Nationalism: Africa

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Nationalism: Africa

The topic of African nationalism has been repeatedly contested and redefined over the past century. At the end of the nineteenth century, the European powers divided the continent and ruled virtually all of Africa, and African nations lost their sovereignty. During the 1950s and 1960s, when Africans began to seriously resist colonial rule, Africa underwent a major transformation and each colony eventually gained its freedom. Africans, in general, united in hopes of regaining their sovereignty. Nationalism originally referred to the process of uniting and regaining freedom from European rule, but it was also defined by pioneer African leaders to mean the creation of new nations as well as their economic and political transformation.

Development of African Nationalism

While a country such as Britain or Germany is viewed as one nation, in reality each contains a variety of nations or peoples. Uniting these various groups through common interests creates a nation. These nations are, as Benedict Anderson writes, "imagined" rather than "real." Anderson explains:

[A nation] is an imagined political community. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion. (p. 6)

A nation is a created community that believes that, though the community is diverse, as a whole it has a common interest that trumps all other interests; nationalism is the formation of this national identity.

African nationalism attempted to transform the identity of Africans. Rather than seeing themselves as Igbo or Hausa, Kikuyu or Masai, nationalist leaders wanted Africans to view themselves as Kenyan, Nigerian, and so forth. While the idea appears simple in theory, it proved far more difficult in practice. The colonial powers never considered that the colonies would eventually form sovereign nations, and ethnic groups were treated as separate "tribal" or religious groups so that colonial officials could play them against each other, thereby keeping a colony's populace divided, and, thus, less likely to work together to overthrow European rule. Various groups continued such practices even after independence, and the African continent in general suffered from religious and ethnic strife during the latter half of the twentieth century.

To compound matters further, the modern boundaries of African nations are not age-old ones recognized for centuries but arbitrary lines decided by European rulers in Germany at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. The events following that Congress are known as the "Scramble for Africa." Whereas many European nations have one ethnic group, this was not the case for African nations, colonial boundaries throughout Africa were not in alignment with precolonial ones. Colonial borders often split ethnic groups, spreading them into various countries rather than uniting them into single nations. The Somali, for instance, were split up among four colonies. Therefore, when examining African nationalism, one must consider that borders are not "natural" or old, and that every African colony has many different factions.

A major dilemma that confronted early African nationalists was how to retain an African identity while appropriating the positive attributes of Western development. Whether to completely adopt English or French ways, to reject them completely, or find some sort of compromise were questions that Africans had to confront. Some, who realized the strengths of their missionary education and Christianity and were content to perpetuate colonial norms, felt that Africans should strive to mirror European culture and life.

Initially, African nationalist movements were led by middle-class intellectuals. These elites usually had a missionary education and viewed themselves as brokers between colonial officials and the African people. As Basil Davidson observes: "These were minority movements, restricted mostly to the 'lawyer-merchant class,' timid in their protests, opposed to any call for mass support" (p. 74). In other words, these early nationalist movements were inherently elitist, not true mass movements, and, thus, were not representative of "the people." These elites were much wealthier and better educated than their peers, grateful for the advantages bestowed on them by their missionary education, and loyal to the colonial powers. Instead of transferring governing power to the African people, many of these early leaders felt that the colonial state should simply hand over power to them.

Others envisioned an "Africa for Africans" and sought to reclaim Africa for the native peoples. They refused to adopt European values and many aspects of Europe's cultures, and thought it fruitless to do so. Edward Wilmot Blyden (18321912), widely regarded as "the Father of Cultural Nationalism," felt that Africans must revive their cultures and relearn their traditions from those least influenced by colonial rule. Throughout the period of colonial rule, Africans were repeatedly told that their cultures were uncivilized, primitive, evil, and barbaric, and that their history began with the arrival of Europeans. Therefore, nationalist leaders had to "decolonize" the African mindset as well as overthrow colonial rule. African nationalists sought to "reeducate" their followers, and began to promote black pride. African foods, music, dress, architecture, and religion were celebrated and promoted as equal to, if not better than, their European counterparts. While these steps may seem minor, nationalists believed that, without such a cultural revival, Africans would forever perceive themselves as inferior to Europeans if they failed to regain the pride and self-worth that colonization had taken away from them.

This return to "tradition," however, was also problematic because African traditional rituals, leaders, governments, and policies were exploited or manipulated by colonial governments, often unintentionally. As Hobsbawm and Ranger explain:

British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans. Their own respect for "tradition" disposed them to look with favour upon what they took to be traditional in Africa. They set about to codify and promulgate these traditions, thereby transforming flexible custom into hard prescription. (p. 212)


A major advance in African nationalist movements came with the Pan-Africanist movement. Though its roots were in early abolitionist movements, Pan-Africanism, which sought to unite Africans and overcome ethnicity by stressing the similarities and connections among all Africans, blossomed in the early twentieth century. Originally led by blacks in America, Britain, and the Caribbean, the movement did not initially fully represent the needs of Africans, but blacks throughout the world came to view themselves in a position similar to those of others of African descent in Britain, the United States, and throughout Latin America.

The two most notable leaders of early Pan-Africanism were Marcus Garvey (18871940) and W. E. B. DuBois (18681963). Garvey, whose outspoken nature attracted many followers, believed that blacks would never be treated as the equals of whites in America and must return "home" to Africa if they were to be free. DuBois, who had earned a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1896, may be the greatest Pan-Africanist intellectual ever. He argued that Africa had a glorious past and that Africans had deeply influenced Western civilization. He believed that Africa had to be freed from colonial rule if African Americans were to be liberated, and his work sought to end the caricatures of blacks as the "clown of history, football of anthropology, and the slave of industry" (p. ix).

The Great Depression hurt Africa greatly. Employment, especially in rural areas, was scarce. Many migrated from the countryside to urban areas, and the populations of cities swelled. These areas became overcrowded and poverty was rampant. The European powers were ill-equipped to combat these developments because resources and attention were focused on World War II. This furthered discontent and Africans became more disorderly. Bolstered by the influx of returning soldiers, nationalist movements throughout Africa were energized. By the 1940s, nationalist movements were becoming more radical, and Africans everywhere began to protest colonial rule as they increasingly realized how wrong and oppressive it was.

As the century progressed, the nationalist movements began to attract more people and to wield more influence. Leaders who could relate to and represent more than one group or class became household names and heroes. These leaders mobilized "the people" rather than a select few or one ethnic group. Obafemi Awolowo (19091987; Nigeria), Kwame Nkrumah (19091972; Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (18891978; Kenya), Julius Nyerere (19221999; Tanzania), and Nelson Mandela (b. 1918; South Africa) belong to this new generation of leaders who successfully reached out and enlisted the support of their countries' population.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 marked a turning point in African history. Ethiopia was Africa's only truly independent nation. The invasion radicalized African nationalist movements and caused Africans to see themselves as peers and comrades in similar struggles. In general, they felt that Ethiopia symbolized a free, proud, civil, and successful Africa. As long as Ethiopia remained free of colonial domination, many believed that their dream of freedom and independence remained alive and achievable. If Ethiopia fell, however, then the hope for an independent Africa would die with it. Africans across the continent rallied to support Ethiopia, and blacks around the world attempted to supply both military and financial support for the Ethiopian cause.

African Nationalism after World War II

The next significant event in the development of African nationalism was World War II. Nearly two million Africans were recruited as soldiers, porters, and scouts for the Allies during the war. When these soldiers returned home, they returned to colonial states that still considered them inferior. Many veterans had expected that their dedication to colonial governments would be recognized and they would be rewarded accordingly. This was not to be, and these soldiers returned home to conditions worsened by a weak global economy. Because they had fought to protect the interests of the colonial powers only to return to the exploitation and indignities of colonial rule, these men became bitter and discontented.

In 1945, the Pan-African Manchester Congress in England marked a turning point because it attempted to address the needs of all blacks. Pan-Africanism began to stress common experiences of blackness and sought the liberation of all black people around the world. African leaders became more influential in the movement as they used it to attack colonial rule, and the movement would become more African-based after 1945.

Pan-Africanism proved very popular among nationalist African leaders because it offered a way for them to overcome both regionalism and ethnic divides by stressing commonalities and a common oppression. By the 1950s, Pan-Africanism had profoundly influenced almost every African nationalist leader: Kwame Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda (19641991; Zambia), Haile Selassie (18921975; Ethiopia), Albert Luthuli (c. 18981967; South Africa), and Nnamdi Azikiwe (19041996; Nigeria), all were deeply affected by the movement.

Kwame Nkrumah is regarded as the father of "Africanized" Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah detested colonial rule. Schooled in the United States, he was deeply influenced by the African American civil rights struggle, and began to emphasize the similarities between those struggles and those of African peoples. He argued that African workers and peasants needed to reclaim their independence, and advocated the use of force if necessary. For this to happen, Africans had to shed their strong ethnic or religious identities and see themselves simply as black or African rather than Yoruba or Fante. Nkrumah's intense disdain for colonial rule, zealous enthusiasm for independence, and the ideal of a United States of Africa made him popular among Africans throughout the continent. Nkrumah argued that they could not look to any outside power for support, and believed that foreign economic and political forces eroded African values. He also disagreed with the idea of returning to "African tradition." Instead, he argued that a new African identity must be created out of Islam, Christian, and traditional cultures.

Nnamdi Azikiwe was a prominent Pan-Africanist and an important thinker. Unlike most Pan-Africanists, Azikiwe rejected various aspects of Africa's past such as chieftaincy and informal education. He also rejected Nkrumah's united Africa, and advocated the use of colonial boundaries to define nations. For him, a united Africa meant cooperation, but not an actual unification of the continent. As Nigeria achieved independence and rapidly moved toward regionalism, Azikiwe abandoned his Pan-Africanist ideals for regional politics.

Pan-Africanism reinforced notions of black pride, and African history was used to foster a national identity. Many nationalist leaders stressed past empires (for example, the Mali and Asante), achievements (such as those of great Zimbabwe and ancient Egypt), and leaders (Shaka Zulu [c. 17871828] and Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia [18441913] among them) as a means to instill pride among African peoples. By stressing the continent's successes throughout its history, African leaders sought to convince their followers of their own worth and that Europeans were not superior to them. Again, the aim was to restore pride in Africa and create a sense of unity that nations could use to foster nationalism.

African women were major contributors to resistance to colonial rule and the promotion of nationalism. Many argue that women fared the worst under colonial rule. Governments such as those in Rhodesia, Kenya, and South Africa sought to restrict women's movement and even banned them from urban areas. In rural areas, they were often expected to maintain food production and raise children while their husbands rotted in jails, migrated to other areas in search of wage labor, or fought in wars (both in World War II and various liberation struggles). These women did not idly sit back and allow colonial governments to impinge on their rights, and, in response to their harsh situation under colonial rule, they organized protests, boycotts, workers' strikes, and demonstrations. In Kenya, Zimbabwe, Algeria, and other areas that attempted armed struggle, women as well as men carried messages, spied, and prepared meals. Overall, their impact on the anticolonial and nationalist movements throughout Africa was profound.

While Africans were widely successful in fostering nationalism in order to overthrow colonial oppressors, maintaining this unity after independence proved far more difficult. African nationalism was overtly anticolonial. For these nationalist movements, energy was concentrated on gaining freedom rather than planning how to run a country once freedom was achieved. Overthrowing colonial regimes was quite difficult, so these leaders could not afford to spend manpower, funds, and effort planning how to govern their new nations if they were successful.

Postcolonial Nationalism in Africa

Each African nation took a unique path toward independence. Some, such as Algeria, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, took extreme measures like waging a guerilla war on the colonial state; most countries pursued nonviolent means and achieved a peaceful transfer of power. But there were varying degrees of success. Some countries, such as Ghana, became completely independent while others, such as Congo, continued to depend on Europe, and their independence was superficial rather than absolute.

As the age of independence dawned, African leaders faced the daunting tasks of developing their vastly underdeveloped economies and reversing the economic ills of imperialism. Largely, African nations leaned toward leftist ideologies (such as Marxism and socialism) or capitalism. Because the Soviet Union possessed no African colonies, it was perceived as an ally of anticolonial movements. Nyerere, Nkrumah, Ahmed Sékou Touré (19221984), and Muammar Gadhafi (b. 1942; Libya) attempted to "indigenize" leftist doctrines and became the continent's leading leftist thinkers. They blamed Western capitalists' imperialism for Africa's ills, and believed the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism was the only way to truly liberate Africa. Precolonial African societies were based on communalism, and many viewed socialist and Marxist ideologies as a way for African nations to return to their precolonial ways of living because they promised economic equality and a classless society. Others felt that nations on the left, such as Cuba, the USSR, and China, should be looked to as allies and for aid; the leftist powers proved incapable of providing enough aid and support, however, and both socialism and Marxism have been abandoned throughout Africa. Nations that chose capitalism proved equally unsuccessful because African economies were not diverse enough to sustain development. World Bank and structural adjustment programs proposed by the West only worsened Africa's underdevelopment. The debt of these nations increased exponentially and their economies weakened considerably.

Consequently, African nationalistic ideals of the 1950s and 1960s have waned. African nations have not succeeded in convincing their countries' populations to put national interests ahead of regional, ethnic, or religious ones. In various parts of Africa, politics has progressed so that leaders must rely on the backing of their own ethnic group, and, if one branches out too far, he or she will be replaced by someone who will better represent interests of the specific ethnic group. In other words, being loyal to one ethnic group, religious faith, or geographical region can offer protection, but it also creates great divides in society. Ethnic divisions have hurt both nationalism and development in Africa. Countries such as Nigeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have had their share of ethnic rivalries, civil wars, and genocide. In order to avoid ethnic clashes, some leaders advocated socialism, military rule, or one-party states, but these ideas have failed and such maneuvers have served only to widen ethnic divisions.

Many African nations have failed to maintain a strong sense of nationalism or national identity. Ethnic rivalries, diseases, unemployment, globalization, corruption, greed, and natural disasters have all played major roles in the dire reality that is post-independence Africa. African nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s was overtly anticolonial or anti-European. Once the colonial powers formally pulled out, Africans looked inward to consolidate power and rid themselves of political rivals. Military coups, one-party political systems, widespread corruption, and tyrannical autocrats became the norm.

As a result, numerous scholars have provided many valid criticisms of nationalist movements. Initially, scholars harshly criticized African ruling parties and political systems as they tended to promote corruption, violence, and tribalism as well as sponsoring useless plans for development. Most experts of the 1960s believed that independence would bring about progress and development. By the late 1970s, such optimism had been eradicated, most scholars became pessimistic about Africa's future, and "Afropessimism" became an ideology of its own. Civil wars, depleted economies, increasing debt, skyrocketing unemployment, and despotic leaders led many to become disheartened and to give up hope.

More recent critiques have been twofold. One type offers deeper analyses of how these negative systems operate and goes beyond identifying the problems in order to fully understand how coups and tyrants can be eliminated. Leroy Vail's work is an example of this approach. His The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, an edited collection of essays, aims to explore why and how tribalism has been employed throughout both the colonial and postcolonial eras. Instead of accepting tribalism as inevitable, Vail discusses how ethnic identities have been manipulated and strengthened over the past century, while demonstrating how the educated elites and the continent-wide movement toward one-party rule promoted tribalism: it was a way for leaders to secure support even when their policies failed. As he puts it, "They concentrate upon its heroes, its historical successes, and its unsullied cultural purity, and are decked out with the mythic 'rediscovered' social values of the past" (p. 14). In other words, tribalism and ethnic affiliations became easy ways to achieve or consolidate power when development failed. They have allowed regional nationalism to blossom while weakening national identities as a whole.

The second type of critique emphasizes areas where Africans themselves have succeeded despite such difficult surroundings. Richard Werbner and Terence Ranger document how Africans, in general, react and cope with despotic leaders and harsh political realities. Werbner and Ranger aim "to show how and why the present reconstructions of personal and collective identity, of social subjectivity, and of moral agency draw on the culturally nuanced resources of social memory for negation, for affirmation, and for playful fun" (p. 4). Their work recognizes agency on the part of the African masses, instead of assuming them to be helpless pawns in the hands of tyrants. While these achievements are not monolithic, acknowledging them does serve to diminish the pessimistic view that Africa is doomed to remain lawless and antidemocracy.

While Africa has failed to develop along the lines of nations such as Japan or the United States, nationalism has not been completely erased. Manifestations of nationalism and national unity are most apparent during times of natural disaster, sporting events, and international crises. For Africa to compete in the twenty-first-century's global economy, African nations must foster stronger national identities that can be sustained for an extended period. The unity has to be permanent and not as easily dissipated as the attempts of the 1960s. It must also be strong enough to overcome ethnic divisions and rivalries that have plagued the continent since independence. Poverty, AIDS, starvation, globalization, and negative interference by the West may be common problems that will finally unite Africans and foster such nationalism.

See also Africa, Idea of ; Afropessimism ; Anticolonialism: Africa ; Black Atlantic ; Black Consciousness ; Capitalism: Africa ; Colonialism: Africa ; Development ; Empire and Imperialism ; Ethnicity and Race: Africa ; Globalization: Africa ; Neocolonialism ; Pan-Africanism ; State, The: The Postcolonial State ; Westernization: Africa .


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Toyin Falola

Tyler Fleming

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Nationalism: Africa

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Nationalism: Africa