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Nationalism in Africa

Development Of African Nationalism

While a country such as Britain or Germany is viewed as one nation, in reality each contains a variety of nations or peoples. Uniting these various groups through common interests creates a nation. These nations are, as Benedict Anderson writes, "imagined" rather than "real." Anderson explains:

[A nation] is an imagined political community.… It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion. (p. 6)

A nation is a created community that believes that, though the community is diverse, as a whole it has a common interest that trumps all other interests; nationalism is the formation of this national identity.

African nationalism attempted to transform the identity of Africans. Rather than seeing themselves as Igbo or Hausa, Kikuyu or Masai, nationalist leaders wanted Africans to view themselves as Kenyan, Nigerian, and so forth. While the idea appears simple in theory, it proved far more difficult in practice. The colonial powers never considered that the colonies would eventually form sovereign nations, and ethnic groups were treated as separate "tribal" or religious groups so that colonial officials could play them against each other, thereby keeping a colony's populace divided, and, thus, less likely to work together to overthrow European rule. Various groups continued such practices even after independence, and the African continent in general suffered from religious and ethnic strife during the latter half of the twentieth century.

To compound matters further, the modern boundaries of African nations are not age-old ones recognized for centuries but arbitrary lines decided by European rulers in Germany at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. The events following that Congress are known as the "Scramble for Africa." Whereas many European nations have one ethnic group, this was not the case for African nations, colonial boundaries throughout Africa were not in alignment with precolonial ones. Colonial borders often split ethnic groups, spreading them into various countries rather than uniting them into single nations. The Somali, for instance, were split up among four colonies. Therefore, when examining African nationalism, one must consider that borders are not "natural" or old, and that every African colony has many different factions.

A major dilemma that confronted early African nationalists was how to retain an African identity while appropriating the positive attributes of Western development. Whether to completely adopt English or French ways, to reject them completely, or find some sort of compromise were questions that Africans had to confront. Some, who realized the strengths of their missionary education and Christianity and were content to perpetuate colonial norms, felt that Africans should strive to mirror European culture and life.

Initially, African nationalist movements were led by middle-class intellectuals. These elites usually had a missionary education and viewed themselves as brokers between colonial officials and the African people. As Basil Davidson observes: "These were minority movements, restricted mostly to the 'lawyer-merchant class,' timid in their protests, opposed to any call for mass support" (p. 74). In other words, these early nationalist movements were inherently elitist, not true mass movements, and, thus, were not representative of "the people." These elites were much wealthier and better educated than their peers, grateful for the advantages bestowed on them by their missionary education, and loyal to the colonial powers. Instead of transferring governing power to the African people, many of these early leaders felt that the colonial state should simply hand over power to them.

Others envisioned an "Africa for Africans" and sought to reclaim Africa for the native peoples. They refused to adopt European values and many aspects of Europe's cultures, and thought it fruitless to do so. Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912), widely regarded as "the Father of Cultural Nationalism," felt that Africans must revive their cultures and relearn their traditions from those least influenced by colonial rule. Throughout the period of colonial rule, Africans were repeatedly told that their cultures were uncivilized, primitive, evil, and barbaric, and that their history began with the arrival of Europeans. Therefore, nationalist leaders had to "decolonize" the African mindset as well as overthrow colonial rule. African nationalists sought to "reeducate" their followers, and began to promote black pride. African foods, music, dress, architecture, and religion were celebrated and promoted as equal to, if not better than, their European counterparts. While these steps may seem minor, nationalists believed that, without such a cultural revival, Africans would forever perceive themselves as inferior to Europeans if they failed to regain the pride and self-worth that colonization had taken away from them.

This return to "tradition," however, was also problematic because African traditional rituals, leaders, governments, and policies were exploited or manipulated by colonial governments, often unintentionally. As Hobsbawm and Ranger explain:

British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans. Their own respect for "tradition" disposed them to look with favour upon what they took to be traditional in Africa. They set about to codify and promulgate these traditions, thereby transforming flexible custom into hard prescription. (p. 212)

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNationalism in Africa - Development Of African Nationalism, Pan-africanism, African Nationalism After World War Ii, Postcolonial Nationalism In Africa