The Rise of Nationalism in Africa
Focus on how the two World Wars were catalysts to enhance African Nationalism during the struggle for independence in Africa.
Above is the audio version of the post. It's a text to speech version.
Welcome back to African History Blog. In the previous post, we discussed the underrated role of Africans in WWII and why it was downplayed purposely by the colonial powers for various vile reasons. Today we see how this ungrateful attitude was one of the catalysts to the rise of Nationalism in Africa.
African nationalism is a subjective feeling of kinship or affinity shared by people of African descent. It is a feeling based on shared cultural norms, traditional institutions, racial heritage, and a common historical experience. One enduring historical experience shared by nearly all Africans was colonial oppression, discussed in the previous chapter. Along with this sense of shared identity is a collective desire to maintain one’s own cultural, social, and political values independent of outside control.
It is worth stressing that African nationalism, like nationalism elsewhere in the world, is not new; it is as old as ancient times, which is contrary to a common view in Western scholarship of Africa. African nationalism predates colonialism. In the annals of African history, one finds coherent organized African communities with a very strong sense of identity, prepared to defend their territorial and cultural integrity against those who would want to destroy or undermine them. For instance, when the great African king, Mansa Musa of Mali, was on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324–1325, the Wolof people— who had been forcibly brought under the Mali kingdom—seized the opportunity to rebel against the Mali kingdom. The Wolof people were expressing a nationalism, a separate national identity and a desire to govern themselves in their own land. We also know that Africans did not passively accept European rule, as we saw in the previous posts. The effective resistances put up against European colonization by the Ashanti people of Ghana, the Hehe of Tanzania, or the Zulus of South Africa suggest a very strong sense of national identity that was already in place—and a fierce determination not to succumb to any other authority but their own. The king of the Yao people in Tanzania had this to say to a German commander who had been sent to him to affirm the German colonial claim to his country in 1890:
“I have listened to your words but can find no reason why I should obey you—I would rather die first. . . . If it should be friendship that you desire, then I am ready for it, today and always; but to be your subject, that I cannot be. . . . If it should be war you desire, then I am ready, but never to be your subject. . . . I do not fall at your feet, for you are God’s creature just as I am . . . I am Sultan here in my land. You are Sultan there in yours. Yet listen, I do not say to you that you should obey me; for I know that you are a free man. . . . As for me, I will not come to you, and if you are strong enough, then come and fetch me.”
A Ghanaian king, Prempeh I of Asante was exiled for several years to an Indian Ocean island for his refusal to cooperate, and violent tensions between the Ashanti people and the British continued for ninety years, well into the beginning of the twentieth century. The king of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso told a French captain: “I know the whites wish to kill me in order to take my country, and yet you claim that they will help me to organize my country. But I find my country good just as it is. I have no need of them. I know what is necessary for me and what I want. I have my own merchants. . . .Also consider yourself fortunate that I do not order your head to be cut off. Go away now, and above all, never come back.” The French never went away and the Mossi lost their country. A leader of the Nama people in present day Namibia refused to relinquish power to the Germans. The Germans were not impressed either, and took over the country. Colonial powers, for their own reasons, chose to call these groups “tribes,” despite the fact that many of them were extremely large with well-structured social and political institutions. Ample evidence shows that these groups were nations occupying specific territories that they were willing to defend, if threatened or attacked. The sentiments expressed by the kings and leaders demonstrate nothing but nationalism by a people who wanted either such relations with foreigners as exist between equals or to be left alone. Group sentiments that emerged in Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism are clearly manifestations of nationalism, similar to what one would have seen in Africa on the eve of the European scramble for the continent.
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World Wars I and II
An African poet, Taban Lo Liyong, once said that Africans have three white men to thank for their political freedom and independence: Nietsche, Hitler, and Marx; Nietsche for contriving the notion of the superman, the master race; Hitler for trying to implement Nietsche’s idea in Germany with a view to extending it globally, thus setting off the most destructive war the world had ever witnessed; and Marx for raising the consciousness of the oppressed and colonized masses in Africa by universalizing the concept of economic exploitation of human beings. Although Lo Liyong does not explicitly make the connection between African freedom and the three men, there is no denying the fact that both world wars had a tremendous impact on African nationalism in several important ways.
First of all, millions of Africans were drafted to serve in both wars. The British alone were able to enlist about 700,000 Africans to fight on their side in World War II. The irony of using “unfree” Africans to fight against German imperialism and to die for the freedom of the allied countries was not lost on the African soldiers who saw military action in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa itself. They learned modern military skills in battle and demonstrated leadership abilities. Many of them performed acts of bravery and endurance that should have banished once and for all any racist notions that Africans, given a chance, could not measure up to Europeans. Once the war ended, African veterans felt that they had earned at least the right to be treated with respect. Basil Davidson quotes a Nigerian soldier who wrote home from India during the war:
“We all overseas soldiers are coming home with new ideas. We have been told what we fought for. That is ‘freedom.’ We want freedom, nothing but freedom.”
African veterans resented very much the lack of gratitude shown by their colonial masters. Many British veterans were rewarded for their part in saving Britain and her empire with generous pensions and offers of nearly free land in the colonies. The African soldiers were given handshakes and train tickets for the journey back home. They could keep their khaki uniforms and nothing else. These African soldiers, after returning home, were willing to use their new skills to assist nationalist movements fighting for freedom that were beginning to take shape in the colonies. Service in the colonial army made it possible for Africans from different regions of the same colony to meet and get to know one another, an important step in the breakdown of ethnic barriers and the development of shared identification with the country as a whole.
Beyond the military and leadership skills acquired, and the sharpening of contradictions inherent in colonized Africans fighting in wars to save their colonial masters from the tyranny of a fellow white man (Hitler), the two world wars had a very important psychological dimension. Because the conquest of Africa had been accomplished so thoroughly and so effectively, a myth of the white man’s superiority and invincibility had developed. The white man, through his policy of racial segregation in the colonies and his harsh treatment of the “natives,” had, in fact, nurtured this myth. He had behaved in Africa with impunity, as though there was nothing the African could do about it. The war experience changed all that, at least for the African soldiers who had fought side by side with the white man. The Africans noticed that, in war, the white man bled, cried, was scared, and, when shot, died just like anyone else. They also saw that he displayed a range of emotions and abilities that Africans knew they themselves had. It dawned on the African that beneath the skin, there was no difference between him and the European. In the words of the Zimbabwean nationalist, Ndabaningi Sithole, “This discovery, for indeed it was an eye-opening discovery, had a revolutionizing psychological impact on the African.” From that point on, it would be impossible to convince the African that the European was some kind of “superman.” African soldiers also heard about the spectacular military successes of the Japanese against the Russians; these exploits, of a presumably inferior non-European people, served to break the myth as well. The wars indeed helped fuel African nationalism.
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Finally, economic conditions deteriorated considerably in the colonies during and between the two world wars: high unemployment, accelerated rural-urban migration resulting in overcrowded cities, inadequate schools, and health facilities. All resources were diverted to the war effort, and Africans were coerced to produce more to feed Europe even as they were not producing enough to feed themselves. Africans were taxed more and forced labor became more widespread. European colonial powers were exhausted physically and economically after each world war. Thus, they were not willing or able to commit substantial resources to improving dire social and economic conditions in the African colonies. They were unwilling militarily to suppress nationalist movements that had been fueled by the devastation of the war. After World War II, both Britain and France were looking for an honorable exit from Africa. Hitler, a man imbued with a racist ideology, determined to build a state of pure Aryans, precipitated World War II, and engaged his fellow Europeans to utter exhaustion in the most destructive and wasteful war the world had ever seen. It was certainly in this sense that poet Lo Liyong credited Hitler with helping to inspire the African struggle for independence.
To conclude on this, it is easier for me now, and hopefully for you, to understand how racial segregation was used in Africa and elsewhere (especially in South Africa) to protect and perpetuate the myth of the inherent superiority of the white race. White people were afraid that if everyone were given an equal chance to compete or strive together, the myth simply could not hold together for long. In this new light, we have seen the correlation between the world wars and the rise of nationalism in Africa. In the next post, we will be talking about The Influence of Pan Africanism and the rise of Nationalism in Africa
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