?’ a comparative Analysis of the African Experience of the Great Depression and the Second World War

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WHEN EUROPE SNEEZES...?’ A Comparative Analysis of the African Experience of the Great Depression and the Second World War
Ushehwedu Kufakurinani and Honest Koke


This paper attempts a quite overambitious exercise of discussing two great international developments in relationship to the African colonial economies and societies. It examines the impact of the Great Depression and the Second World War on Africa making comparative analyses. These developments are interpreted in this paper as crises in the centre (the metropole). Crisis in the metropole in the metropole tended to have a spiral effect on the colonies hence the adage that ‘When Europe Sneezes, Africa catches a cold.” The study, among other things, however, puts this adage to test. The Great Depression, for example, which emanated from the financial centre of Wall Street in America and spread to Europe, had drastic effects on the colonies. In simple terms, an economic depression is characterised by falling prices of commodities partly as a result of very low demand. The spiral effect is huge unemployment rates, closure of industries and a liquidity crunch. As W. Ochsen and S. N. Fisher put it, the economic depression of the 1930s was a World-wide catastrophe which affected the international economy as a whole.1 It affected both the Developed and the colonial economies and societies.

The effect of the Depression on the colonised developing world was largely because this world had been embroiled in the capitalist world through the colonial relations with the West. The African colonies had been developed as supplies of largely primary products for the capitalist world. The decline in demand for products in both the metropole and the colonies was bound to cause serious ramifications on the colonial economies that had been modelled to depend on the West for its markets. The Second World War, on the other hand, represented a crisis which had mixed impacts on the African continent. In some instances it reversed the negative effects of the Depression while in others it created a new set of challenges. This experience calls us to revisit and be cautious in our employment on the adage that “when Europe sneezes Africa catches a cold.”
The colonies had been modelled as primary producers of commodities such as cocoa, groundnuts and rubber, among others. There was also a heavy reliance on the West for investment. The result was that Africa was entangled in a web of capitalist relations in which she was left vulnerable to the vagaries of the world markets. This argument is not a new one. Scholars like Walter Rodney, Emmanuel Wallenstein, Andre Gunder Frank have come up with this model in their analysis of relations between the west and the third world countries arguing that the latter are in an exploitative core-periphery relationship with the former. According to these scholars (Dependence Theorists/World systems theorists), Africa was modeled by imperial powers into a second economy in the World depending on primary products as their staple exports. They argue that as a result of (neo)colonial domination, many African countries suffered dependence on export markets and foreign capital which hindered/altered the pattern of autonomous and self-development of the colonial economies.2 In this sense, the Dependence Theorists/World Systems Theorists agree that such a relationship was one sided and it left African economies vulnerable to the West. Referring African link with the metropole and how it is shaped by the Depression, Walter Rodney concludes:
The most significant event in the evolution of the African economies in the inter-war period was the Great Depression of the 1929 to 1933. When this hit the interdependent capitalist economies, it necessarily struck at the dependent African colonial economies... boldly illumining their extent and power in the process... it entered via the most advanced sectors of capitalism in Africa- the mines, plantations and cash-crops areas. It also spread through all secondary and tertiary channels, causing hardships to Africans... 3
Indeed, the Depression altered the international markets, among other things, thereby exposing African economies. The flipside argument of the dependence theorists thus is that the solution to African development lies in its delinking with the West. Here lies the internal contradiction of the theory. Evidence on the ground indicates that delinking, as dictated by the Depression, in fact caused more harm than good. The million dollar question then becomes: is it just about delinking? This question, the story of the impact the Depression and the Second World War are not novel and, indeed, have been told several times. However, many scholars seem to miss two important elements. The first one is the comparative aspect of how these developments affected different countries. Secondly, external developments such as the Depression and the World Wars have, to some degree, been overemphasised to the extent that some independent economic developments in Africa have been glossed over or overshadowed. In attempting to fill these gaps, this study makes use of a largely revisionist approach in its analysis of the impact of the Great depression and the Second World War on colonial Africa.

The Agricultural Sector and the Depression

Agriculture was perhaps the most affected sector of the colonial economies during the Great Depression. The continent experienced different economic problems with varying magnitudes. In West Africa, the Great Depression projected the same problem like elsewhere in Africa. Since the West African countries were transformed into producing primary products during the era of Legitimate Trade which included palm oil, ground nuts, cocoa, kola nuts and so forth, the demand of these products dropped during this period, for example, in British West Africa, palm products accounted for about 50% of the total exports at the beginning of the colonial period but dropped to about 33% by 1930.’4 Generally, the Depression presented a tough time to the colonial economies and that forced the colonial governments to implement measures which were meant to canvas the effects of the Depression.

Both in Rhodesia and Kenya, the Settler governments devised ‘Extra Market Operations’ as a way to deal with the 1929 crisis.5 Periods of loss in agricultural export in Southern Rhodesia and Kenya resulted in the respective Governments trying to protect the ‘White Agricultural Bourgeoisie’ in Rhodesia. These European commercial farmers were protected through an array of Acts which were meant to shield the Europeans from internal competition from Africans as well as from external competition on the local markets. The Acts which were introduced in a drastic but successive manner from 1930 to 1931 included the Maize Control Act, Reserve Pool Act, Cattle Levy Act, Market Stabilisation Act, the Farmers Debt Adjustment Act and all the Marketing Boards. 6 These Acts were meant to protect the Europeans in Southern Rhodesia from African competition which was becoming stiffer by the day partly as a result of the depression.
West Africa offers quite an interesting contrast from Southern Rhodesia and Kenya becase unlike these two cases, the region was not developed as settler colonies. In both the British West Africa and French West Africa the Africans were thus comparatively critical pieces in completing the puzzle of the colonial economy. In Ghana, the farmers, traders and merchants reacted to various economic challenges differently and in different periods. Hopkins illustrates that the cocoa hold ups in Nigeria and the Gold Coast were a result of falling prices which occurred first in 1921, when the cocoa prices of the post First World War boom abruptly came to an end and during the onset of the World Economic slump of the 1930s, from 1930 to 1931.7 The post First World War hold up gives a classic example of how colonial Africa economies’ dependency on European markets exposed them to the vagaries of the inequalities of the International Market. Soon after the war, the demand of cocoa by the metropolitan countries to meet the war demands diminished. As a result, more cocoa from West Africa was no longer needed; hence there was decrease in the importation of cocoa by the European nations.
While the hold-ups from 1930 to 1931 in West Africa can be linked to the Great Depression, the tactic of withholding cocoa from the market as protest must be understood and a strategy that was not always linked to the Depression. One hold-up, for instance, occurred before 1930 and another in 1937/38 which was an independent development from what happened in Europe. The 1937-1938 cocoa hold-ups were as a result of the disagreements between African farmers and the European buying firms over the downturn of the terms of trade and market-sharing.8 Thus, at particularly difficult moments in West Africa, African farmers demonstrated their anger towards the state of the economy by withholding their produce in the hope that withholding would force the buyers to offer higher prices for their goods.9 This became a deep-rooted tradition by West Africans farmers to express their feelings during the periods of strained trade balance during the twentieth century. These were rural strikes organised and led by substantial and specialised men to persuade small farmers who had less to lose to present a united front against monopolistic European buying firms. Unfortunately, the 1937/38 coca hold ups failed to materialise the intended results but had an impact of worsening the Afro-European relations.
While the peasants and other Africans who were involved in money exchanges retreated from the use of money in West Africa, in East Africa, particularly Tanganyika the peasants who had much lower levels of involvement in the money exchanges simply abandoned the production of cash-crops after 1930.10 To scholars like Hopkins and Austin the reactions of the peasants were strategies to negotiate bad prices and were not specifically a product of the Depression though their occurrence may have been more prominent around this period. Hopkins notes:
At particularly critical times farmers demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the state of the economy in more militant ways, principally by withholding supplies in the hope of forcing buyer to offer increased prices. This was a well-established technique, and one which had given the expression of African resentment, frustration and despair during periods of unsatisfactory trade in the nineteenth century. A number of protests of this kind took place in the years between the two World Wars.11
These commercial sabotages to bargain for more income came from every sector of the society and it long existed before the advent of the Great Depression. In Nigeria, when the farmers withheld their farm produce, it affected traders and merchants too. The governments of the Gold Coast and Nigeria implemented which weighed heavily on them, particularly the increased taxes; which made operating costs much more difficult.12 However, their protests were spontaneous, short lived and lacked organisation, except of the women’s riots in eastern Nigeria of 1929 which had prominent and serious commercial interests. None of the demonstrations organised by the traders had an impact like that organised by the farmers.
North African countries also faced difficulties in the agricultural production during the Depression. French colonies, unlike those of Britain were administered as an extension of the French empire. This meant that they were comparatively much more tied to the metropole than the British colonies. The market for agricultural produce in the French colonies was the mother country, France itself. Morocco, for example, relied heavily on the French market for its wheat. Over the years, the production in Morocco had grown in yields as well as the area under cultivation, for instance, the surfaces which were sown from 1912 to 1924 grew to 14 000 hectors. The increase was as a result of the 1923 French Law which provided that a portion of the Moroccan wheat could be admitted in France without duty.13 The Law gave Moroccan farmers an opportunity to export their wheat to France and gain more profit. The exports grew from 493 000 quintals to 1 400 000 quintals during the 1925 season alone but still the French market did not have surplus of wheat.14 This euphoria and honeymoon of the Moroccan wheat production came to an end in 1929, a year in which the World experienced a general overproduction and in which production of wheat in France alone was estimated at 5 000 000 quintals.15 French farmers began to complain over the Moroccan wheat imported in their country. This became a source of friction between the farmers and the government over the 1923 Law which provided the Moroccan farmers with a privilege to export their wheat to France.
In his study of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, A. Kassab concludes that the agricultural sector was one of the most affected during the Depression. He writes:
One of the most affected sectors of the economy during the economic crisis of 1929 was the settler agriculture which was highly dependent on credit and foreign markets. Once the prices collapsed and foreign outlets were shut or became scarce, the mechanised but debt-ridden farmers could no longer honour their commitments to the various credit bodies to which they were indebted.16
Kassab’s argument confirms the nature of the impact the Great Depression had on ‘Settler Economies’ in Africa. The agricultural sector was the basis of nearly all Africa economies during the colonial era so any trade shifts in Europe affected the African economies. The debt-ridden Moroccan farmers experienced a tough time during the crisis. However, despite the protests by French farmers, exclusion of the Moroccan wheat on the French market was difficult. The Chambers of Agriculture in Morocco was controlled by people who had political clout both in Morocco and France. The Foreign wheat was banned by the decree of 1929, only 1 700 000 quintals from Morocco were to be allowed to enter French markets under the Franco-Spanish Treaty of 1912 and the World Economic Conference of 1927,17 developments which took place before the world economic crisis occurred.
In British North Africa, the Depression too had landmark impact. Egypt, for example, the power house of the region experienced serious economic challenges during the period of the great slump. Roger Owen and Sevket Pamuk observe that ‘The Great Depression had an immediate knock-off in terms of falling land prices, higher real tax rates and indebtedness as more mortgage borrowings continued to accumulate.’18 As the Great Depression hit Egypt, farmers turned to borrowing either from the established firms like banks and merchant firms for the commercial land owners or from money lenders for small and medium farmers, who were also big business man or owners of large blocks of land.19 The medium farmers lost their land due to debts. The social effects of losing their land were so devastating resulting in more pressure on resources in the cities. In Egypt shanty urban areas intensified in Cairo and Alexandria just like in Morocco in Ben Msik and Casablanca. Agricultural trade volume gives evidence of the effects of the 1929 economic slump on colonial African economies. Just like the falling prices of wheat which affected the Moroccan wheat, cotton industry of Egypt was devastated. A. Kassab is of the view that during the economic crisis of 1929, ‘agriculture was the most affected sector because it highly depended on credit and foreign markets,’20 and it gave a false form of production which was based on credits which resulted in misleading trade turnover. When the foreign outlets and the international markets were shut off or became scarce, the prices of cotton and wheat fell by more than 50% for both Morocco and Egypt.

The Depression and the Manufacturing Sector

Having discussed the effects of the Depression on the agricultural sector, it is imperative to analyse how the affected agricultural sector influenced the nature of development in other sectors like mining and manufacturing which too were cornerstone of the colonial economies. Apart from the agricultural sector which dealt with plant production, there was beef production too. During the First World War, this industry grew rapidly in Southern Rhodesia and Kenya as a result of the War demands. The manufacturing sector during the depression period was, admittedly still in its very nascent stages in much of Africa. It was the Second World War, for example that did more to spur industrialisation in the colonies. Contrasting Southern Rhodesia and Kenya, the First World War forced a type of industrialisation which was meant to produce once imported goods to be produced at home and this included beef products, to promote the War demands for the mother country. Similar to maize industry, beef production in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia had a competitive instinct between Africans and Europeans. In Southern Rhodesia, between 1917 and 1924 the beef production industry was put under the Imperial Cold Storage Company which established a footing for Europeans to export their beef products and gave them more land at lower prices along the ranching belts.21 The Livestock Control Act in Kenya operated along the same lines which the Cold Storage Company of Southern Rhodesia operated. In both countries, the monopolistic Leibig Extract of Meat Company was given the privilege of all trade dealings in the colonies. This company for a long time prevented Africans from participating in urban and overseas markets through setting up restrictive measures which Africans could not keep up to. For example, there was the quarantine policy which demanded African cattle to pass the test of the Veterinary Department for rinderpest and anthrax diseases. During the Great Depression, these policies were stricter towards Africans, though they actually originated from the pre-Depression period.

Contrary to the economic situations of the time, however, South African agricultural and industrial output grew by about 110% between the years of the intense Depression, 1929-1934. South Africa found itself in a somewhat extraordinary position experiencing economic growth at a time when most other African countries were suffering from economic meltdown occasioned by the Great Depression owing to the early industrialisation of the country which made it manufacture finished products and diversified its economy. The country’s industrial sector enjoyed monopoly of the Southern Africa market.

Depression and the Mining Sector

The mining sector was another colonial economic branch which was important during the colonial period. The Great Depression affected it as it did to the agricultural sector. Like the agricultural sector, the mining sector was totally dependent on the foreign markets because the mineral raw materials which were produced were hardly processed or used at all in the colonies but were ferried to the mother countries for processing.22 In North Africa, Egypt and Morocco mining industries experienced economic hardships which the agricultural sector had equally faced. In Morocco, due to the falling prices of minerals the world market was no longer a favourable market for the Moroccan phosphate. The market became unsteady in 1927 and the effects of the downward trend in mineral exports became vivid in 1931. The Moroccan phosphate fell from 1 779 000 tonnes in 1930 to 900 731 in 1931.23 However, even though Egypt was involved in the mining industry, Tunisia and Morocco dominated the sector in North Africa and their experience during the Great Depression proved to be a period of torment for the sector. West African nations were also among the African nations that exported minerals to Europe. The Gold Coast was a giant in the exporting gold while Nigeria dominated tin mining. The downturn in mining sector, like in the agricultural sector, had adverse effects on employment and the transport system.

Transport and Depression

In the transport sector, reduced levels of trade meant that the transporting companies had few goods to transport. Some scholars like A. D. Roberts believes that some countries like Egypt had a total different experience in terms of transport development during the Great Depression, others like Paul Mosley and Charles Stewart argue that the Depression affected the transport industry massively. According to Roberts, despite all the economic meltdown Egypt was experiencing, the transport system somewhat improved.24 Moreover, the Egyptian airline started operating in 1933, a year by which the Great Depression was at its peak.25 Morocco, however, registered negative developments in the transport sector. The Moroccan railroads and highway networks had developed simultaneously before the Depression, during the period of rapid economic activity which was characterised by high outputs in the agricultural and mining sector that characterised the twenties.26The calamitous drop in the primary products not only meant the serious reductions on revenues of the producers but also a severe cut on the receipts of the transporters and both groups laid the burden of their problems on the hand of the Administrators to find a solution. As producers in Egypt neglected the highway transport, in Morocco the motor transport presented a stiff competition for the railway department which was already struggling to upkeep operations. Between 1930 and 1933, 36% decline was recorded in the railway department of Morocco. To protect the railway company, the Protectorate’s Administrative authorities vowed to implement every possible measure to stamp out highway competition.
In early 1933 Laws demanding every vehicle to be registered and licensed were enacted and all licenses were granted after a safety check of the vehicle. Safety check and insurance became mandatory to every vehicle. The government’s concern to protect the railway department became clear that it wanted to stamp out the road transport and extended beyond safety considerations, for example, no new public carriers were to be allowed and the existing ones were required to obtain a route franchise/permit and to minimum schedules for both passengers and merchandise were established for each and every road transport carrier.27 The effects of the Great Depression in the Moroccan transport sector were so adverse that they created a rift between the rail and highway transport systems. The efforts by the Protectorate’s Administrative authorities to rationalise the transport system were so extreme so much so that they ended up disadvantaging the private sector in the transport companies. To deal with truck transport, which was the particular thorn on the side of the railway operators, the General Office of Moroccan Transport was set up.28 This Office was controlled by the railroad operators. They then took a step to get rid of truck operators by buying up all trucks and retire them permanently from service or they influenced the vehicle vetting department to declare the trucks unfit or unworthy to be on the road. The largest private bus company in Morocco, the Compagnie des Transpots Marocains (C.T.M), which for some years had been subsidised by the government in various ways like price reductions in gasoline and equipment, was bought to achieve one major objective; to eliminate competition from the Valenciana, a Spanish bus company. Central locations and choice of routes was then given to the C.T.M, for instance, the route from Casablanca and Marrakech was reserved for it.
The Great Depression imposed a tough time for African import and exports merchants in West Like it had done in the 1921 post First World War economic slump. Like in Morocco, the transport system suffered the blows of the Depression to a large extent. Some Africans dropped out of direct import and export business. Nevertheless, a group of African Merchants in Nigeria and the Gold Coast did initiate an important move to counter the effects of the Depression like what had happen in the mid-twenties. In French West Africa, the common assumption by educated Africans to implement partnerships and assimilation in order to get more opportunities on the coastal entrepots did not prove a reality as they previously enjoyed. Very few Africans in the French West Africa became ‘Frenchmen’ and very instrumental in the transport sector. In the 1930s, the British West African merchants tried to establish limited liability companies and modern banking institutions of their own in a bid to help themselves in the transport sector competition by the massive expatriate combines. The best example of the commercial and transport ambitions of the time was the spectacular ventures which were made by the Gold Coast businessman Tete-Ansa who came to be known as the ‘Napoleon of West African commerce’29
In Southern Africa, Northern and Southern Rhodesian transport systems suffered a serious blow during the period of the great economic slump. Not only did the reduction in demand of the Southern Rhodesia maize and tobacco lead to the difficulties for the colonial government to accrue foreign capital, but it also led to the operational slowdown of the Rhodesia Railways. The Rhodesia railways, as a result of the systematic Acts and Marketing Boards could no longer operate at the rate of market forces for the tariffs which were charged to ferry minerals to the Union of South Africa. In Northern Rhodesia, the demand for copper was no the longer above the pre-Depression period and that forced reduction in production at the Katanga fields. This was similar to East Africa, during the Depression; the Kenya-Uganda Railway registered a decrease in the goods which were exported by farmers. During the First World War, the Kenya-Uganda Railway experienced an increase in the opportunities of the merchants as it made ferrying of goods to the coastal areas cheaper as compared to the road transport30 Producers began to favour the railway line to transport their goods. With the coming of the Depression, the demand for the Kenyan-Uganda Arabica coffee and cotton dwindled making the operational costs much higher than the profit.

The Depression and Socio-economic Crises

The Depression caused and deepened social crises that ranged from unemployment to overcrowding. A number of scholars view the Great Depression as the period when the labourers suffered most in their lives. Retrenchment was at its peak and wage cuts were the order of the day. Unemployment increased as wage earners were thrown out of work. Real incomes fell and the living conditions of workers, particularly of urban workers, fell during the period of the Depression. This unemployment and low living standards contributed to the political uprisings and social decay in many African colonial nations during the period under study. A. E Afigbo is of the view that labourers during the period from 1930 to around 1934-26 experienced a hard time ever in African colonial nations.31 He argues that colonial Maghreb had two phenomenal experiences which were similar to that of Southern Africa namely land alienation and labour migration. The labourers during the Depression devised ways by which they forced their respective governments to consider their living conditions. African people in rural areas were stripped off their rights to land ownership and were left landless. This left them without any means of survival other than working for white people in farms, plantations and mines. In Morocco and Egypt, just like in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, the landless debt-ridden farmers migrated to urban centres. This exerted pressure on resources and competition for employment intensified.
Housing was one of the major problems which Africans faced during the period of the Great economic slump. The debt-ridden farmers, without land, pursued by tax collectors or money lenders, the fellahin both in Egypt and Morocco flocked to towns. In Egypt they flocked to Cairo and Alexandria whilst in Morocco they travelled to Casablanca. In Southern Rhodesia, however, the cities were a Whiteman’s place so Africans could not freely travel to cities as their counterparts did in North African countries. Once in the cities, the fellahin faced a lot of problems ranging from the shortage of housing facilities, shortage of jobs and economic discrimination.32The urban centres became overcrowded and that contributed to the establishment of shanty-towns on the outskirts of the cities, for example, the shanty towns of Ben Msik at Casablanca, Djabal al-Ahma at Tunis and Cairo and Alexandria.33 However, some scholars believe that the housing problem and pressure on the job market which occurred in Morocco and Egypt at the eve and during the Second World War period were not only a result of the effects of the Great Depression. In Morocco, the housing problem wasn’t born during the period of the 1930s and particularly during the Second World War when construction came to a standstill through the suspension by the authorities to divert attention to wartime needs.34 The Egyptian population started to expand before the 1920s. In Cairo, by 1937 the population had reached 1.3 million and the Egyptian population increased from 12.7 million in 1917 to 15.7 million in 1937. Naturally, tied to this population growth was pressure on economic, financial, commercial and political systems of the nation. Moreover, Egypt had a problem of territorial identity which existed long before the reign of Mohammed Ali. This territorial identity was a source of Egyptian’s political, economic and social problems before the Great Depression.
In Nigeria, urban employees were seriously affected by the fall in living standards from 1930 to 1945. Some wage earners were thrown out of work as expatriate firms reduced their size of the labour force to counter the effects of the Great Depression The surviving firms adopted retrenchment in West Africa using two main tactics. They decided to close down many branches which in order to economise on production overheads, for example in 1929 the United Africa Company closed about branches in Kano alone and by the mid-1930s there were only 25 left throughout Nigeria.35 The aim of the expatriate companies in West Africa during this period was self-preservation but this expatriate economic policy produced more and carried over more problems than the immediate economic solutions which were needed. Others experienced a different time as their wages were cut down, for example, the workers’ wages in the Nigerian tin mines fell from 6s and 7s in 1928 to 3s in 6d during the Depression.36 Some of the wage earners remained in employment but they suffered from upward movement of costs of imported food goods, rents and food stuffs. The wage increments tended to chase behind the rise in prices. This decay in social living standards resulted in militant expression of grievances by Africans, with the railway workers as pace -etters in the African almost in every region of the continent. Strikes became the order of the day.
Admittedly, the militant expression of grievances by Africans started way before the Depression. In French West Africa strikes started as early as 1919 in Conakry with the dock workers, followed by serious riots at Porto Novo in 1923, a railway strike on the Dakar-Niger line in 1925 and ultimately disturbances at Lome in 1933 which resulted in military interventions and deaths of people.37 In British West Africa, there were more serious strikes and demonstrations in all the four colonies, some of which pre-dated the Great Depression. A series of strikes stoppages and demonstrations among railway workers, miners and Public Works Department employees occurred in the late 1930s with the most popular railway strike of 1939 and another ten major strikes in 1942. These strikes mostly had something in common with those which occurred in Sierra Leone in 1919, 1920 and 1926; the workers’ remuneration and living conditions were abject from as early as during the eve of the First World War.38 The Depression only fuelled the rate and intensity by which the Africans expressed their grievances.
As the expression grievances took a militant way, it influenced on the political system. Radical political leaders or fundamentalists took the advantage of the effects of the Great Depression to create a yearning for social justice and political activism. With the coming of the Second World War, their literature became so appealing to the public that it became easy to establish African political parties out of African trade unions. Political activism in Egypt started early. Hasan al-Banna established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1908 in a bid to expel Britain from Egypt, revive the Islamic community and promote Shariah Law.39 His oratory became more popular and widespread in the 1930s due to the Great Depression and in the 1940s due to the effects and social ideas of the Second World War. Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha got influenced by al-Banna’s writings and led the Wafdist against the son of the deceased Egyptian son for power in 1936.40 Pasha employed al-Banna’s message to convince the masses. West African political activists became more radical by the end of the 1930s and during the Second World War period. The gradualist approach was employed by moderate Africans like Tete-Ansa and Diagane was discredited and abandoned. More radical leaders who mobilised their support by incorporating the farmers, traders and wage –earners into political systems emerged, thus we can treat the Depression as contributing to the conception and rise of particularly West African nationalism.

Enter the Second World War

A number of economists and economic historians have agreed on the fact that inasmuch as the Second World War presented a wave of political consciousness among Africans, it also provided a solution to the effects of the Great Depression for other colonial countries but also presented economic hardships for others. In the Zimbabwean (Southern Rhodesia) history, significant changes occurred from 1939 to 1965 and the country experienced far-reaching economic, demographic, social and political changes.41 Mosley is of the view that during the period, peasants in both Rhodesia and Kenya remained fairly underpinned in the production of grain crops for wartime needs but some secondary and manufacturing industries were developed.42 The demand for maize in Southern Rhodesia expanded during the period so much so that for the first time since the Great Depression it was possible to unload the year’s crop into the local market without pushing the prices down the level which was considered economic by producers. The industrial expansion during the Second World War was fuelled by a combination of two factors; Import Substitution Industrialisation and the growing demand of home produced goods on the domestic market. The War changed the economies of these two colonies from heavily depended on agricultural and mining products to a relatively growing manufacturing sector. However, some scholars believe that the Second World War revived the development which had been initiated early before the War but had been disturbed by the Depression. L. A Gann argues that manufacturing in Southern Rhodesia, just like Kenya and many other colonial territories started with the construction of railways, railway workshops, agricultural processing and small-scale enterprises which were designed to serve the primary sector of the economies as early as the turn of the 20th Century.43 Therefore, in this sense the Second World War was a remedy to the economic fluctuations which were precedent to its advent.
Industrial development during the War was at the expense of the indigenous people. In the Northern part of the African continent the effects on the economic development were both negative and positive. Since Africans in North Africa had been driven back to marginal lands and were excluded from the modern sectors of the economy (banking, mining, processing industries as well as project planning and implementation bodies) which were dominated by foreign capital, the War presented a tough time. In the Moroccan development, the sectors in which Africans dominated suffered from arrested development as the Africans lacked finance and the survival of archaic practices like fragmented ownership of land. Other ethnic groups of the society like the Jews and Greeks suffered limited and restricted opportunities during the War as they became part of the huge unskilled labour pool in urban centres. However, apart from labour and living standards issues, it was during the Second World War years that saw the Moroccan Mining Industry make strides as the demand for raw materials expanded. The Marshal Plan aid also made it possible to reduce costs of production by modernising the capital equipment of the Moroccan mines.
Meanwhile, in West Africa the Second World War had different effects as to those that were in other African countries. During the War, it was difficult for West African countries, especially French West Africa to obtain imported goods and the farmers had to reduce their production. In Senegal, the groundnut production dropped to figures lower than those of the 1880s.44 Government interventions in form of Marketing Boards, like what happened in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, took control of the market during the War. The West African Cocoa Control Board was set up in 1940 followed by the West African Produce Control Board of 1942. These control boards were established to purge African competition with the Europeans and they tended to give preferential treatment to the large expatriate companies in issuing licences and shipping quotas. This had existed before but it reached the peak during the Second World War. During the Great Depression, the French and British Administrators in West Africa had set up colonial plans to help the colonies from the effects of the crisis; the Maginot Plan (1931) and the Colonial Development Act (1929) respectively. The Maginot Plan was ineffective and unsuccessful but the Colonial Development Act advanced £ 65 000 and it was intended to develop the mining sector in British West Africa. This was reviewed in 1940 as the mother country had direct its efforts towards providing for the War needs.
In southern Rhodesia, the war triggered hyper economic activity in different sectors. Tobacco, for example, which had experiences huge difficulties in obtaining markets suddenly became the leaf of gold attracting many settlers in the country during and after the war.45 In the words of Constantine Munhande:
While the Second World War II was, obviously, an unwelcome development to all the beligerants, the same war was a blessing in disguise for the Southern Rhodesian tobacco industry. It was mainly because of the war and the consequent dollar shortages it created in the U.K. which enabled Southern Rhodesian tobacco to enter the U.K. market. The U.K., faced with these dollar shortages, limited her purchases of tobacco from her traditional supplier, the U.S.A. and sought an alternative supply from within the Empire, hence the focus on Southern Rhodesia among others.46

The country had also acted a destination for Polish refugees and Italian internees as well as air base, among other things, which all provided an increased market for its domestic products. The expansion of both internal and external markets, created by the war environment, was directly responsible for the intensified industrialisation drive that characterised Southern Rhodesia during the war period. Similar trends were witnessed in other colonies such as Kenya, Nyasaland and Egypt in varying decrees with the war spurring colonial economies into an industrialisation mode.


In conclusion, admittedly the Great Depression had serious and ripple effects on the colonial economies as they were intertwined to the economies of their colonial masters. The Depression reduced the buying power of the European nations so the primary products which were produced by the colonial economies found it difficult to enter the international market and when they did, it was at reduced prices. In the end, the effects of the Depression were felt by the African economies during the period given that the overwhelming majority of the African population and the economies depended heavily on. To try and salvage the crisis, the colonial officers of different countries implemented different measures as the effects differed from one colony to another and from one region to another. Some of the measures and developments were independent from the influence of the crisis even though some appeared to have been as a result of the crisis. The Second World War on the other hand had mixed results as it at times acted as a remedy to the effects of the Depression by providing the market that had hitherto been disrupted by the depression. Care must be taken, however, not to overemphasise the degree of impact that the depression had in shaping the socio-economic terrain of the colonial turf in Africa. What comes out of this discussion is that there is/was a very complex relationship between crisis in the metropole and developments in the colonies. The dependence theorists tend to oversimplify core-periphery relations which historical hindsight has shown to be far more complex and ever changing. There is certainly no direct relationship between dependent ties and development or delinking of such and development.


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Boahen A. A (Ed), General History of Africa VII: Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935. California: Heinemann, 1985.

Clements F. and Harben E., Leaf of Gold: The Story of Rhodesian Tobacco, London, Methunen and Company Ltd, 1962, p.131.
Cooper F, Decolonisation and Africa: The Labor Question in French and British Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Gann L. H (Ed) Colonialism in Africa: The History and Politics of Colonialism 1914-1960, Vol. II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Hopkins A. G, An Economic History of West Africa. London: Longman, 1973.
Hopkins A. G, ‘Economic Aspects of Political Movements in Nigeria and the Gold Coast,’ Journal of African History, Vol. VII, London: Longman, 1966.
Kassab A, ‘The Economy of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco 1919-1935,’ in A. A. Boahen (Ed), General History of Africa: Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935. California: Heinemann, 1985.
Mabro R and Radwad S, The Industrialisation of Egypt 1939-1973: Policy and Performance. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1976.
Meier G. M, Leading Issues in Economic Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Mlambo A. S, ‘From the Second World War to UDI, 1940-1965,’ in Brian Raftopoulos and Alois S. Mlambo, Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from the pre-colonial period to 2008. Harare: Weaver Press, 2009.
Mosley P, The Settler Economies: Studies in the Economic History of Kenya and Southern Rhodesia 1900-1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Ndlovu-Gatsheni S. J, ‘Mapping Cultural and Colonial Encounters, 1880s-1930s,’ in Brian Raftopoulos and Alois S. Mlambo (Ed) Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from the pre-colonial period to 2008. Harare: Weaver Press, 2009.
Ochsen W and Fisher S. N, Middle East: A History. New York: McGrall Hill, 2004.
Owen R and Pamuk S, A History of the Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Rodney W, ‘The Colonial Economy,’ in A. A Boahen (Ed) General History of Africa VIII: Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Roberts A. A (Ed), The Cambridge History of Africa: From 1905-1940, Vol. VII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Steward C. F, The Economy of Morocco, 1912-1962. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

1 William Ochsen and Sydney N. Fisher, The Middle East: A History. New York; McGrall Hill, 2004.P. 424.

2Meier, Leading Issues in Political Development, p. 5.

3 Walter Rodney, ‘The Colonial Economy,’ in A. A. Boahen (ed), General History of Africa: Africa Under The Colonial Domination 1880-1935. California; California University Press, 1985, p. 337.

4 A. G. HOPKINS, An Economic History of the West Africa. London; Longman, 1973.P. 176.

5Paul Mosley, The Settler Economies, p. 12.

6Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, ‘Mapping Cultural and Colonial Encounters, 1880s-1930s,’ in B. Raftopoulos and A. Mlambo (ed) Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from the pre-colonial period to 2008. Harare; Weaver Press, 2009, p.65

7 Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa, p. 256.

8 Hopkins, p. 255.

9Ibid, p. 255.

10 Rodney, The Colonial Economy, p. 337.



13 Charles F. Stewart, The Economy of Morocco 1912-1962. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press........P. 87.


15 Stewart, 89.

16Kassb, The Economy of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, p. 434.

17 Stewart, p. 91.

18 Roger Owen and Sevket Pamuk, A History of the Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 38.


20 A. Kassab, ‘The Economy of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, 1919-1935’ in A. A. Boahen, (ed) General History of Africa: Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935, Vol. VII. California; California University Press, 1985.P.434.

21Mosley, The Settler Economies, p. 42.

22 Kassab, p. 435.

23Ibid, p. 436.

24 A. D. Roberts, (ed), The Cambridge History of Africa: From 1904 to 1940, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.752.


26 Stewart, The Economy of Morocco, p. 152.


28Ibid, p. 153.

29A. G. Hopkins, ‘Economic Aspects of Political Movements in Nigeria and in the Gold Coast, 1918-1939,’ in Journal of African History, Vol. 7; 1966, pp. 133-152.

30Austen, African Economic History, pp. 127-128.

31A. E. Afigbo et al, The Making of Modern Africa: The Twentieth Century. London; Longman, 1971, p. 139.

32Kassab, The Economy of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, p. 437.


34 Stewart, The Economy of Morocco, p. 142.

35 Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa, p. 259.

36Ibid, p. 257.


38 Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The labor question in French and British Africa. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 92-96.

39 Ochsen and Fisher, The Middle East, p. 425.

40 Ibid, p. 423.

41 Mlambo, From the Second World War to UDI, P.67.

42 Mosley, The Settler Economies, p. 85.

43 L. A. Gann, ’Changing Patterns of a White Elite,’ in L. A. Gann (ed) Colonialism in Africa: The History and Politics of Colonialism 1914-1960. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1970, p.120.

44 Hopkins, p. 254.

45 F. Clements and E Harben, Leaf of Gold: The Story of Rhodesian Tobacco, London, Methunen and Company Ltd, 1962, p.131.

46 Constantine Munhande, “The Second World War And The Changing Fortunes Of The Tobacco Industry Of Southern Rhodesia With Special Reference to Marketing: 1939-1965”, MA Thesis, University Of Zimbabwe, Economic History Department, 2000.

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