‘Operation elections’: voting, nationhood and citizenship in late-colonial Africa
This blog accompanies the Historical Journal article Voting, Nationhood, and Citizenship in Late-Colonial Africa by Justin Willis, Gabrielle Lynch and Nic Cheeseman.
Preparing for elections in the Gold Coast (colonial Ghana) in 1951, British administrators were pleasantly surprised to discover that local activists of the the avowedly anti-colonial movement led by Kwame Nkrumah were doing their best to assist them by encouraging registration and explaining the voting process. Usually a thorn in the side of district commissioners, suddenly they were allies. The British were less delighted by the results of those elections, which gave victory to Nkrumah – despite a complex system of indirect voting carefully designed to thwart him. But colonial officials, and the government in London, consoled themselves by reflecting on the success of the elections as a process: ‘operation elections’, as one called them, had been remarkably ‘orderly’.
The pattern seen in Ghana was repeated elsewhere in British-ruled Africa: first elections were organized, offering a direct vote to a favoured few, intended to recruit African allies who would help prolong the life of empire. Instead those elections returned representatives who demanded adult suffrage and early independence. Further elections quickly followed, and the franchise quickly widened. In the 1940s and early 1950s, many British commentators had insisted that African’s were too uneducated to vote; by the early 1960s, on the eve of independence, adult suffrage and the secret ballot had become routine.
That shift was driven by the emerging need to work with, rather than against, an emergent nationalist political elite. As British policy shifted rapidly towards an early dissolution of empire, ‘orderly’ elections provided a useful shared project. Elections became a way to foreground the questionable claim that imperialism had really always been about state building, dedicated to helping colonial subjects become citizens of new nations. Chronically concerned with appearances and international opinion, the British government saw orderly elections as a reassuring performance of imperial success. More practically, elections were also (as one governor of Kenya put it) an ‘administrative exercise’, testing and strengthening the institutions created by colonialism just as they were passed on to nationalists.
In the three countries studied here, African nationalists readily joined in that project. They also wanted to show the world that they, and their new countries, were ready to rule themselves. They were keenly aware that the nations that they claimed to represent were contested: secessionists and local ethnic movements dreamed of alternative borders; a public whose expectations had been raised by anti-colonial agitation were inclined to question authority. Late-colonial polls drew on almost all the resources of government to list and marshal the populace: to teach them how to be citizens. Nationalists used election campaigns to demand that the population behave themselves: ‘You must be peaceful and law-abiding citizens to expect a good return’.
Yet despite that emphasis on order, and the calls for ‘hard work’ that were prominent in campaigns, mobilizing people to vote required more than discipline and the uncertain promise of citizenship. Constituency campaigns revolved around local patterns of patronage and influence, around ethnicity and religion – that is, around all the many other things that people were as well as citizens or nationalists. In Uganda, the British were so anxious to have elections that they agreed to allow the kingdom of Buganda to hold its own elections; offering an alternative citizenship. ‘Operation elections’ turned out be about more, and less, than building the nation.
The full article Voting, Nationhood, and Citizenship in Late-Colonial Africa by Justin Willis, Gabrielle Lynch and Nic Cheeseman is freely available during 2018.
Main image: A voter receives a ballot paper from a polling assistant at Kungungu Polling Station in the Northern Territories. Kungungu, Northern Territories of the Gold Coast. January 1957 (= 1956 ?). Image Source