Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945-1963. – Review

Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945-1963. – Review – book review

Lisa A. Lindsay

Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945-1963. By Robert L. Tignor. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. 419. $55.00.)

In the 1960s, the Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah, coined the term “neo-colonialism” to describe Europe’s continuing economic control over independent Africa. Robert Tignor’s new book focuses on “Euro-African economic relations in the crucial era of power transfer, seeking to evaluate Nkrumah’s complaint that Africans succeeded in ridding themselves only of the accoutrements of formal power while remaining in profound economic subordination to the developing world” (4). Through case studies of Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, Tignor assesses the influence of private enterprises on decolonization and the efficacy of nationalist elites in controlling them.

Five chapters on Egypt describe an economy with a solidly rooted private sector but severe social problems at the end of World War II. Significant political autonomy, created by Egypt’s quasi-independent status and the Cold War context, gave ruling groups the opportunity to nationalize large-scale businesses. Three chapters on Nigeria emphasize the importance of commodity marketing boards, which were created to stabilize producer prices but in fact yielded huge surpluses to the state. Nationalists saw these revenues, not foreign capital, as the appropriate engine of economic growth, but the pre-independence regionalization of the marketing boards, along with the political system, fueled regional rivalry and patrimonialism. In Kenya, in contrast to Nigeria and Egypt, a pro-Western capitalist regime with a healthy private sector emerged after independence. The British government’s decision to fund land transfers to Africans after the Mau Mau Emergency, Tignor suggests, paved the way for political and financial stability, although at a significant cost.

Based on these histories, Tignor concludes that each of the nationalist movements realized their main goals; imperialism was not, as has been suggested, the handmaiden of capitalism, nor were big corporations decisive in decolonization decisions; the use of force had varying effects for Western economic interests in the decolonization era; and decolonization was expensive and often chaotic. This interpretation assumes that outcomes reflect intent and relies on a narrow view of colonial economies. Tignor argues, for example, that planners were “prepared to sacrifice Britain’s substantial assets in Egypt to their military and political agenda” without noting that the anticommunist agenda was itself connected to economic goals (390). Similarly, Tignor stresses that political considerations in Nigeria and Kenya were more important to officials than protecting British businesses. Yet, as described for an earlier period, colonial states had to “cope with the contradictions” of favoring European capital while seeking political stability by offering concessions to other actors.(1)

In addition to government documents and newspapers, Tignor made considerable and productive use of business archives to shed light on the plans and concerns of corporate directors. Though the depth of his research is impressive, the book would have benefitted from closer engagement with relevant historiography. Its references and short bibliographic essay direct the reader almost exclusively toward primary sources. While useful for the specialist, others may wish for more contextualization.

(1) John Longsdale and Bruce Berman, “Coping with the Contradictions: The Development of the Colonial State in Kenya, 1895-1914,” Journal of African History 20 (1979): 487-505.

Lisa A. Lindsay University of North Carolina-Charlotte

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