulating these transcontinental linkages. The best economic and political condition required to resist colonialism, they asserted, could only be achieved through a political structure which acknowledged cross-cultural interaction facilitated by imperialism and in turn, held the imperial centre accountable for its previous exploitation. Such interaction was deemed integral to post-colonial political frameworks by Senghor because of its dualist nature. On the one hand, French institutions and practises would be retained, desired in part because of successful assimilation and also because of their egalitarian potential. On the other hand, opposition to colonialism and its ‘decadent’ and ‘deceit[ful]’ condition prompted the reinvigoration of African self-determination within the political sphere. Senghor believed that these two ideals, despite their initial opposition, could be reconciled through a federation based on socio-economic solidarity, political association, and cultural independence and co-existence. Contextualising these debates on decolonization and emancipation post-WWII amongst West African thinkers allows for a greater understanding of Senghor’s optimism at the possibility of reforming the French Empire. The climate of change which followed increasing moral and political pressure for restructuringgave grounds for the advocation of post-imperial unity, despite its ultimate failure to surpass greater demands for total independence and disaffiliation from the oppressive rule of the metropole.

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