In this article, we are going to lay emphasis on the influence of the West African Students Union in the actualization of self-rule, in the West African States.
The West African Students Union, simplista is the consciousness of West African nationalism, although not only among its members but also among many communities that came under its influence in British West Africa.
For instance, it became a powerful Centre of West African nationalism in Britain and a training ground for leaders who were to influence nationalist activity in their countries after the Second World War. Second, it provided a forum for the expression of Africa’s political and cultural yearnings. Solanke, its founder, in his book ‘United West Africa at the Bar of the Family of Nations’ (1927) eulogized Africa’s past and reminded Europeans that in ancient and medieval times when Europe had not evolved nations and governments, the Negroes of Africa had developed well organized governments. He blamed Africa’s decline to 500 years of the slave trade. J. W. de Graft-Johnson, a Ghanaian, in his book ‘Towards Nationhood in West Africa’ (1928) expressed the hopes of a free Africa: “The youth of Africa everywhere is assailed by the alluring thoughts of a free Africa . .” Thus, through such writings and through its official organ W.A.S.U., the Union voiced the political and racial sentiments of the African. Third, the Union was instrumental in the spread of nationalist ideas in West Africa. Solanke visited the major cities of British West Africa between 1929 and 1932 to collect funds for the W.A.S.U. hostel in London, to establish branches of the Union and to seek the support of traditional rulers and local intelligentsia. Thus, Nana Ofori Atta of Ghana, the Alake of Abeokuta and Emir of Kano was made patrons of W.A.S.U. In this way, he united traditional rulers and the elite in the nationalist cause. Above all, members of the W.A.S.U. during their stay abroad made useful contacts with influential anti-imperialist elements—white liberals, socialists, and communists which were to prove , helpful to the nationalist struggle in later years. It should be pointed out that from the late 1930s, more West African students were going to the United States of America for further studies. By 1941, an African Students’ Association in close link with the W.A.S.U. was founded in America. Like W.A.S.U. it produced important leaders of the West African nationalist movements of the period after the Second World War.
Negro Reaction to the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia:
The unprovoked invasion of the ancient independent African Kingdom
of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935 produced a world Negro protest movement of unprecedented scope which gave a strong boost to Negro racial unity and consciousness. In the United States, West Indies and London, thousands of Negro peoples demonstrated in support of Ethiopia.
A Pan-African Committee
`African Friends of Abyssinia Committee’ was formed in London.
The Negro protest movement in Europe and the New World had a tremendous impact on West Africa. In Nigeria, an Ethiopian Defense Fund was launched. Young Africans everywhere offered to fight in defense of Ethiopia. Negro reaction was not surprising. The conquest of this historic Kingdom by Italy and Europe’s acceptance of the conquest as a fait accompli convinced the black peoples of the world more than ever before that the white race were united by interest and racial instinct against the black race. Negro unity was therefore essential in the fight for racial equality and for the political liberation of the African continent.
E. W. BLYDEN :
Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden was one of those who laid the foundations of early West African nationalism and his contributions should be considered here. Born in the West Indies in 1832, he came to Liberia early in life and had his education there. He became a distinguished Negro intellectual and served in varied capacities as a teacher, professor, president of Liberian University, Secretary of State and Liberian ambassador to Britain. Blyden was proud of his Negro origin and claimed Igbo ancestry. He traveled extensively in West Africa from Sierra Leone to modern Nigeria inspiring and educating the people by his many writings and addresses. The dominant theme of his thought was the regeneration of African culture. It was a reaction against the myth of European superiority—the mistaken belief by contemporary Europeans that Africans had no history and no culture worth preserving. He urged Africans not to adopt alien cultures blindly but to revive what was good in African culture as a unique African contribution to humanity. He believed that it is only in his own cultural environment that the Africans can “develop his peculiar gifts and powers.” “The African,” he said in his famous Address to the Liberia College in 1881, entitled ‘The Idea of an African Personality’, “must advance by methods of his own. He must possess a power distinct from that of the European. Therefore, Africans must be able to show that the are able to go alone without help from any source.
So it is widely believed that Blyden was the originated of African Personality.
Meanwhile, to achieve this ideal, he encouraged the study of African history and languages in African schools, respect for indigenous customs and institutions and the founding of independent native African Churches. There is no doubt that the religious secessionist move-ments in West Africa especially in Nigeria in the 1890s were partly influenced by him. Dr. Blyden’s place is important in early West African nationalism. He remained until his death in 1912 the renowned champion of African cultural nationalism —a necessary prerequisite for the development of modern nationalism in West Africa. It is not without justification. that Casely-Hayford of Ghana bestowed on him the respected title of ‘Father of African Nationalism’.
J. E. K. AGGREY:
Dr. James E. K. Aggrey was another West African nationalist of this early phase. Born in the Gold Coast in 1875, he became a village teacher at the age of fifteen. Being naturally highly intellectually talented, he went to the United States for higher studies and obtained his Doctorate degree at Livingstone College, North Carolina. In 1920, he returned to the Gold Coast after a brilliant scholastic career. He worked with the Rev. A. G. Fraser (the first Principal of the college) to found Achimota College. Both men worked very hard to make Achimota an ideal secondary school. Dr. Aggrey went back to the United States in 1927 to see his family who was staying there and died in New York in that year and never saw his beloved Africa again. Dr. Aggrey’s life was inspiring. He was very proud of his black race. “I am proud of my colour; whoever is not proud of his color is not fit to live.” He preached peace and racial harmony between Negroes and whites and urged the former to return love for hate. He said, “the Negro has a great gift for the world: the gift of the idea of meeting injustice and ostracism and oppression by sunny light-hearted love and work.” He likened the white and black races to the white and black keys of the piano and emphasized that both must be played together to produce musical harmony.
Though Aggrey was a pacifist African patriot, he foresaw then the emergence sooner or later of militant African nationalism. He declared “there is a Youth Movement coming in Africa that someday may startle the world. This restlessness all over Africa stands for self-discovery and self-realization. It tells of power just breaking through.” The world has much to learn from Dr. Aggrey’s sayings.
We can now summarize the chief characteristics of this first phase of West African nationalism. First, the protest and other movements we have noted were in the main concern of the Western educated elite sometimes in alliance with the Chiefs. There was no attempt except in the case of Macaulay’s N.N.D.P., and the West African Youth League of Sierra Leone and to some extent the Nigerian Youth Movement, to get the common people directly involved. In other words, the movements did not have mass support and were, therefore, no popular mass movements. It is this lack of mass support which distinguishes the movements of this phase from those of the second phase. Second, these movements were limited to the major coastal towns of British West Africa and had little if any connection with the interior. They cannot, therefore, be said to be truly national. Thirdly, the objectives of these movements were often conservative because they were directed towards preserving African institutions and customs, for example, customs about land tenure and chieftaincy institution, and in education as put forward by the National Congress of British West Africa. Finally, the leaders of these movements were concerned with the creation of a West African state rather than a national. state.
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