Nationalism In Africa Research Paper

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Most analyses of the phenomenon of nationalism in Africa were made recently, in the period after independence was achieved. Studies focus on nationalist processes comparable to those which have taken place in Europe, most of them starting in the nineteenth century. The analyses usually begin with the era when emerging states started to demand international recognition, as other nations had done earlier. Only recently have a few political scientists and historians given a modest amount of attention to a long history of nationalist movements in Africa (Davidson 1992, Berman and Lonsdale 1992). Others have stressed the catalytic role played by the colonial phase (Ranger 1968, Johnson 1971, Mamdani 1996). But Africanist literature has focused primarily on ‘ethnic’ problems, portraying them as quite different from—even antagonistic to—a ‘nationalist’ approach. Until recently, no investigator had pointed out that ethnicity can be a function of nationalism as much as nationalism was derived from ethnic awareness (Anderson 1983, Berman and Lonsdale 1992, Turner 2000). The standard view must be considerably revised, because it is the offshoot of a long tradition of biases inherited from the colonial past of ethnographic research (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Amselle and Mbokolo 1985, Coquery-Vidrovitch 1995).

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African political history began very early, several centuries before the colonial episode. Therefore, we designate endogenous nationalism antedating colonization as ‘older nationalism.’ We will see that in precolonial days, what we could regard as legitimate small ‘nation-states’ did indeed exist, although they were not founded on the same presuppositions as in the Western world. These preexisting elements were the foundation on which the process of ‘modern’ nationalism was, more or less convincingly, grafted in the form of independence as defined by international settlements and the United Nations.

With minor exceptions, the African continent has remained independent until very late in history, at least vis-a-vis European powers. Certain limited points on the coast were occupied at a very early date: the port of Loanda in the west and Mozambique Island in the east by the Portuguese; the port of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, disputed among the Arabs and Portuguese from the sixteenth century; the Senegal island of Saint Louis at the mouth of the river by the French; and Cape Town by the Dutch, starting in the middle of the seventeenth century. A series of coastal outposts was taken in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the British, including Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast and, above all, the small Crown colony created in 1807 at the tip of the Sierra Leone Peninsula to receive slaves ‘emancipated’ from ships engaged in smuggling them. However, at least until the 1830s—when the conquest of Algeria by the French began and the occupation of the interior plateaux of southern Africa was commenced by the Boers, soon followed by the British on the coast of Natal (1844)— almost the total population of African peoples lived in independence, except for a conglomeration of east coast territories dominated by the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar.

1. Older Forms Of Nationalism

In the past, we meet two forms of ‘nationalism’: the erection of actual small nation-states built over a long course of time around a well-defined plan, and the irruption of conquest states, which hardly had the time to establish corresponding nations and instead triggered revolts of preexisting nationalities.

These conquest states resulted from a series of jihads (holy wars of Islam), which succeeded one another with no interruption in the northern hemisphere from the middle of the eighteenth to the last third of the nineteenth century. They did not arise from nationalism in the usual sense of the term, but they forged a strong cultural bond. This was established in western Africa around the Pular culture (Robinson 1985). Futa Djallon is a good example. In this mountainous region containing the sources of the Niger, Senegal, and Gambia rivers, the Muslim Fulbe (advocates of slavery, including shepherds, farmers, and scholars) gained the upper hand over local farmers and indigenous religions. Locally, the main innovation of the Fulbe was using the Arabic alphabet to transcribe the literature of the Pular language. This led to the popularization of a culture based on educated people who had an awareness of solidarity. Pular migrations all over West Africa helped propagate their feeling of belonging to a common culture. The Pular community, founded by Usman dan Fodio in 1804 in northern Nigeria, was thus both an ideological and an economic venture. Its specificity has survived to the present day. The community marvelously managed to resolve the problem common to all Pular theocracies: how to convert a tolerated minority religion, only adopted by chiefs when it seemed to them to be useful, to a religious and imperial state ideology; how to turn a small, strict, geographically isolated Muslim group into a driving force to obtain recognition of western Sudan as Dar Al Islam.

2. Precolonial Nation-States

Several animist or Muslim states were constituted as a nation much earlier. The oldest examples of these are ancient Egypt and, to a certain extent, Ethiopia from the beginning of one era. North Africa was reconfigured by the Ottoman Empire: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia already had their borders long before the nineteenth century; the first as an independent country, the other two as Turkish provinces. Tunisia and Morocco became protectorates (in 1883 and 1912), Algeria a French departement. Nationalism was molded in preexisting frameworks in conjunction with the anticolonial struggle, although it triggered reactions in the form of regionalisms founded on linguistic and cultural claims. Berber speakers, vigorously repressed by speakers of Arabic in contemporary Algeria, are a case in point.

Outside Islam, the west coast of Africa was experiencing the proliferation of small nation-states at least since the sixteenth century—the term is not exaggerated, as Basil Davidson (1992) has demonstrated, mutatis mutandis—if we take this to mean political formations of people who have shared a common history and most often the same language for several generations, or even several centuries and, recognizing the same political system under the rule of a sovereign or chief acknowledged by all, and working to a greater or lesser extent under this authority in the same economic network of productive and commercial activities. Since Benedict Anderson (1983), we do not hesitate to speak of the genesis of nationalism outside the Western world.

The emergence (toward the end of the seventeenth century), the rise (from 1760 to 1840), and the decline (in the second half of the nineteenth century) of small political organizations focused on slaving—coinciding chronologically with the parallel evolution of the Atlantic slave labor trade, which itself developed simultaneously with the expansion of sugar cane plantations from Brazil to the Caribbean—was no mere coincidence. The establishment of many political organisms correlates closely with the era’s dominant international market, at least until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The system combined war and trade. During each dry season, the army foraged for prisoners to supply objects of the slave trade. During the rainy season, the soldiers became peasants again, coming back home to toil their lands working in subsistence agriculture.

The kingdom of Abomey (in today’s Benin, formerly Dahomey) established a strong political community with a common language and culture, and each generation of children of slaves born on Dahomean soil became Dahomean. This national unity explains why the conquest of Dahomey by the French (1890–1894) was the toughest colonial war and the longest in the region. The people of Dahomey gave mass support to the resistance put up by the last king, Behanzin. By the same token, in the heart of presentday Ghana, the Ashanti Empire, annexed in 1897, did not accept British sovereignty until the Crown resolved, in 1928, to recall the Asantehene and reinstate the sovereign on his Golden Stool, the symbol of national unity.

We could go on and on citing cases of small nationstates which took shape from the eighteenth century on (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1999). Other kingdoms appeared during the same period in Central Africa, in the rift lakes region of Rwanda, Burundi, Ankole, and Buganda, where a long collective history had endowed the inhabitants with a common language and, consequently, a common culture. Nationalist excesses in the form of ethnic purges are merely a recent manifestation of a long-standing demographic and political disequilibrium aggravated by the traumas of colonial and postcolonial history.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the small, militarized Zulu kingdom of Shaka appeared in the northern part of what is now Natal. This realm never submitted to British domination. The last revolt there erupted in 1906. Using this glorious past to justify their political demands paved the way for young militant Christians to found the nationalist Inkatha Party in the early 1920s.

3. Genesis Of Modern Nationalisms

Militant nationalists of the early years of independence attuned their brand of emerging nationalism to the numerous revolts which had developed nearly everywhere during the colonial period. Nevertheless, we should not confuse what have been called ‘primary resistance movements’ with modern nationalism (Ranger 1968). Ranger postulated that, slowly but surely, inhabitants of a territory delimited by a colonial power will accept this entity and claim possession of it. By now this ‘nationalization’ has taken place almost everywhere, despite often poorly understood reactionary movements. A contrasting example is Eritrea, which won its independence for the very reason that Eritrean nationalism has been constructed for a century outside Ethiopia. Ethiopia triumphed in 1896 over the Italian invader, while the province of Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890, then, as a result of World War II, a British protectorate from 1940 to 1960. The Eritreans never recognized their territory’s reversion to Ethiopia, arranged by Western negotiations in 1960.

In sub-Saharan Africa, nationalism engendered by colonialization did not always appear where preexisting nation-states were confirmed. An example is the Fante nationalism, which developed in the second half of the nineteenth century on the Ghanian coast. Fante communities which had previously existed constituted a sprinkling of small districts, united solely by language and their occupations because they had long been agents of European merchants on the coast and on privileged terms with the English. Exposed to Western influences more than the rest of the population, they had created a Christianized Creole culture, which made them early adherents of political modernism and aligned them against European intervention from the start. The movement was triggered by British interference starting in 1843. The chiefs, dispersed until then, reacted in 1852 by sanctioning an internal confederation inspired by Western ideas. The Fante Confederation (1867–1873) provided for a constitutional regime, with a national assembly of chiefs and an executive parliament. These ideas were propagated by the publication of West African Countries and People by the Sierra Leonean physician James Africanus Horton. From 1865 on, to the dismay of the British, Horton advocated the idea of African independence, arguing that the country was more advanced than Liberia 20 years earlier.

4. A Moderate Colonial Protonationalism

Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, new economic and social conditions fostered by the conquest provoked an anticolonial reaction of the ‘evolved’ victims of colonialization. These protests had the paradoxical effect of reinforcing their territorial cohesion within borders which were frequently conceived and imposed entirely by outsiders.

The initial militant nationalists were graduates of mission schools. The first of these in Sierra Leone were descendants of freed slaves, subsequently known as Krio, which describes both a language and a culture. Others were natives of the Ghanian coast and the mouth of the Niger, often scions of historically dominant classes. A prime example is the Brew clan, founded by an eighteenth-century Irish slaver. His African descendants devoted themselves to trading— first to the slave trade and, when that became impossible, to export commodities. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when British competition was making grave inroads thanks to colonialization, these cultivated bourgeois still sent their children to study in England, or at least to mission schools on the coast. They bred lawyers and journalists. A dozen of these intellectuals earned PhDs. One Brew was a member of the delegation the Fante sent to Queen Victoria in 1895, when they still believed it was possible to set up a less closed political system than colonial law and order (Priestley 1969). The next year, three Tswana chiefs traveled from the other end of the continent to London to try to persuade the queen to help their country preserve its independence.

5. South Africa

African nationalism manifested itself most conspicuously in South Africa. We have already mentioned Zulu regionalism. Another important point is the length of the so-called Xhosa Wars, expressions of resistance which flared up periodically from the end of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, reflecting the maturation of a Xhosa awareness among peoples inhabiting Eastern Cape Province. But it was the injection of mining capital (diamonds were discovered in 1867, gold in 1886) that elicited modern forms of black nationalism in the Rand compounds and in Johannesburg. The African National Congress (ANC), ever since the main protagonist of South African nationalism despite several periods of severe repression, was founded in 1912. From the start, militant South African nationalists were radicals and often had close clandestine ties to the Communist Party, but most of them were graduates of institutions of higher learning created from the middle of the nineteenth century by various Christian missions (Lovedale, Healdtown, St. Matthew). The first militant feminists appeared on the scene in South Africa and West Africa even before the 1950s. They included Ray Alexander (1941), Ida Mtwana, who assumed leadership of the Women’s League of the ANC in 1947, and Liz Abraham, who is renowned for her struggle against apartheid (Walker 1982).

6. Evolution From The Years Between The World Wars Until Decolonialization

It was not until the twentieth century, between the two world wars, that nationalist demands really began to be voiced. This is because severe censorship was never loosened by the French, except by the Front Populaire government (1936). In British Africa the turning point was not until the World War II, when trade unions were first permitted, even before non-colonial political parties. Although its way of life and thinking was more akin to European intellectuals than to the people in local rural communities, the young African bourgeoisie did not wait until granted civil rights before demanding, sometimes vigorously, that it be allowed to participate in public affairs. The spearhead of the movement was British West Africa, first centered on Sierra Leone, where an indigenous press developed at an early stage. In the French colonies, political life went on in classical French style in the ‘Four Communes’ of Senegal (Saint-Louis, Goree, Rufisque and Dakar), whose inhabitants became French citizens in 1916 (Johnson 1971). The colony of Dahomey was also a hotbed of protest. There, a merchant bourgeoisie developed alongside the low-ranking civil servants with a French education. It had connections to prominent Afro-Brazilian families and to aristocratic circles of the former kingdoms of Abomey and Porto Novo, and it possessed sufficient financial resources to launch local publications. La voix du Dahomey, a newspaper founded in 1928 and existing into the 1950s, was its principal mouthpiece. The colonial government was unable to ban the paper, despite a highly publicized trial during the Front Populaire administration.

Nationalists expressed a desire to take the reins of government into their own hands in British-ruled West Africa at an early date. During the 1920s, they obtained the right to participate in municipal government to the extent of voting in local elections. In French colonies, nationalist aspirations were offset for a long time by the French model of assimilation tried out in Senegal: acquiring the citizenship of the colonial power was a way of obtaining rights, based on equality and individual freedom, i.e., everything normally denied to natives, even assimilated groups. In both cases, the political ideal remained reformist. It did not challenge the colonial system. The idea was to fight colonial abuses and to collaborate with the system. This collaboration became a fact after the World War II. Virtually alone, Dr. Danquah demanded the status of a dominion at the Gold Coast Youth Conference in 1940. His platform was still moderate. He advocated the democratization of the legislative council, which then only had nine Africans among the 29 elected members. He proposed a two-chamber system modeled after the British Parliament, one elected and the other composed of chiefs, and he demanded that Africans be granted the right to apply for civil service jobs.

Models, institutions, and trappings of the colonial government fascinated the future leaders of the newly independent states for a long time (Werbner 1998). Anticolonial radicalism was limited to a very small minority of young Communists, whose militancy had little chance to express itself in Africa. The initial impulse came from George Padmore, a Marxist from Trinidad, who founded the Negro Workers Bureau in Hamburg and contacted Lagos militants, undoubtedly thanks to dockers in the port. It was virtually impossible in French Africa and not much easier in Sierra Leone, where the most radical militant was the journalist Wallace Johnson, who founded the Sierra Leone Youth League (SLYL) on the eve of the war.

The climate changed only slowly after the World War II. In the French sphere, the nationalist ideas of the elite were sublimated under the cult of Negritude, which was less of a political movement than an ethical ideal. This concept, launched in 1939 by the Antilles poet Aime Cesaire, author of the explicit indictment Discours sur le colonialisme, was adopted for the most part after 1947 by the Senegalese poet and politician Leopold Sedar Senghor. In British Africa, intellectuals sued for divorce earlier. They were, nevertheless, likewise steeped in Western culture (the Ghanian Kwame Nkrumah and the Nigerian Azikiwe, future statesmen, had left on the eve of the war to study in the United States, and in 1938 the Kenyan Jomo Kenyata wrote the first thesis in anthropology on his country). But since in the 1950s the British were not yet prepared to budge, the nationalists hardly had any choice but to accept ‘multiracialism’: one ‘race,’ one vote, or in Kenya the same number of seats for each of three groups—Whites, Indians, and Blacks—which were nowhere near equal in number.

7. The Role Of National Liberation Movements

Much has been written about the Mau Mau rebellion, the 1952–1955 brush fire that swept most of Kenya. It has been argued that the movement was primarily a Kikuyu affair. But the severity of the repression and the blindness of the colonial authorities, whose minds were set in the belief that opposition politicians were the main instigators, contributed to cementing a national, anticolonial sentiment which forced Britain, although victorious on the field of battle, to grant independence (1963). Berman and Lonsdale have written a superb work on the subject (1992).

The anticolonial struggle also formed a national awareness in former Portuguese colonies. After independence (1975), resistance against apartheid South Africa and white Rhodesia sufficed to forge a nation state in Mozambique, a more than 3,000-kilometerlong territory which was very disparate at the outset. However, in Angola, the southern Savimbi regionalism was constructed on a partially real, partially manipulated precolonial Ovambo past. This is the case with many contemporary tribalist manifestations; they are exploited primarily for political ends by ambitious, unscrupulous manipulators. For the past 15 years or so it has been demonstrated that one should not lump ethnic group and nation together (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Amselle and Mbokolo 1985). But contemporary propaganda resuscitates strong sentiments handed down from the past—for example, the resentment of ravaged peoples against the nations which ravaged them, going back to the black slave trade, as was the case in Angola, or that of social groups dominated and exploited by large landowners of the period, as in the case of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda.

Are these regionalisms of today tomorrow’s nationalisms? This is unlikely, because in most of the examples we have cited all sides claim the entirety of the country involved. Once again, the struggle against foreign power sparks nationalism. A typical case is the Congo (former Zaire), where international observers forecast an inevitable explosion. Ironically, it was the widely hated dictator Mobutu who sanctified the national unity of the former Belgian Congo in the name of the national hero and founding father Patrice Lumumba (Turner 2000).

The risks of regionalist explosions seem to be less of a threat today than do conflicts arising from a chauvinistic approach to nation-states that have become established despite arbitrary delineation imposed more than a century ago (Bayart 1996, GEMDEV 1996). The recent Ivory Coast conflict based on an exclusive, xenophobic Ivoirite is one of the most ominous signs.


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