Definition, Nature, Classifications of Nationalism


Definition, Nature, Classifications  of Nationalism

Nationalism may be seen in different angles by different people at different periods. To the Europeans, it simply means “national feeling” as was demonstrated in the German and Italian unification in the second half of the 19th century. But in Africa, nationalism; especially in the post-World War II era meant opposition to foreign or alien rule, and desire for self-government.

Definitions and Nature of Nationalism

A discussion of the phenomenon of nationalism in Africa must begin with an attempt at first distinguishing related concepts of nation, nationality, state and nationalism. A state is a political institution while a nation is an intangible, sociological concept. A nation-state therefore, is a fusion of the nations into a state. Within a state, it is possible to have people of different nationalities.

As a result of the legacy of colonial rule most states in Africa are multi-national. However, nationalism in Africa is far from the desire for self-determination by these different ethnic groups, rather it represents opposition to colonial subjugation and desire for self-government. Given the dominant-dominated context of colonialism, it created an awareness and consciousness among Africans to resist foreign rule, so as to put an end to the humiliation, exploitation, injustice and discrimination inherent in colonial subjugation.

Nationalism can be described as an act of political consciousness concerned primarily with achieving independence for the different African colonies from foreign rule. Nationalism is also taken to mean self-assertion against the humiliating and exploitative tendencies of colonialism. For our purpose, we can define nationalism as the patriotic sentiment or activities on the part of groups of people held together by the bonds of common experience and their assertion of their inalienable right to be free to determine their common desires.


Classifications of Nationalism

Some Political Scientists have described nationalism in Africa as a child of the twentieth century. James S. Coleman (1958) in particular, insisted that it is a misuse of the term to apply the expression the rise of nationalism to describe independence movements in Africa. He argues that since most African states at the terminal stage of colonial rule were not yet nations, it is misnomer to adopt the term nationalism. Coleman preferred to describe them as reactive anti-colonial movements, or movements for independence, rather than nationalist movements. He categorized these movements into three kinds:

1. The traditionalist

2. The Syncretic

3. Modernist independence movement.

We will now elaborate on each of them.

1. Traditionalists

The traditionalists are those immediate spontaneous movements of resistance led by the likes of Jaja of Opobo in British, and Samore Taore in French territories. European scholars writing from the European perspective, called these traditionalist as nativistic to describe the Mau Mau movement in Kenya, or the Messianic or madhistic movement of Sudan. Contrary to these views, these traditionalists offered legitimate resistance to the Europeans, when after the abolition of slave trade, they sought to penetrate Africa, using unfair trade, and later direct foreign rule. For their bravery, or in European perceptions, effrontery, Jaja of Opobo was exiled to the West Indies; Ovwerami of Benin lost his empire, and was deported to Calabar where he died. Kosoko lost the mosquito invested town of Badagry.

2. Syncretism

The syncretic movements are the separatist religious movements led by Rev. James Johnson aimed at preventing the white-man from controlling the religious beliefs of the African people. These break away kind of movements from the Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches realized that the European churches were themselves organs of colonial rule.

In colonial Nigeria, we could categories kinship groups such as the Imo State Union, Egbe Omo Oduduwa, as syncretic in form and character.

Separatism began to manifest in churches in West and South African churches as from 1870’s. As he explained, the cause of this important secession was not only opposition to European control, but also a positive desire to adapt the message of the church to the heritage of the African people.

The syncretism argued that if the Queen of England was the head of the English church, so the African paramount chief must provide leadership for these break away churches. These churches rather than being center of worship became fora for political agitations. To guard against this, the Portuguese firmly restricted the entry of protestant missions into their territories because they were seen as “the advance-guard of African nationalism”.

3. Modernists

The Modernist nationalists, which Coleman obviously preferred were the economic and labour groups, principally trade unions and cooperative societies, and the professional middle class movements led by Western educated Africans, who fought against racism and discrimination, and struggled to advance the well-being and economic status of members of their group. Coleman’s preference for the modernists is because these were educated Africans who have traveled to Europe and North America, and have picked up the language of democracy and freedom from the American war of Independence and the vocabulary of liberty, equality and fraternity, made popular during the French Revolution. Within this group, one can include the pan- Africanists and the Trans-territorial movements. These were movements based in Diaspora, spurred by racial consciousness, and spearheading agitations for the advancement of the interest of the coloured and African peoples. The Marcus Garvey’s National Association for the Advancement of coloured People and the Back to Africa movement.

In retrospect, we can say that James Coleman was in error to have made this distinction between these three categories.

The correct approach or interpretation is to look at the objective of these different groups, and not the means or methods they employed. In all these groups, the sentiments of nationalism were reflected, irrespective of who led it, or the means and methods employed, and the fact that none of the three can be treated in isolation. The important criteria in nationalism are resistance to alien rule, protest against maltreatment and the desire for self-government. One major feature of nationalism in Africa is that it was a reactive movement rather than assertive nationalism in the sense that the presence of a common enemy – the European colonizers brought nationalists together. But when the enemy disappeared, they disintegrated. It is important to emphasize that nationalism is essentially a political movement motivated primarily to eradicate colonial domination.

The presence of colonial rulers contributed to it because it was then easier to distinguish between “them” and “you”, and “theirs” and ours”. That visibility factor is important, because if the colonizers were not visible, then the need to show the discrimination and subjugation inherent in colonial rule would have been difficult to establish.


Factors of Nationalism

A number of factors- political, economic social and cultural-combined to push forward the course of nationalism in Africa. These factors can be further subdivided into internal and external factors. We will first examine the followings.


Internal Factors of Nationalism

i. Discrimination against Africans

As we already know the philosophical underpinning of colonialism is the idea of inherent white-man superiority over the blacks. This myth was reflected in the various discriminatory colonial policies in the provision of residential recreational, educational and health facilities.

Worse still, educated Africans were excluded from senior administrative positions in the colonial service. The implication of this was that foreigners made key decisions and policies while Africans were made to carry out those policies, even when they were skewed against them.

Africans were also deprived opportunities of participating in political activities, even though they paid tax. The famous 1929 Aba riot in Nigeria and the 1854 hut tax riots in Sierra Leone were reminders of the popular slogan “no taxation without representation” employed by the Americans colonies during their struggle for independence from Britain.

The determination of African educated elites to reverse the situation was a major stimulant to nationalist movements in Africa.

ii. Emergence of Political Parties

The emergence of political parties especially in the post war II era gave added impetus to nationalism. The activities of the NCNC in Nigeria, the C.P.P in Gold Coast, for example, transformed the agitation for independence into a mass movement in these countries. The motto of the C.P.P was particularly deviant when it announced that Ghanaians would “prefer self-government in danger to servitude in tranquility”.

iii. The Role of the Mass Media

The print media in their vitriolic attacks on colonialism added fuel to the fire of nationalism already burning in most African colonies.

In the old Gold Coast, the African Morning Post was in the vanguard of this struggle, and its motto”, which proclaimed its neutrality on every issue except Africa’s set the stage for the media in the nationalist struggle. In its famous articles “Does Europeans have a God” for which its editor, Dr. Azikiwe was charged for sedition, the medium eloquently demonstrated the pivotal role played by the press. In Nigeria, Dr. Azikiwe used the medium of the powerful West African Pilot to show the Nigerian youths the way which they eagerly followed.

iv. Economic Factor

Colonialism encouraged the transformation of Africa from subsistence to a money-based economy. This change led to the introduction of currency, which was consciously encouraged by the colonial government in order to increase the export of primary produce. This created one of the first economic sources of problems to colonial rule.

The cash nexus linked the colonial territories to the mother country in four ways. First, it led to the growth of a wage-labour force. This resulted in considerable polarization among substantial number of Africans, living on the fringes of newly emergent cities. Second, colonial rule contributed to the rise of a new middle class in and around most urban centers. The middle class, which had different values and orientation, used their vanguard intermediate position of influence to spread nationalist sentiments. Third, with urbanization went the second phenomenon of social mobility. The new immigrants to the cities felt they could make demand on colonial government for better condition of services, the right to be promoted in the civil service, and the right to better life. The last sociological factor was western education. It provided for a common lingua franca-English in British colonies, and French in French colonies. This afforded the colonies an opportunity for diverse colonial peoples to communicate and plan together in a common language. Although originally intended to help service colonial rule, a common language provided one of the powerful factors that helped dig colonial grave in Africa.

External Factors of Nationalism

i. Impact of World War II

Although World-War I encouraged the spread of idea of self-determination, but World War II had significant weakening impact on colonial empires in Africa. The war not only destroyed the myth of white superiority, it also significantly weakened European economies and made it difficult for them to sustain their empires. During the war, Britain was particularly humiliated by the Japanese, while France was occupied by Germany. For Britain, it was a double jeopardy for her, for a non-European power to humble her until Britain and France were rescued by the Allied forces. Britain’s World War II trauma spurred discontent in the West Indies and led to the institution of the Royal Commission to probe the unrest. Its aftermath was the granting of independence to India in 1947, making her the first non-white country to join the Common wealth.

ii. Atlantic Charter

At the peak of World War II in 1942, the Atlantic Charter which provided under Article 3 for the principle of self-determination of all peoples was signed between US’s F.D. Roosevelt and UK’s Winston Churchill. African nationalists employed the charter as an additional weapon to intensify nationalist struggle, and rejected Churchill’s belated remark that the charter was a guide and not a rule. In frustration Churchill later retorted: “I have not become the Queen’s chief minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”.

iii. The Anti-Colonial Posture of USA

The United States of America from the days of its declaration and war of independence had proclaimed the pursuit of liberty and freedom as article of faith. From the period of Woodrow Wilson when U.S intervened in world war I to make the world safe for democracy, to the era of Roosevelt, when America nurtured the idea of the United Nations and championed the principle of self-determination, successive U.S governments have not hidden their opposition to colonial empires.

America’s disassociation from colonial policy was promoted through the activities of American Negro leaders and scholars such as Dubois and Ralph Bunch.

iv. The Role of the British Labour Party

Churchill led Britain to victory in World War II but his party lost the first post war General elections to the labour party, led by Clement Atlee. The labour therefore promptly translated its known programme of rejection and repudiation of colonialism to the official policy of the British government. The Atlee government speedily enacted the Development and Welfare Act for the colonies in 1948, which accelerated the pace of constitutional reforms; leading to the grant of early self-government in British colonies.

v. The Pan African Movement

The pan-African movement exploded the fallacy that Africa unity is not possible because the continent lacks a common race, culture and language. From the first pan African Congress held in Paris in 1919; the second in London in 1921, the third in London in 1923; the fourth in New York in 1927, and the fifth in Manchester in 1945, the flame of African nationalism was spread across the globe. The Manchester congress attended by over 200 delegates called on African elites to be awake to their responsibilities to their people, and made definite demand for constitutional change and for universal adult suffrage.

vi. The West African Students Union

The role played by the West African students union was also significant. The union was formed in 1925 by Ladipo Solanke, a Nigerian. Member of the union were not satisfied with the rate of progress made by Britain in granting constitutional reforms in West Africa. As a result, they wrote series of petitions, to the British government demanding self-government for West African colonies.



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