African Resistance, Nationalism and Independence
There were a variety of responses on the part of African peoples to colonial rule. Supporters of colonialism in Europe claimed that the average African person welcomed colonialism. Colonialism, they argued, brought the end of slavery in East and Central Africa and brought a stop to inter-kingdom warfare in parts of West Africa. While there is some truth to the claim that colonialism brought peace to a few areas in Africa, and that there were some peoples who were initially thankful for an end to violence in their areas, the historical evidence does not support the claim that there was widespread support for colonial rule. Indeed, there is also considerable evidence of strong resistance to colonial rule.
By the beginning of World War I in 1914, all of Africa, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia, had been colonized, and initial African resistance had been overcome by the colonial powers. Over the next decades as colonial rule became institutionalized, African resistance to colonialism became more focused and intense. By the 1950s, there were organized nationalist parties that demanded political independence in almost every colony in Africa.
In this final section of this module, we will look at four phases of African reaction to colonial rule: early resistance, demand for equity and inclusion, nationalism/mass movement, and struggle for national liberation.
Early (Primary) Resistance to Colonialism
Early African reaction to European intrusion into Africa in the late 19th century was not uniform. A few groups that had suffered from long-term warfare or slave raiding (such as in parts of East Africa) gave an uncertain welcome to European presence in their regions in hope that there would be peace. Other groups strongly resisted the coming of European political control. However, many people had no initial reaction to colonialism. This was because the early years colonialism had little impact on the lives of many rural African peoples. This situation changed as the impact of colonialism became more widespread and intense in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Throughout the period of the Scramble for Africa, European colonizers faced stiff resistance in many parts of Africa. It would take up too much time and space to present information on all instances of resistance. The map below identifies seven examples of early resistance to colonial rule from across Africa. The numbers in the list below correspond to those on the map. By clicking on a number from the list, you will receive information on that particular expression of resistance.
Examples of Resistance:
- Chimurenga Resistance (Zimbabwe)
- Battle of Isandhlawana
- Maji-Maji Uprising (Tanganyika)
- Battle of Adowa (Ethiopia)
- Asante Resistance (Ghana)
- Samori Ture
- Libyan Resistance
Demands for Equity and Inclusion: The Inter-War Years
By the end of World War I, most of Africa had been effectively colonized. European colonialists had managed to quell the efforts by Africans to resist the establishment of colonial rule. The next two decades, the period historians call the inter-war years, were relatively quiet years in colonial Africa. This relative quiet, however, did not indicate that the colonized people of Africa were happy with colonial rule or that there was no opposition to colonialism.
During the inter-war years opposition to colonialism was expressed in one of the following forms:
- Demands for opportunity and inclusion: Many Africans at this time accepted the reality of colonial rule but they did not accept the harsh discrimination and the lack of opportunity that was a central part of the colonial experience. Opposition to these aspects of colonialism was particularly strong among educated Africans. Educated Africans believed that “all humans are created equal.” Discriminatory colonial policies and practice restricted economic opportunities and participation in the political process. During this period, educated Africans formed organizations to promote their interest for an end to discriminatory policies and for an increase in opportunities. However, these organizations had limited membership, and they did not make radical demands for the end of colonial rule. The South African National Congress and the West African National Congress (Nigeria/Ghana) are examples of elite African organizations.
- Religious opposition: A number of the early anti-colonial up-risings featured in the last section were led by religious leaders. The Chimurenga (Zimbabwe) and Maji-Maji (Tanganyika) uprisings were led by African priests who were strongly opposed to colonial rule. This tradition of religious opposition to colonialism continued throughout the 20th century. However, unlike the earlier acts of religious resistance, the new opposition was led by African Christians. African Christians took seriously the Christian teachings on equality and fairness-values that were not practiced by colonial regimes. By the 1920s, some African Christian leaders were forming their own churches, sometimes called African Independent Churches. These churches that were formed in Southern, Eastern, Central and West Africa, provided a strong voice for justice. One of many examples is the Kimbaguist Christian Church formed in the Congo by Simon Kimbangu in the 1920s. In spite of Kimbangu’s imprisonment for many years by the Belgians, the Kimbanguist church grew rapidly. When the Congo became independent in 1960, the church had a membership of over one million.
- Economic opposition: During this time period economic opposition was often not well organized. However, there were attempts in the 1920s and 1930s by mine workers in southern Africa and port workers in West and East Africa to organize into unions. While important, these activities had little impact on the majority of African peoples. Of greater impact were the less organized but more widespread efforts of African farmers to resist colonial demands on their labor and their land. Module Nine: African Economies provides an example of how small scale African farmers in Mali quietly, but effectively, resisted the attempts by colonial officials to control the production of cotton.
- Mass protests: During the inter-war era, there were few mass protests against colonial policies. One of the most important and interesting exceptions was the Aba Women’s War that took place in southeastern Nigeria in 1929. Ibo market women were upset with a number of colonial policies that threatened their economic and social position. In 1929, the women staged a series of protests. The largest protest included more than 10,000 women who had covered their faces with blue paint and carried fern-covered sticks. The women were able to destroy a number of colonial buildings before soldiers stopped the protest, killing more than fifty women in the process. Not surprisingly in contemporary Nigeria, the Aba Women are considered to be national heroes!
Nationalism and Independence
World War II (1939-1945) had an important effect on Africa. Some important battles were fought in North Africa. Many Africans from French and British colonies were also recruited to fight for the Allies in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. In recruiting African soldiers, the British and French emphasized that soldiers would be helping protect the world against the evils of Fascism and Nazism. At the end of the war, the returning soldiers asked an important question, “Why should I give my life to keep Europe and America free, when I am not free in my own country?” To the ordinary African, life as a colonial subject was hardly better than life under Fascism or Nazism.
Moreover, returning veterans and other Africans were also aware of the promise made by the Atlantic Charter. In 1941, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt, composed a document, the Atlantic Charter, which stated the principles that directed the Allies’ war effort. The third paragraph of the Charter states that the Allies “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they will wish to see sovereign rights of self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” Not surprisingly, Africans claimed this as a commitment on the part of the Allies (at least Britain) to end colonial rule in Africa.
Great changes were taking place in other parts of the world in the immediate post war period. European colonies in Asia demanded and earned independence from Europe. Of particular importance was the independence of India and Pakistan from Britain in 1947. Many Africans looked at India as an example of what was politically possible for their own countries.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, new mass-based political parties were formed in almost every African colony. Unlike earlier political organizations, these parties were not restricted to the educated elite. They wanted and needed mass support for their cause. The cause went beyond the demand for more opportunity and an end of discrimination. The central demand was for political freedom, for end of colonial rule! The rapid growth of African nationalism took European colonial powers by surprise. The Italians and the British, followed by the French and then by the reluctant Belgians, eventually responded to the demands for independence.
Libya (1951) and Egypt (1952) were the first African nations to gain independence. Ghana (Gold Coast) in 1957 was the first country south of the Sahara to become independence. 1960 was the big year for African independence. As indicated on the attached map (Click on Map: African Independence), fourteen African countries gained their independence in 1960. By 1966, all but six African countries were independent nation-states.
While the movement to independence after the war was quite rapid, it did not occur without struggle. Fortunately, in most of the countries that won their independence by 1966, the struggle was mainly non-violent. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the six remaining African colonies.
Struggles for National Liberation
At the end of the 1960s, six African colonies remained. Of the six, five were settler colonies, that is colonies in which the interests power of the European settler community kept the majority African populations from gaining their political freedom. Of these six countries, five were in Southern Africa: Angola (Portugal/settler) Mozambique (Portugal/settler), Namibia (South Africa/settler), South Africa (settler) and Zimbabwe (British/settler). The small Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau and Cabo Verde in West Africa was the sixth colony.
Just as in other African colonies, African nationalist movements had formed in each of these countries in the 1940s and 1950s. These political parties sought peaceful, constitutional change. That is, the primary aim of the nationalist parties was to change the constitutions of the settler colonies to recognize the rights of the majority African population. One of the popular slogans of these parties was the demand for One Man, One Vote. Does this political demand sound familiar? It should! It is similar to the demands made over 200 years ago by the leaders of the American Revolution.
For many years, the white settlers in these colonies had the right to vote. They used this vote to elect representatives who passed laws that protected the power of the European settlers and discriminated against Africans. African nationalist leaders believed that if franchise was the right of all citizens, the majority population would use their vote to bring in majority, independent African rule.
The settler colonial governments responded to the non-violent constitutional demands of African nationalist parties with laws that banned all political protests and with violence. Repressive legislation allowed the settler governments to arrest and imprison the leaders of the banned African political parties. The most famous of the imprisoned political leaders is Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress of South Africa, who spent twenty-seven years in jail before being released in 1989. In 1994, he became the first president of an independent South Africa. However, Mandela was just one of many African leaders who spent years in jail as a result of their demands for freedom, majority rule, and independence for their countries.
How did the African nationalist political parties respond to the imprisonment of their leaders and the banning of all political activities? Their reaction was very similar to that of the Americans more than 200 years ago. Just like the leaders of the American Revolution, African nationalists decided that the only way deal with repressive regimes that used force and violence was to resist with force. Beginning in the early 1960s, banned nationalist parties in each settler colony transformed themselves into liberation movements for armed struggle against the settler regimes.
This transition to the armed struggle was not an easy one. The armed forces of the settler regimes were well equipped and well trained. For their part, the newly formed liberation movements had little money to purchase weapons and to train their soldiers. Moreover, when the liberation movements sought help from the outside world, neither the United States nor the former colonial powers in Europe were willing to give support. Where did the support come from? Primarily from the China, the former Soviet Union and their allies in the Eastern Bloc. Module Ten: African Politics and Government provides details of how the Cold War (1945-1990) between the United States and her allies (Western Bloc) and the Soviet Union and her allies (Eastern Bloc) affected the movements for liberation in Southern Africa.
In addition to support from the Eastern Bloc, the liberation movements in Southern Africa received strong support from independent African nations. In 1963 at the meeting of African leaders that formed the Organization of African Unity (Module Ten: African Politics and Government), Kwame Nkrumah, the highly respected president of Ghana, declared that “no African will be free until all Africans are free.” While the O.A.U. and most African nations supported the liberation struggle in Southern Africa, the most direct support came from the Front Line States, the independent African countries bordering Southern Africa. These states provided some monetary assistance, but most importantly, they provided military bases for training and from which the liberation movements could stage attacks. Angola, Mozambique, and Zambia suffered attacks from settler regimes because of this assistance.
Although it took many years of struggle, sacrifice, and suffering, all of the settler colonies won their independence. South Africa in 1994 became the last African colony to achieve majority rule.
The following table provides information on the struggle in each country.
LIBERATION MOVEMENTS IN AFRICA
Writing Exercise: Complete ONE of the following TWO writing assignments.
1. The history of modern Africa has some similarities with the history of the United States. The U.S. was a colony of a European power, so were all African countries with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia. Based on the information provided in the last three learning activities of this module and what you have already learned about the history of the colonial era in the U.S. history, write a short essay in which you compare and contrast the colonial experiences in the United States and Africa.
2. Pretend that you are a newspaper reporter. Your assignment is to cover the nationalist movement in an African country (you get to chose which country!). Using information collected from one of the web-sites listed below or from encyclopedias in your school library, write a newspaper report in which you describe the struggle for independence in the country that you have selected. To help you think about what an international report from an African country might be like, you could read an international feature article in U.S. newspaper. You can do this by going to your school library or by visiting a newspaper web-site (the websites of important U.S. newspapers are listed on the Exploring Africa Current Events page.
One of the most comprehensive web-resources on individual countries can be found on The Library of Congress Country Studies site:
Another good web-resource for the history of Africa, including the history of independence movements, has been produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Their website The Story of Africa can be found at:
Once you have identified your country, you should also do a web-search for historical information on your country. Use a one of the standard search engines and type in your topic, for example “history of Ghana.” It is almost certain that you will find one or more sites that have information on the struggle for independence in the country that you have selected.
- Activity One: The Atlantic Slave Trade
- Activity Two: Colonial Exploration and Conquest in Africa
- Activity Three: The Practice and Legacy of Colonialism
- Activity Four: Resistance, Nationalism and Independence