The era of decolonization is sixty years old. It began in 1947, when India and Pakistan won their independence from Britain, and it continued until 1974, when the Portuguese Empire collapsed. In between, African and Asian nations emerged from the long night of colonial rule, and in Latin America new regimes broke out of the grip of oligarchies.
This year Ghana celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, the first sub-Saharan African nation to free itself of its colonizers. Kwame Nkrumah, a few minutes after his country’s birth, offered this vision for its future: “We are going to see that we create our own African personality and identity. We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa. Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of the African continent.” Ghana’s independence was significant, but alone it was vulnerable. Nkrumah surveyed the African continent and the rest of the “darker nations,” whose solidarity would be essential.
These new nations did not want only to rid themselves of their colonial masters. Crucially, they also articulated a vision for a new global dispensation. Twenty-nine new nations and movements had gathered together at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 to lay out how they wished to reshape the world. “Irresistible forces have swept the two continents,” said Indonesia’s Sukarno. “There are new conditions, new concepts, new problems, new ideals abroad in the world.”
The central concept for the new nations was the Third World. For them, the Third World was not a place; it was a project. Galvanized by mass movements and by the failures of capitalist maldevelopment, leaders in the darker nations looked to one another for an alternative agenda. Politically they wanted more planetary democracy. No more the serfs of their colonial masters, they wanted to have a voice and power on the world stage. What would that voice say? It would speak of three core principles: peace (nuclear disarmament), bread (what they dubbed a New International Economic Order, in which human needs would take precedence over profit) and justice (social development and an end to racism). They would carry these aspirations to the United Nations, where, forming a Non-Aligned Movement, they engaged in a concerted struggle to gain ascendancy. Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Jaja Wachuku chided his fellows for their acceptance of the inequality built into the new international body. “Are we only going to continue to be veranda boys,” he asked, watching from the balcony as the five permanent members controlled the debate?
Today the Third World project is no longer. It was not a failure, for that implies it was doomed from the start. No, it was assassinated. The main culprit was not corruption, one-party rule or famine; it was what we have come to call globalization. From its inception, the Third World project faced an enemy in the advanced capitalist states (led, with confidence, by the United States), determined to subdue any independent dynamic in the darker nations. For three decades, the Third World was able to fend off that challenge, partly due to backing from the Soviet Union and China, but mainly because of the widespread support the project enjoyed among the masses of people who lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America.