Nationalism is the belief that a group of people have the right to live in and govern their own nation-state. European powers had gained control over most of Africa in the late 1800s and established colonies. In the 1900s, African nationalist movements emerged in many parts of the continent that sought to end colonial rule and European economic power. Eventually, nationalist leaders called for independence and the creation of new nation-states. To achieve this goal, they encouraged Africans to identify themselves as members of national groups, rather than as members of ETHNIC GROUPS, tribes, or clans.
However, Europeans resisted African demands for freedom with delay and violence. The struggle for African liberation lasted almost 50 years. Success came first with the decolonization—ending European rule—of LIBYA in 1951 and continued across the continent, colony by colony, until ERITREA gained its independence in 1993.
After winning independence, many African nations were racked by internal tensions. The nations' borders were the same as those of the colonies—arbitrary lines that divided ancient ethnic homelands. The institutions of government were often the same as well, keeping power in a few hands and using force to control the nation's citizens. Furthermore, some ethnic groups refused to give up their independence, sowing the seeds of conflict and civil war.
The Character of African Nationalism
The nationalist movement was led primarily by Africans who had recently acquired education, literacy, and social and economic power. Among the early champions of nationalism was James Africanus HORTON of SIERRA LEONE, a black scientist and businessman. He believed that European models of education would help modernize the continent and pull Africans out of their desperate living conditions. In some ways, leaders like Horton shared the Europeans' racist view of Africans as “backward” and “primitive.” These leaders considered nationalism to be a decisive break with traditional African ways of thinking about themselves and their communities.
By emphasizing a break with precolonial cultures, African nationalism lost the opportunity to build on Africa's own achievements. The continent had a centuries-old history of self-rule, including federations of independent villages and clans. But the nationalists looked instead to the history of Europe and the United States, where people had gained greater independence by forming nation-states in the 1700s and 1800s. African nationalists believed that Africans could gain equality and selfrespect in the modern world only by having their own nations. They realized that they might have to keep Africa's indigenous political and cultural traditions under control. But they saw no other way of ending the abuses of colonial rule. For better or for worse, nation building on the European model became Africa's destiny.
African nationalism had its start in World Wars I and II. Africans watched as people fought to break up empires and gain freedom, and as the Japanese, nonwhite people, stood up to Europeans and Americans in war. Many Africans gained combat experience after being drafted into colonial armies. Meanwhile, in India, a powerful movement for independence took shape during the 1940s, and India succeeded in throwing off British rule in 1947. This development had an impact on African hopes and plans.
Throughout Africa, nationalist groups found early support in towns and urban areas. There, migrants from rural areas—people seeking jobs and a better life—were an important source of anticolonialism. These displaced people came together in tribal associations based on ethnic group and language. Some of the associations later adopted nationalism and helped spread it to the countryside through networks of family and trade.
In many areas, nationalism led to political competition between different groups. In some respects this competition had its roots in traditional rivalries, although the main disputes were access to power and resources. In many colonies, the tribal associations grew into political parties. Loyal to both the nation and their ethnic groups, these parties helped the privileged groups that were building the nation to gain a wide audience.
The movement for nationhood first gathered steam in North Africa, and in 1951 the former Italian colony of Libya won independence. EGYPT, MOROCCO, and TUNISIA followed in 1956, but ALGERIA had to fight a bloody guerrilla war against France before gaining its freedom in 1962. West African colonies such as GHANA and LIBERIA also had strong early movements, helped by links to black nationalists in the United States such as Marcus GARVEY. Dozens of sub-Saharan colonies gained independence in the 1960s, some with little violence, others after long periods of armed struggle. In southern Africa, governments controlled by white settlers won nationhood for SOUTH AFRICA and Southern Rhodesia but were later overthrown by black Africans.
The Hopes of Independence
The goals of national liberation included social, cultural, and economic progress. For millions of Africans, opportunities for education, health care, employment, and other necessities improved with nationhood. Although many new African states had to begin from little or nothing, they made rapid progress. As public education expanded, more graduates could staff the newly built hospitals and medical schools. Towns and cities grew dramatically, and governments worked to meet the basic needs of urban residents.
Nationalism provided new sources of self-respect for Africans who, for decades, had suffered the humiliations of colonial rule. Now citizens rather than servants, Africans found themselves welcomed throughout much of the world. In the United Nations, Africans spoke as confident equals to the representatives of other nations. Great academies elected Africans to honored memberships, and African men and women won medals at the Olympics and other athletic competitions.
As Africans took their place on the world stage, African national identities replaced ethnic identities. Everything from individual people to musical styles became known as Kenyan, Ethiopian, or Nigerian, rather than GIKUYU, AMHARA, or IGBO. Nationalism brought Africans dignity and a sense of worth that helped to banish racist stereotypes and notions of inferiority. Instead of seeing “backward” or “primitive” peoples, the world—and Africans themselves—now saw a vivid range of African men and women, politicians and diplomats, scientists and poets.
The Limits of Nationalism
As African colonies gained their independence, leaders began to speak about the possibility of governing in different ways, such as through federations of villages, cities, or regions. In practice, however, the emerging states took over the forms of government that had been designed to meet colonial needs. They found themselves chained to colonial habits, structures, and institutions. Neither the Europeans nor the nationalists offered long-term programs to develop democratic government.
The nationalist governments thus took shape as bureaucracies with power concentrated at the top. They often used the media and the armed forces to silence opposition. Some countries, such as ANGOLA and MOZAMBIQUE, adopted the model of the Soviet Union, in which the central government also owned the land and controlled the economy. But without the possibility for all people to debate ideas and govern themselves, African nations could not develop true democracy.
The new African governments also faced major economic problems. By the mid-1970s, drought, mismanagement, fuel shortages, poverty, and other factors combined to ruin African economies. The hard times increased unrest. Ethnic groups competed ever more fiercely for ever fewer resources. Centralized governments were vulnerable to takeovers by small but powerful groups, whether businessmen or military officers. Some countries dissolved into bitter fighting among rebels, criminals, warlords, religious leaders, and ethnic groups. The dreams of the early nationalists for a bright future seemed very dim.
Meanwhile, foreign powers found new ways to control and profit from their former colonies. They provided money or military support to governments or rebels whom they saw as allies. As the economic crises deepened in the early 1980s, many African nations had to take loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. To qualify for the loans, Africans had to sell national resources to foreign corporations and put in place various social and economic policies. Members of the ruling group sometimes profited from the new loans and policies, but the majority of Africans sank deeper into poverty. Protests and calls for democracy grew louder.
By the late 1990s, disappointment with the promises of nationalism was widespread. Africa gained independence through a nationalism that reflected an imperialist age. Many Africans realize that in order to survive their nations now must adopt new goals and different political and economic structures. (See also Boundaries in Africa; Colonialism in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; Ethnic Groups and Identity; Government and Political Systems; History of Africa; Independence Movements; Neocolonialism; World Wars I and II.)