African nationalist movements often came due to the need to promote a subjective feeling of kinship or affinity. This bond was created to be shared between people of African descent. Being of African origin would give the people a sense of unity based on shared cultural norms, traditional institutions and racial heritage. At the time when these movements were born many African people shared a common historical experience due to the efforts of colonialism. Colonial oppression was a historical experience that formed the basis of many African nationalist movements. These movements managed to gain momentum due to this experience shared by nearly all Africans. The oppression faced by Africans helped inspire a collective desire among the people to maintain one’s own cultural, social, and political values.
The idea that African nationalism was born due to colonialism is false. African nationalism is similar to the types of nationalism found globally. It has existed for centuries and predates colonialism. African history explicitly documents coherent, organised African communities that subscribed to the same values of nationalism. These groups often had a strong sense of identity and were prepared to wage war to defend their geographical territory. Many of these communities had stringent cultural integrity, and they treated those who would want to destroy or undermine them very harshly. Some important political figures in African history viciously defended and imposed their identity on other nations. One such example was the African king, Mansa Musa of Mali, who forcibly brought the Wolof people under the rule of Mali. This group of Africans had their nationalism and a separate national identity that was seen as threatening to Mali.
Nations wanting to govern themselves in their land has been a common theme throughout African history. The roots of African nationalism ran deep even before the threat of European rule came to their shores. Foreign identities have always been viewed as alien and destructive to the values and culture of the African social order.
Due to colonial rule, various African nations were forced to strengthen their African nationalism to put up effective resistance against European colonization. The Ashanti people of Ghana began the primary colonial resistance formed by African nationalist movements. Later the Hehe of Tanzania and the Zulus of South Africa followed. These nations cultivated a unified and robust national identity that inspired their fierce determination to overcome foreign rule.
The Birth of African Nationalist Movements
When colonialists had fully established their rule over Africa, Nationalist movements formed groups and organized themselves to exhibit various forms of disaffection and resistance. Colonial governments sought to infiltrate these movements to solidify their rule over the territory. The African Nationalist movements had been crippled because Africa was carved into individual colonies. This breakdown of African states led to a decreased sense of African nationalism. The major colonial powers, e.g., France, Britain, and Germany, ruled over many African nationalist movements.
The Colonial powers had a governing presence in almost every nation, providing them with counterintelligence. They mobilized intelligence officers across the continent to shut down any African nationalist movement resistance. These movements formed based on regional or ethnic boundaries due to the high risk involved in associating. This oppression made it very difficult for the leaders of these African national movements to spread the values of their identity on a country-wide basis.
Membership in African nationalist movements was often based entirely on race. Colonial propaganda aimed to divorce the struggle from the legitimate grievances of African nationalist movements. European colonizers tried to convince Africans that these movements were anti-white rather than pro-African.
Modern African Nationalism
African nationalist movements gained significant momentum when several catalytic factors occurred. The oppressive colonial experience was a major contributor to African identity and unity. Other important historical events include the introduction of missionary churches, the events of World War I and II, and the birth of Pan-Africanist literature. These events, combined with the establishment of the League of Nations (later became the United Nations), strengthened African nationalist movements.
These events brought about globalization and helped African societies integrate into the global village. Despite their oppression, many European countries brought with them the positive attributes of Western development. To move forward as a people, African nationalist movements had to find a way to retain an African identity while appropriating these progressive developments. These movements made numerous decisions after they had taken back their sovereignty. Many movements had to choose between adopting their colonizer’s language or rejecting it entirely. Multiple regions decided to carry on with the language of their colonizers, i.e., English or French. These decisions often diluted the sense of Pan-Africanism.
African nationalist movements often elected middle-class intellectuals. These individuals were often educated through missionary programs or in sympathizing nations. This education allowed them to communicate and broker agreements with colonial officials on behalf of their people.
As these minority movements grew, they were able to add various professionals to their cause who could understand the law better. Early nationalist movements were, therefore, often inherently elitist. They struggled to become authentic mass movements because the people they represented couldn’t relate to them. These leaders were often wealthy and educated when compared to their peers. This trend has continued into modern African nationalist movements. These leaders often facilitated the transfer of power and land to themselves rather than the African people.