THE Gold Coast elections of February 1951 have sent a shock right through Africa, or at least that Africa which lies south of the Sahara. To white men who have made their home in the African continent the shock has come as a perhaps only half-formulated question: "Is this the beginning of the end for us?" And every African who has heard the news--a number no one can exactly estimate--has felt a thrill of joy, and of the sudden, almost incredulous hope: "Is this the beginning for us?"

There can be no doubt that the first assumption of ministerial office by elected Negroes in a British colonial territory makes 1951 an important date in the political history of Africa and a very proper date at which to take stock. For this event in the middle of the century means that Britain is committed in act as well as in word to the speedy promotion of self-government in her African colonies. It is just 50 years, from the occupation of the interior, since British rule over these territories began; and it is not a very bold speculation to believe that they may become fully self-governing nation-states by the end of the century. It almost seems as though future African writers of history books may thus be able very neatly to sum up the first half of the twentieth century as the age of imperialism, and the second as the age of liberation.

When, however, our glance is extended from the Gold Coast to the rest of Africa, or even if it is confined to British territories, the possibility that African self-government will spread surely and smoothly appears much less certain. Developments in Asia, which may give cause for optimism to some who are anxiously looking for reasons for optimism in the stern conditions of the day, are not easily comparable with those of Africa. Even if they were, the great issues in Asia are far from being decided in favor of the West. The two great conflicts of our world--the political issue between the Communist and democratic nations, and the division of race or, less inaccurately, of color--are in danger of converging. At present, the Chinese excepted, the great majority of the colored races lie within the orbit of the Western democratic Powers. But in Africa this is because they are still under the political control of these Powers; and in much of Asia it is because they have just emerged from that control and are still linked to the West by many economic ties, and marked--who would confidently assert how deeply?--with the impress of Western civilization.

The task of helping to develop these peoples, and of holding them in partnership, is not the same in Asia as in Africa. In Asia, though the divisions which are called communal are deep and cut across the demands of national solidarity, there are nonetheless great areas of cultural and religious unity, and of common pride based upon the inheritance of ancient civilizations. These peoples have brought their historic cultures through centuries of subjection to Western influence with their deepest elements still inviolate and they are resolved to reassert the validity of their cultures in the modern world. The special offer of the West must therefore be the possibility of a free association of differing cultures, instead of the crushing monolithic system offered by Communism. The meeting of the West with Asia, for all the present disparity of material power, will have to be between equals in status. It will have the nature of alliance rather than assimilation.

The dealings between tropical Africa and the West must be different. Here in place of the large unities of Asia was the multicellular tissue of tribalism: instead of an ancient civilization, the largest area of primitive poverty enduring into the modern age. Until the very recent penetration by Europe the greater part of the continent was without the wheel, the plough or the transportanimal; almost without stone houses or clothes, except for skins; without writing and so without history. Mentally as well as physically the Africans were helpless before a European intrusion all the more speedy and overwhelming because it came at a time when science had given Europe such immense material power. Yet the African peoples on the whole, as slavery proved, are tenacious and adaptable. The revolutionary changes which Europe has imposed upon tropical Africa within 50 years have evoked from them a positive and vigorous reaction which was lacking in some Amerindian and Pacific races. Yet it remains true that in losing their thousandfold tribal past Africans must grow into the general shape of the civilization which has been brought to them, whatever color they may in time give it from their own character and physical setting. Thus, for the next half-century or so, the relationship between the West and Negro Africa must be assimilative in the broadest sense.

If the West is to win and to hold Africa, the effort needed is thus different from that needed in Asia. But it is no less great. As in Asia, it will be a race with time. The process of enfranchisement from European control has been so hastened by a combination of forcing influences that these least-civilized peoples are likely to have the shortest period of tutelage. They may therefore break prematurely out of a recently imposed framework of unity and order into conditions of chaos or stagnation. If the primitive poverty of this vast area is to be raised there has to be massive application of capital accumulated through the energy and restraint of other peoples; managerial skill will be needed on a vast scale, with large numbers of experts discovering the lessons of science and applying them in campaigns for the betterment of life--human, animal and vegetable--and of the earth which carries this life.

If plans devised in London, Washington and other centers are not to be put through with coercive direction, but are to win the intelligent coöperation of Africans, each must be accompanied by sociological study and patient educational effort. The trained Africans now ready to play any but a subordinate part in these great schemes of betterment are to be numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. Even fewer have the wide knowledge which allows them to recognize their need of European planners, still less to play a part in drawing up the plans. While Africans outgrow the suspicions produced by sheer ignorance, a new political suspicion takes their place and this can be overcome only by political measures aimed at producing a common will between Africans and Europeans.


The main political question that we must answer, as we try to look into Africa's next 50 years, is whether the promise of political emancipation which Britain has made on the west coast can be fulfilled and then extended to her eastern and central colonies. The answer will depend largely upon the assessment of the strength of the influences which have prompted this policy of political emancipation. The first is to be found in the character of Britain's parliamentary institutions. By their very nature they could not be confined within her borders and were carried overseas by her own emigrants. The evolution of the white Dominions followed, and their institutions were extended, with hesitation and difficulty, to Asia, and with even more hesitation to Africa. But this does not account for the sudden advance in Africa, during the last ten years, toward an end which, with much justification, was thought to be very distant.

The reason for this acceleration, which has come as a surprise to many people even in Britain, is to be found in a convergence of many different factors just before, during and after the Second World War. Among them was the natural maturing, especially in west Africa, of an educational system which by the thirties had begun to turn out graduates with the training and confidence to occupy responsible positions, and the ability to define and voice their political discontents. The town dwellers and wage earners increased in numbers, and since they were detached from their tribal systems, they became increasingly responsive to the new leaders. Then as the British Labor Party grew in strength it encouraged, by the force of example, the new proletarians who were beginning to develop political consciousness and to call themselves "underprivileged;" and it encouraged them directly by giving a new urgency and completeness to the promise of self-government. At the same time the uncompromising doctrines of Communism which damn imperialism and capitalism and exalt the "toiling masses" began to influence Africans, even though they did not consciously accept the doctrines or even identify them. A further factor which speeded up the process in the years before the Second World War was the effect of the demand of the Germans for the retrocession of their former colonies, since it forced Britain to emphasize the contrast between her own program for colonial freedom and the doctrine of racial supremacy put forward by the Herrenvolk.

When the war brought a period of extreme danger for Britain, strenuous economic and military services had to be asked from the colonial peoples, upon a basis of willing coöperation. And with the coming of peace, Britain's relatively greater weakness in the world subtly altered her position as a ruler of colonial peoples. Thus the heat of war forced the growth of self-government; and the favorable temperature was kept after the war by pressure from the United Nations in general, and, from their very different points in the political compass, from Russia and the United States in particular. The colonial peoples had behaved with great steadiness and loyalty, and they expected to be rewarded. Their leaders were few in numbers, but they were quick to take advantage of the relaxation of the imperial grasp which had allowed the liberation of India, Ceylon and Burma. Moreover, new and flamboyant leaders emerged. The social and economic life of the colonies had been deeply shaken by five years of war, and, especially in West Africa and the West Indies, Negroes eagerly absorbed those millennial hopes which are born so strangely out of ruinous conflicts. Instinctively seeking to exploit the unifying forces of discontent and of indignation generated by an almost universal inferiority of status of their race, the leaders directed the restlessness of their followers against their foreign rulers. Under the protection of the old British civil liberties, a large part of the immature native press, especially in west Africa, treated every act of the Government, good, bad or indifferent, with unvarying but highly spiced denunciation.

With one of those rapid assessments of a critical situation of which they are capable after a long blind period, the British quickly decided that, since it had become morally impossible for them to answer this agitation by repressive force, there was no alternative to ungrudging and immediate cession of what had so long been promised. Hence the open-handed gestures in Asia were followed by the large installments of freedom in the West Indies and Africa. In these regions Britain revised almost every constitution between 1944 and 1950, some of them more than once, to introduce or increase native participation in the central colonial governments. Many other measures in the interests of the native people were introduced in the spheres of local government, finance, economics and social services. The recent events in the Gold Coast, the most politically-advanced African territory, by which Africans have drawn up their own constitution, carried out a general election, and put an imprisoned leader and his extreme party in power, are only the most striking results of this policy.


If this is the policy, and these the pressures which have produced it, this would seem the line upon which Britain must go forward. But when the situation in all of Africa south of the Sahara is considered, certain factors appear which are not merely unfavorable to the rapid development of African self-government but even hostile to it. The British Commonwealth countries in this vast area fall into three parts: the territory in the west, South Africa, and the eastern and central territories. It is not difficult to describe South Africa's place in the political picture, as that country is now and as it apparently intends to be in the future. The Union of South Africa is a stratified society. A minority of 2,500,000 white men are absolutely dominant--politically, economically and socially--over some 8,500,000 Africans and the smaller Indian and colored communities. No one can judge the policy of the white group who does not try to enter into the tragic dilemma in which their history has placed them. They feel themselves obliged to defend their domination by principles of racial superiority which are an absolute denial of those upon which Britain is acting in her tropical colonies. The Gold Coast election has brought this contradiction into dramatic conflict, and it is not surprising that the fiercest denunciation of the Gold Coast experiment has come from Dr. Malan, the Nationalist Prime Minister of the Union. If other native territories followed this example, he said, "it meant nothing less than the expulsion of white men from practically everywhere between the Union and the Sahara." What that would mean was not a matter for conjecture. However, he comforted himself with the assertion that the experiment would undoubtedly fail, since a wrong application of the principle of democracy had made it ridiculous.

Dr. Malan was prompted by the very understandable fear that hangs over white South Africa. Even so, he was only putting into extreme terms the doubts about the Gold Coast election, and the promise of an immediate similar experiment in nearby Nigeria, which have been widespread among the white colonists in Africa. Even in England this advance is thought by many to be a leap in the dark. The fact is that the west of Africa, and the south, are moving in opposite directions. Even a partial failure on the west coast will strengthen the determination of the Union to follow its own system, and will deepen the uncertainty that hangs over the large British block of colonies to the east.

These fears about the Gold Coast experiment (which are Dr. Malan's hopes) are not groundless. There is no precedent for the sudden grant of the parliamentary franchise to a large, illiterate, tribal population, utterly remote from the political experience of the Western peoples. It is unnecessary to list all the contrasts between the development, setting and character of the British parliamentary system and the conditions in the arbitrarily demarcated region of Africa into which it has been exported. A perilously small fraction of the African people have any knowledge of the arts or sciences by which the modern welfare state they demand is conducted. With an electorate at once so ignorant, so expectant and so racially sensitive, and with none of the conditions present for the development of a party system, the invitation to demagogy seems certain to be accepted. It remains to be seen whether the restraining advice of the colonial government, the powers which it has reserved, and the long-established substructure of local government based upon tribal organization, will succeed in containing the full tide of this very new democracy. No hope of easy achievement should be cherished. But it is now in the interests of Britain, as well as of the peoples of these territories, to exert every effort to make the experiment succeed. The direct results of failure would fall first upon the inhabitants who are entirely African, but the results of a breakdown would also discourage and anger the Negro peoples throughout the world. It would harden the caste system of the Union of South Africa and would deeply influence the still undecided future of east and central Africa.

Because of the emigration of European and Indian colonists to east and central Africa, and the strains set up by the competition for power among these groups and between them and the native majorities, the situation here is even more sensitive. The tension runs from one territory to the other, affecting even those areas which have no immigrant groups. And it goes down from them to the Union, and then overseas to excite the interest and support of the nations from which the emigrants came. The conflict of power represents in microcosm, in one of its most intractable forms, the world tensions between white and brown, and white and black. The situations vary in the several territories and it may be useful to remind ourselves of the racial distribution in the countries which lie southward from Ethiopia.

To understand the full meaning of these figures it should be remembered that the Union of South Africa is a completely independent Dominion, and that Southern Rhodesia has full, responsible self-government, subject to some formal reservations by Britain over native matters which in practice are never used. All the other territories are administered directly by Britain, though Tanganyika is under United Nations Trusteeship. The penetration of the temperate highlands of these tropical dependencies by white colonists is not the only point of contrast between them and west Africa.

Africans Europeans Indians Arabs Colored
Union of So. Africa1 8,347,000 2,620,000 323,000 1,030,000
Basutoland 540,000 1,700 340 547
Bechuanaland 290,000 2,300 1,700
Swaziland 181,000 3,200
Southern Rhodesia 1,960,000 129,000
Northern Rhodesia 1,849,000 36,000
Nyasaland 2,455,000 3,800 5,250 2,000
Tanganyika 7,332,539 10,648 46,254 11,074 1,335
Uganda 4,914,211 3,448 35,215 1,475 643
Kenya 5,218,232 29,660 97,687 24,174 964
1 These figures exclude South-West Africa which according to the 1946 census had 259,000 Africans, 10,500 Bushmen, 38,000 Europeans, 44,500 Colored.
2 These figures include a small number of other Asians.

Most of the peoples of eastern Africa were far less advanced in their political organization and in their culture, and were much more sparsely distributed. The chief exception was the fertile and populous region around Lake Victoria, with its large chief-tainships. An additional contrast, which still further explains the relative political immaturity of the eastern Africans, is their much later contact with Europeans, and indeed with the outside world. Uganda, which contains the advanced and prosperous kingdom of Buganda, is free from white settlement, but it is closely bound to Kenya through which run its communications to the sea, and its peoples watch the white colony there with deep anxiety.

Individually and as a group, these territories confront Britain with difficult decisions. Here the principles of democracy do not fit the situation: numerically insignificant white minorities have built up the Western economies which are in operation; and they have been the dominant element politically as well. The African tribes have hitherto shown little sense of solidarity, and little interest in public affairs. Only in the last few years has there been much sign of political vitality, and that has been confined to some of the more advanced tribes, such as the Ganda in Uganda, the Kikuyu in Kenya and the Chagga in Tanganyika. In Northern Rhodesia the copper belt has attracted a mixed and restless African proletariat which is beginning to organize itself effectively in defense of its interests. The Indians are in the main confined to the towns: they are traders, large and small, and they own much of the urban property in the main cities. They are resentful of their inferior political status in Kenya, where they have smaller political representation than the Europeans, though they are more numerous. The present split between Hindu and Moslem, reflected from their homelands, has divided their leadership.

What kind of constitution should Britain try to fit upon this patchwork of races? Partition within mixed territories, the current treatment for the irreconcilables, is ruled out. Although there are large tribal areas, the Europeans and Africans outside them are interlocked in a capital-labor, master-servant relationship, while the Indian occupies an uneasy intermediate commercial position. If there were no white settlement Britain would, as in west Africa, concentrate without doubts or distractions upon the all-round development of the Africans. As it is, she faces a problem only less sharp and embittered than that of South Africa. For more than a century in South Africa she was involved in a painful attempt to regulate the seemingly irreconcilable clash between white colonist and native African; it has left the three High Commission Territories embarrassingly upon her hands. History has shown how difficult it is for a relatively detached imperial government to mediate between its own people and the weaker groups which they have subjected. The United States experienced this difficulty in a special form when it found that victory in a bloody civil war did not enable the Federal Government to enforce its principles of justice and equality fully upon the Southern States. Britain's attempt at enforcement in South Africa lasted a century and may be said to have failed. Since the establishment of the Union, and still more since the Afrikaner Nationalists gained power, she has seen the vestiges of her equalitarian policy rooted out one by one until African subordination has been made complete.

The same problem has now presented itself in Kenya and the Rhodesias, though in less advanced form. Kenya may be chosen to illustrate the apparent insolubility of the constitutional question. The immediate introduction there of full parliamentary democracy would put control into the hands of some 5,000,000 Africans, of whom not 1 percent have any knowledge of the working of the modern state or the economy which has been built up over their heads. It would also put them in control of those small groups--British officials, white settlers and Indian traders--who are politically and economically the dominant and dynamic elements in the colony. A few people are led by humanitarian emotion or political doctrines to advocate this as an immediate policy, but even those most confident of the necessity of the new steps in the Gold Coast cannot show that Kenya is at present in a comparable position. Even if it held no immigrant groups Kenya would not be ready for such a policy. African unity and experience would have to grow very much stronger before the Kenya settlers would be ready to relinquish the position they have secured, and the imperial government willing to coerce them and to imperil such a vital strategic area.

With so much to lose it is not surprising that most of the white settlers agree with the South African Government that the racial situation permits no middle course: that if they grant something, they grant everything. This seems the logical short-term answer; it is also the shortsighted one. The humane and long-term answer is surely that to treat people, whose potential equality has been proved in so many individual instances, as something less than men is to demoralize both those who give and those who suffer this treatment, and to harden society so that it cannot grow and must some day break. The alternative course seems to be to continue in the face of all fears and doubts with the present slow and difficult British policy of obliging the impatient white colonists to mark time politically, while actively assisting the advance of the uncivilized race and making gradual adjustments to accommodate its advance.


But there is some choice of political direction as well as of pace. The British constitution, with its concentration of sovereignty in one of its legislative chambers, a system developed gradually by one of the most united and mature nations in the world, is obviously unsuited to east Africa. Nor does it seem likely that any superficial adaptations of this system, for example by way of communal voting with racial allotment of seats, will do anything but exacerbate political conflict. The aim should be to distribute rather than to concentrate power. This method runs counter to modern tendencies, but its value in absorbing racial shocks and in widening political education outweighs its easily enumerated defects. The aim might be carried out through a somewhat rigid federal structure for the whole of east Africa, with extensive powers resting in large provinces. Their boundaries should be drawn to attain the utmost possible homogeneity, but even so some of their councils would contain representatives of all races, and they would thus allow coöperation at a level where the major political fears need not haunt the proceedings. At the center there could be a distribution of many social and economic functions to temporary or standing boards. The practical character of their work would be realistic and unifying, while the relative privacy of their proceedings would discourage any playing to the racial gallery. In a government for eastern Africa constructed upon this pattern, with the rights of minorities and the powers of provinces within the federal structure guaranteed by the imperial government, it might be possible for the several races to learn to modify their fears of each other, and thus valuable time for the experience of coöperation might be gained.

This result will not be obtained easily. In Kenya, above all, dissensions have been sharp for 30 years, and political attitudes have crystallized. But there are encouraging signs even there, for some Europeans have faced the hard truth that though they built their original privileged position upon African weakness and inferiority, such a foundation is not immutable and preliminary steps must be taken now for its gradual reconstruction. This explains why at least some of the settlers have accepted African and Indian representation in the quasi-federal East African High Commission and in the Kenya legislature, and have even also embarked upon some experiments in interracial social contact. All of this would be impossible in South Africa.

The racial situation in central Africa takes a somewhat different form. There is no Indian population of any importance, and in the Rhodesias the whites are less overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Africans than in the three northern territories. Southern Rhodesia, advancing at breakneck speed today through white immigration and industrial development, is almost a Dominion. Northern Rhodesia, with little more than 1,000,000 Africans, is dominated politically by the white settlers. The copper mines govern the economy of the country. Nyasaland, small and isolated, is a mainly African territory, but is bound by economic ties to the Rhodesias.

There have been many years of vacillation about the relationship of these three territories. In recent years, following a measure of coöperation through a central council, the Europeans of the two Rhodesias have drawn more closely together and demanded some form of federation. The Gold Coast election has now startled them into angry alignment like the crack of a whip. "The feeling is growing among the European community," declared Mr. Welensky, leader of the Northern Rhodesian colonials, commenting on the election, "that the Government of the United Kingdom is not going to judge self-government for the colonies on the ability of the people to govern themselves: the whole thing will be a matter of political expediency. To the British Socialist Government, the ills of the colonies are dispelled by the provision of the ballot box and a trade union. This is a travesty of development." The Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia has said with equal bluntness that sticking to mere numbers in a constitution might turn democracy to mob-rule in Africa.

However, while the leaders condemn Britain in these terms they also dissociate themselves from the racial policy of South Africa. They claim to be following a middle way between Britain's dangerous surrender to an unready majority and the Union's policy of repression. Britain's reason for refusing hitherto to permit amalgamation of the central African territories has been that the native policy which she has followed in the two northern Colonial Office territories is not compatible with the less liberal system of Southern Rhodesia. Native opinion, just beginning to express itself through a few voices, emphatically endorses this view. Southern Rhodesia hangs unhappily between the Colonial Office territories on the north and the Union on the south. Devotedly British in their allegiance, the white colonists recoil from the increasingly assertive Afrikaner nationalism of the Union. Yet, when they look north, they are repelled, and indeed alarmed, by the native policy Britain is following. At this moment, the delicate problem of their future affiliation has just been discussed in a private official conference which has endeavored to find some form of closer union which will square all the circles presented by race and politics. If Southern Rhodesia could be attached to the northern colonies without Britain's paying too high a price in concessions at the expense of the African, then a boundary might be drawn along the Zambesi against the northward advance of the Union policy.


In all these African issues, west, east and central, Britain is obliged to play a leading part as ruler or arbiter. She cannot simply sit back and allow matters to take their course: the forces generated by European intrusion into primitive Africa are too disturbing to be left to work themselves out. Yet, though Britain must play the leading part, and must, if she is true to her principles and professions, take up the Union's challenge with growing boldness, she is not, of course, the only influence even in tropical Africa. Great regions are under Portuguese, Belgian and French rule. But in the development of African self-government, Britain is without doubt the formative influence. Portugal and Belgium have, so far with success, sealed their territories against "unsettling" ideas. France is deeply engaged in inducing her colonies to fulfill their political ambitions as parts of a great French Union, rather than as autonomous nations. None of these Powers regards British policy with a friendly eye. Britain must reckon also upon the increasing intervention in Africa by America and the United Nations. The relations of each colony are no longer limited to contacts between it and the imperial ruler: many influences are at work to draw Africa together physically and mentally, to link its peoples to the world and to awaken them to the world's growing concern about their affairs. International intervention, which has pushed through plans for the speedy independence of Libya and Somaliland, and which plays chiefly but not exclusively upon the Trust Territories, quickens the political pace by reinforcing colonial nationalism.

Africa is indeed becoming part of the world. This vast raw continent which lies so close to Europe has, apart from that northern strip which has for so long been the southern fringe of Europe, been locked away from the influences of civilization. It is now fast being drawn strategically and economically into the Western sphere. Tropical Africa was at first little more to the Western nations than a coast line; then it became a hunting ground for slaves; next, it was parcelled up as the property of Western nations and its people regarded primarily as their supply of labor. And now the West has new and urgent economic and strategic claims upon the continent. In other words, Africa and Africans have been the instruments of other nations. Now, as a result of the civilizing influences brought consciously and unconsciously by the West, Africans are at last demanding the right to state and to follow their own purposes. The difficulties before them, mainly inherent in the physical conditions of the continent and in their own history, or lack of it, are immense. And the West faces equal difficulties in trying to find a way of harmonizing its own interests with those of this awakening Africa. The seeds have been sown for a racial conflict that will weaken, if it does not ruin, the attempt to develop the people and their continent at the speed which the impatience of Africans and the world situation demand. The West has the desire, the science, the energy and the capital to develop Africa. Africa has a desperate need of all these things. The question is whether Africans will be able to accept them. Their poverty and weakness allowed (it might almost be said to have necessitated) a subjection so complete that when Africans became aware at last of their history and position in the world, the discovery created a deep bitterness. It finds its natural object in the colonial Powers which have brought Africa at once subjection and civilization.

The civilization is, however, in its very earliest stage, and it is impossible to foretell whether, Africa being what it is, the process could be carried on if that subjection were suddenly brought to an end. The white colonists say "no." But they are deeply interested parties, and the Africans and their supporters reject and resent their opinion just because it is theirs. The very fact of the presence of these white settlers, above all in the form which it takes in South Africa, makes it difficult for many Africans to consider reasonably any proposition about their future relations with the white man. The British policy of a gradual transfer of powers, so logical and defensible as the compromise between two extremes, thus runs against the opposition of black and white in Africa. It is too quick for the whites; it is too slow for the Gold Coast Africans today and will be too slow for those of Kenya tomorrow. Yet, since there is no alternative to this policy, Britain will be obliged to continue with it, and she must not despair if only a fraction of success is achieved. For the stakes are very high. Analogy between peoples and individuals can be misleading, but both do seem to have this in common, that their characteristics are formed very early in their development. The Western nations have grave reason to know what the Romans' failure to impose their civilization over the whole of Europe has meant to that continent: within the next 50 years, or even less, it may be decided whether Negro Africa will be won or lost to the religion and society of the West.

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  • MARGERY PERHAM, Reader in Colonial Administration, Oxford University; member of the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies; author of "Africans and British Rule," "The Government of Ethiopia" and other works
  • More By Margery Perham