Nationalism and Ethnicity: Africa

views updated

Nationalism and Ethnicity: Africa

Nationalism can be best described as an awakening of a sense of national identity and patriotic loyalty to a country, a nation, or a nation-state. Broadly, African nationalism refers to resistance and protest movements against European colonial rule, leading to demands for independence. Ideologically, African nationalism involved different political, economic, and socio-cultural elements who were bound together by the desire to overthrow

European colonial rule in Africa. African nationalism developed in different phases over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Modern African nationalism may be profitably studied under three broad categories that have been identified as micro-nationalism (nineteenth century), mezzo-nationalism (1914–1945), and mega-nationalism (post–World War II).


African nationalist sentiment first arose in the period of the European “scramble” and partition of Africa at the close of the nineteenth century. Following the Berlin Conference on Africa (1884–1885), European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain) began occupying and restructuring the African continent. The period coincided with the abolition of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the development of commodity trade now required for Europe's expanding industries. By the end of the nineteenth century, the European powers had divided Africa, and most African nations had lost their sovereignty. European colonization elicited a wide array of responses from Africans.

With few exceptions, European colonization was resisted from the beginning of the scramble for Africa. Often referred to as traditional nationalism, it was led by the pre-twentieth-century African traditional political elite, who sought to prevent the penetration of European powers into their territories. The resistance movements of this period were expressed both violently and nonvio-lently or diplomatically. The leaders of these movements challenged the European conquest and sought to prevent the colonization of their societies. In this manner, Africans were expressing a strong sense of nationalism—loyalty to their nations, nation-states, and, sometimes, ethnicities. However, some Africans accepted the Europeans for pragmatic reasons.

Evidence of resistance to European colonization appears throughout Africa's early colonial history. For example, the Ashanti leader Prempeh I (r. 1888–1931) rejected a British offer of protectorate status. Menelik II, emperor of Ethiopia, made it clear in a letter to Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia in 1891 that he would not tolerate the colonization or division of Ethiopia. This vision of cooperation would not last, as evidenced by the bloody Battle of Adwa (1896) with Italy, which Ethiopia won. Other instances of violent resistance to European colonization in Africa include the Ndebele Rebellion against the British in 1896, the Herero Uprising in German South-West Africa (modern Namibia) from 1904 until 1907 and the Maji Maji Rebellion against German policies and occupation in parts of German East Africa (modern Tanzania) in 1905. Yaa Asantewaa

(c. 1830s–1921), the Asante queen mother, rallied the Asante against the British, when they exiled the Asante king, Prempeh 1 (1888–1931) to Seychelles in 1896. In 1900, she led a rebellion against the British in what is known as the War of the Golden Stool and the final war in a series of Anglo-Ashanti Wars between the British and the Ashanti Empire. Although the Asante were defeat and Yaa Asantewaa equally exiled to Seychelles, where she died in 1921, her rebellion highlights the important roles women played in pre-colonial African politics as well as rejection of European colonialism by Africa's indigenous political elite. The aim of African nationalists during this period was primarily to challenge the establishment of European colonial states and to reassert independence for the continent's various nationalities, kingdoms, and chiefdoms.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the rise of political/pressure groups such as the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society, which was formed in the 1890s in the Gold Coast. The Society focused on advancing the cause of indigenous Africans and ameliorating conditions of economic and political disempowerment that began to threaten the rights of Africans under colonial rule. Taken together, these resistance efforts offer a picture of the extent to which the African continent had been thrown into turmoil as a result of the scramble for Africa, the establishment of colonialism, and the restructuring of African societies to meet the demands of European societies. Although this first stage had largely ended by the first decade of the twentieth century, the political struggle spearheaded by the indigenous elite and other Africans affected by European colonization provided the background for the political struggle of later years.


The second phase in African nationalism (1914–1945) began with the establishment of effective colonial administration by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. This phase of African nationalism, carried out within the framework of the new multination states created by the colonial powers, was a subtler continuation of the earlier resistance movements that had failed to stop the consolidation of colonial rule. For the most part, their nationalist sentiments were expressed in the form of cultural nationalism which sought to assert the integrity and validity of African cultures, language, and religion including Islam and African independent churches that affirmed African values. Cultural nationalist such as Simon Kimbangu (c. 1887–1951) of the Belgium Congo; Nehemiah Tile (c. 1850s–1891) of South Africa; Edward Blyden (1832–1912) of Liberia; and Joseph E. Casley Hayford (1866–1930) a prominent Gold Coast lawyer relied on

African cultural values to articulate nationalist demands and challenge to colonial institutions.

The nationalist movement in this period was also led by Western-educated African intellectuals, such as Jomo Kenyatta (c. 1894–1978, Kenya), Kenneth Kaunda (b. 1924, Zambia), Haile Selassie (1892–1975, Ethiopia), Albert Luthuli (c. 1898–1967, South Africa), and Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904–1996, Nigeria). Their initial objective was reformation of the colonial system and incorporation of the emerging African elite within the existing colonial political, economic, and social institutions. In the interwar years (1918–1939), African nationalists were emboldened by President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech (1918), which endorsed the right of nations, including subject peoples, to self-determination.

The African intelligentsia also spearheaded the formation of political organizations to push for reforms. In West Africa, the People's Union was formed in Lagos in 1908 while the Nigeria National Democratic party was formed in 1923. Casely-Hayford organized the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) as a platform for the British West African intelligentsia to articulate the aspirations of African and to bring such aspiration before the government. The NCBWA convened its inaugural meeting in Accra, Ghana from March 11 to 29, 1920. The NCBWA sent a delegation of representatives from Britain's West African colonies in September 1920 to the British Colonial Office to request reforms, including empowering Africans to elect colonial administrators, separating the judiciary from the executive, establishing a resident university, and guaranteeing equal treatment for Africans in civil service.

The withdrawal of the British in South Africa after the last Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) and the formation of the Union in 1910 culminated in the transfer of power to the white settlers in South Africa. And thus began a systematic process of institutionalizing racism and white minority rule, which progressively excluded the black population from political and economic control. The 1913 Land Act in particular restricted black land ownership. The reaction of the African political elite to the racial discrimination in the new South Africa led to the formation of the South African Native Congress in 1912 which became the African National Congress in 1923. The Congress, under the leadership of Pixley Seme (c. 1880–1951), John Jabavu (1859–1921), John Dube (1870–1949), and Sol Plaatje (1876–1932), championed the protest for black political, economic, and social rights. In North Africa, political organizations such as the Wafd of Egypt; the Yung Tunisian Party and the Destour (1920) in Tunisia; and the Etoile Nord Africain (the North African Star) formed by Algerian migrants in France in 1926 pressured the French for reforms. Overall, the nationalist struggle in this period was led by a small group of elites whose goal was not to regain independence but reforms.

The political struggles of the 1930s and the early 1940s were influenced by significant changes in the colonial and world economy among specific internal developments in individual colonies. The Great Depression, when African peasants faced low producer prices and unemployment, the Italo-Ethiopian conflict (1935–1941), and the outbreak of World War II (1939–1945), generated discontent against colonial occupation from peasants and workers.

In the 1930s and the early 1940s, a younger and more vocal and militant elite that demanded significant reforms and some degree of self-rule began to champion the nationalist struggle. Political associations such as the Gold Coast Youth Conference (1930) under the leadership of J. B. Danquah, the West African Youth League (1935) led by I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, the Nigerian Youth Movement (1934), and the Neo Destour Party (1934) formed by Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia championed African demands. These political organizations took a more militant stance and began the process of mobilizing the African population for political action. In addition, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (the only free African nation) had a significant psychological impact all over Africa. Africans began to rise not just in protest of their colonization but also in sympathy with Ethiopia. The momentum of the 1930s was sustained by the outbreak of World War II in 1939.


The third and most significant phase in the development of African nationalism began at the end of World War II in 1945. Across the continent, African communities had mobilized to support the war effort. They contributed financial support both directly and indirectly, supplied soldiers in a variety of capacities, and provided resources, including food, for the troops. Nearly two million Africans were recruited as soldiers, porters, and scouts for the Allies. The war redefined European and African relations in colonial Africa in many ways. Yet these sacrifices did not end when the war ended as African people found themselves in a deep economic depression after the war.

Africans' demands on the colonial government intensified after World War II. African combatants were emboldened by the demystification and the demythologization of the idea of the white man's invincibility, yet African soldiers returned home 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 did not occur, and these soldiers returned to war-ravaged

countries severely undermined by a weak global economy. Nationalist movements throughout Africa were energized by this influx of returning soldiers.

The postwar period was also characterized by challenges to superpower hegemony and the profound changes occurring in Latin America and Asia, along with the emergence of new international organizations. The Atlantic Charter (1941) and the anti-colonial stance of the Soviet Union and the United States helped to fuel nationalist movements. By the late 1940s, nationalist movements became more radical and Africans everywhere began to protest colonial rule.

Pan-Africanism A major factor in the advancement of nationalist movements in African was Pan-Africanism. From its roots in early abolitionist movements, Pan-Africanism sought to unite Africans and overcome ethnicity by stressing the similarities and connections among all Africans. Pan-Africanism emphasized black pride and African identity and sought to unite Africans with their kin in the diaspora. For members of the African diaspora, Pan-Africanism was a tool to overcome discrimination and oppression, just as it helped Africans on the continent overcome ethnicity and European colonialism. The two most notable leaders of early Pan-Africanism were Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) who advocated a return to Africa for blacks and W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963) who emphasized Africa's glorious past and linked African independence from colonial rule to African-American liberation. African political organizations such as the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society and the African National Congress, and the National Congress of West Africa drew inspiration from Pan-Africanism. The ideology of négritude, which arose among French-speaking African students in France in the 1930s, espoused ideas similar to those of the early Pan-Africanists. Pan-African-ist ideas which blossomed in the early twentieth century as African societies came under colonial control gained momentum after the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England.

Pan-Africanism was very popular among African elites, most of whom had studied in Europe and the United States. By the 1950s, Pan-Africanism had profoundly influenced leading African nationalists, including its most ardent advocate—Kwame Nkrumah (1900– 1972) of Ghana. Others influenced by Pan-Africanism included Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere (1922– 1999) of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Albert Luthuli of South Africa, and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria. Later nationalists such as Nelson Mandela (b. 1918) of South Africa and Robert Mugabe (b. 1924) of Zimbabwe were also influenced by the movement. These men played influential roles in both the Pan-African movement and the nationalist struggles in their respective countries after 1945.


The path to independence varied throughout Africa. Egypt was the first country to gain political independence in 1922 following the nationalist struggle under the Wafd Party under Zaghalul Pasha in 1918. Although politically independent, Egypt remained under the political influence of Britain until the revival of Egyptian nationalism in the 1940s. The eventual emergence of the young militant nationalist, Colonel Gamal Nasser (1918–1970) as ruler of Egypt in 1954 after a military coup. Although Britain, France, the United States, and the new state of Israel threatened Egyptian independence Nasser survived by becoming an ally of the Soviet Union.

Nationalism in North Africa was affected by a new world order at the end of World War II. As a former Italian colony, Libya became a UN trusteeship under British control. Britain granted Libya independence in 1951 under King Idris (1890–1983), a less than satisfactory outcome for young Libyan nationalists. Young nationalists took over power in a military coup in 1969 under Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi (b. 1942). The path to independence in the rest of the Maghrib was affected by the nature of French colonial ideology of assimilation and association. The nationalist movement in Morocco and Tunisia where the French established protectorate systems of administration were influenced by a strong Muslim tradition and the existence of a long tradition of political agitation. Algerian nationalists faced a more difficult situation. French Algeria was a colony administered as a part of France. As such, Algeria was engaged in a bloody armed struggle led by the National Liberation Front or Front de Libe'ration Nationale (FLN). The FLN established military posts throughout Algeria and carried out guerilla attacks. By 1958 it had become clear that Algerians would settle for nothing short of independence.

West African colonies had a more or less peaceful process of transition to independence following the adoption of a series of constitutions that culminated in the liberation of many West African countries beginning with Ghana in 1957. In Ghana, the struggle for independence was led by the conservative United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) formed in 1944 by J. B. Danquah (1895–1965). The UGCC was displaced by the more radical and populist Convention People's Party (CPP) under the leadership of the charismatic Kwame Nkru-mah. Its broad social ideology appealed to the masses and strengthened the party's challenge of British colonial authority. Nigeria's independence followed in 1960 through the efforts of Nnamdi Azikiwe and the National

Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) among other groups. The path to independence in French West Africa was also influenced by the French policy of assimilation and the French view that the colonies were an extension of France overseas. Still some Africans who did not subscribe to this ideology organized political movements. The Rassemblement Democratique Africain (RDA), formed in 1946, championed agitation for independence in French West and Equatorial Africa. The RDA struggle forced General Charles de Gaulle to offer a compromise, which gave French western and Equatorial African colonies the option of forming a French Community under which France's twelve colonies would be given self-government and control over local affairs while France controlled finance, defense, and foreign affairs. All the colonies except Guinea chose this option.

In east, southern, and central Africa, African nationalism was affected by the presence of Europeans and Asian settlers. In most of these territories, the struggle involved peasants whose access to land and other economic opportunities had been restricted by white minorities as was the case in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa. While most of Africa had gained independence by the 1960s, the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola and the white settler colonies of Zimbabwe and South Africa continued the struggle, taking such extreme measures as waging guerilla warfare into the 1980s and 1990s before independence was won.


Overall, African nationalism developed as a reaction to colonial rule with the goal of achieving independence for the nation-states created under colonialism. Led mostly by Western-educated African elites, African nationalism led to the achievement of political independence by forty African countries by the late 1980s. Yet, independence may have been difficult to achieve without the efforts of other groups such as peasant men and women, workers, and traders. African women contributed extensively to resistance efforts and nationalist movements in different parts of Africa. Like their male counterparts, African women responded to their harsh situation under colonial rule by organizing protests, boycotts, workers' strikes, and demonstrations.


Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. New York: Verso.

DuBois, W. E. B. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International.

Esedebe, P. Olisanwuche. 1994. Pan-Africanism: The Idea and Movement, 1776–1991. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press.

Falola, Toyin. 2001. Nationalism and African Intellectuals. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Hodgkin, Thomas Lionel. 1956. Nationalism in Colonial Africa. London: Muller.

Mazrui, Ali A., and Michael Tidy. 1984. Nationalism and New States in Africa: From About 1935 to the Present. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann.

Zachernuk, Philip S. 2000. Colonial Subjects: An African Intelligentsia and Atlantic Ideas. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Chima J. Korieh

About this article

Nationalism and Ethnicity: Africa

Updated About content Print Article


Nationalism and Ethnicity: Africa