World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Jonathan Reynolds, Sovereignty and Struggle: Africa and Africans in the Era of the Cold War, 19451994. (African World Histories Series) New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xx + 129. Index. $16.95 (paper).


     Part of a series aimed at students, this book gives a brief overview that makes a deep, complex subject accessible and understandable to beginning or intermediate students. Jonathan Reynolds combines scholarly material with astute observations, fun facts, and illustrations, including the hyperbolic headlines and stylish newspaper graphics of the 1950s. In two places he includes footnotes which address suggestions directly to student in the classroom (see 55 and 95).

     Reynolds explains that "The New African History" has led to a "sea change" in historical methodology, shifting focus away from "area studies" which seek contrasts between regions, to an emphasis on continuity and connection among peoples (83–84). In politics and popular culture the African continent connected with, responded to, and led new global developments and trends from the 1950s to the 1990s. The book's early chapters focus on politics and economics, while the later chapters look at cultural history.

     In the introduction, Reynolds adopts a personal tone, confiding in the reader about the process he and series editor Trevor Getz used to shape the book and remarking that he looked forward to sharing "really cool Ghanaian material" (xix) with readers. Noting that he wants to show readers "the motivations and aspirations of Africans" (xix), he describes sovereignty as "the right to make choices" and reminds readers that at the beginning of the time period the book covers, white colonizers were denying most Africans the chance to make their own choices and using philosophical, theological, and biological arguments to justify racial inequality. He observes that so much has changed so quickly that few people now believe those ideas.

     Much of the pressure for decolonization came after the Second World War, when returning African troops noticed even more keenly the irony of imperial powers' claims to be defending democracy in Europe while Europeans resisted broad democratic participation in their colonies. Observing the different paths to liberation taken in different regions of Africa, Reynolds covers North Africa, British Africa, Anglophone South Africa, and Portuguese Africa in separate sections. Reynolds points out that improved transportation and communication technologies allowed movements for change to learn about each other and copy each other's tactics. Africans' knowledge of the struggles of African Americans in the United States aided their determination to struggle for freedom themselves. Two great leaders of African decolonization came from the United States (W. E. B. DuBois) and the West Indies (Marcus Garvey). Reynolds also explains the importance of the conferences in Indonesia in 1949 and 1955 (Afro-Asian), which produced the non-alignment movement that had a large impact on Africans' response to the Cold War. Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah led a Pan-African movement, but other African leaders like Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire resisted such efforts. The newly independent African countries were quickly swallowed up in the superpowers' Cold War.

     In chapter two Reynolds looks at the problems of development and debt. Colonizers were interested only in extracting valuable resources from Africa. Like most others in this period, African leaders equated progress with industrialization. Reynolds takes special care to describe leaders' motivations from their perspective and historical time frame, since it is too easy with hindsight to see the large problems that developed due in part to their choices. Large infrastructure and manufacturing projects did not always turn out as well as projected. Independence did not free countries from foreign influence, as their countries' bureaucracies and businesses were run by expatriates of the former colonizer. Countries like Ghana were almost ruined by inflation. Tanzania's experiments with ujamaa villages to address poverty and encourage progress also unraveled and failed. A fuel crisis in 1972-73 and skyrocketing bank interest rates led to the debt crisis of the 1980s. Global neoliberalism especially impacted African countries with "structural adjustment" projects, including currency devaluation. Labor migrations fueled civil wars. While African countries have clearly endured much economic crisis, some countries, like Nigeria, experienced unprecedented growth. Reynolds only has space for brief mentions of lengthy debates over strategies for recovery from economic crises.

     Chapter three discusses Africa's role in the Cold War, especially the decisions African leaders made to seek aid from the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union. France tested their nuclear bombs in Africa, which shows how deeply involved Africa was with Cold War developments. Reynolds cautions against hasty condemnation of Africa for its military dictatorships and autocratic rulers, arguing that such leaders and governments were widespread throughout the world. He suggests that journalists' portrayals of Africa were often unfair and notes how former colonial powers used concern for democracy to cloak attempts to maintain indirect control of former colonies. However, he does not dismiss all concerns about bad governance. He highlights abuses of power, mentioning Nkrumah's use of the Preventive Detention Act (neglecting to mention, as most do, that Nyerere used similar measures)(57). He also highlights Africa's terrible loss of life, such as the million deaths in the Nigerian civil war. Coups became more numerous as European powers backed various military strongmen, as with France's support and later removal of Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (61). The U.S. and Soviet Union competed for allegiance of African states. When Ethiopia went to the Soviets, Siad Barre of Somalia grew disillusioned with the Soviets and strengthened ties to the U.S. (64). Reynolds dares to assert that the superpowers and Europe, liking the predictability and security of working with Africa's dictators and one-party states, ignored atrocities (65).

     The second half of chapter three looks at various ways in which the Cold War influenced liberation movements in southern Africa, including apartheid South Africa, where political opponents were always labeled communists. He also discusses the Portuguese colony of Mozambique and its role in delaying liberation for Zimbabweans. He concludes the chapter by noting that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War patronage left many dictators with no international sponsors.

     The next two chapters examine cultural issues. Reynolds clearly demonstrates a vast and intricate knowledge of the many musical developments in Africa and their myriad influences. Africans often blended outside musical influences with their own styles, a practice Reynolds defends against charges of cultural imperialism by explaining that such mixing exemplifies Africa's strong connections with the larger world. He rejects the outdated view that being "African" requires remaining "untainted" by outside influences (83). He does not seem much of a fan of "traditional" African music like that promoted by J. H. Kwabena Nketia, the renowned Ghanaian professor of music. He celebrates the music of "Rai" in Algeria, including some of its origins in brothels ("they had no choice," he explains, because other "respectable" venues were cut off), and notes its singers' brave political stances during Algeria's decades of strife. Rai helped to give birth to the new genre of "World Music." He also mentions Tanzania's futile bans on foreign music and youth culture and Nigeria's politically outspoken lyricists, like William Onyeabor and Fela Kuti. Africa's culture wars reflect the issues of nation-building in a world awash with international influences.

     The fifth chapter is entitled "The Decolonization of Distance." In contrast to his previous, necessarily sweeping discussions of complex topics in a few sentences, Reynolds here examines the significance of symbols in depth. He describes how Ghana, like many newly independent countries, attempted direct takeover of the means of transport previously monopolized by colonizers. The Ghanaian government felt it so important to be considered modern and self-sufficient that they bought a fleet of airplanes and began their own company, sustaining it at a steep financial loss, perhaps because it symbolized success and mobility. An extensive media campaign also made the airline and the air hostesses a hot topic. One example he describes is an ad for Air Afrique, in which the angle of the pilot in his plane conveys the impression that the pilot is in control of the entire African continent (110). He also contrasts the gender roles apparent in news coverage of the Air Girls, the very modern young women who worked for Ghana Airways, and Miss Ghana, who harkened back to some Ghanaian traditions.

     The book's conclusion summarizes the continent's many large problems and gives reasons to be hopeful that Africa's economy will grow stronger. Reynolds' coverage of controversial topics is very balanced, so Marxists and Neoliberals alike may be only partly happy with his portrayal of this time period. While no short book can do everything an in-depth book (like Africa in World History, by Reynolds and Erik T. Gilbert ) can do, for its size and scope, this book is well-written, accessible, and full of very interesting information and insights about the continent and its many interactions with and connections to the larger world. Students will surely appreciate this short book's helpful insights into Cold War-era African politics, economic development, and cultural expression.

Gail M. Presbey is a Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy. She writes and teaches on topics of African philosophy and history, and peace and justice topics, and is the Director of the James Carney Latin American Solidarity Archives. See her website at: and write her at



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use