World History 2 208 - 12.4.2 The Fight for Self-Determination in Africa

Most Africans were not considered citizens of the empires of which they were part. Imperial powers exploited the colonies for their mineral wealth and other resources. They did little to better the lives of Africans, and the rhetoric of “civilizing” the continent was based on ingrained assumptions of White superiority. However, participation in World War I changed things for many Africans. More than one million Africans had fought in the war. The sense that their contribution should be rewarded with new political power was one result. Another was their exposure to international issues and the recognition that the principle of self-determination applied directly to themselves.

A number of groups had begun to argue for more African involvement in colonial governments beginning in the late 1800s. In 1918, the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) was formed to pressure the British government to turn legislative work over to elected assemblies in its West African colonies. This initiative marked a political awakening in the four British colonies of West Africa. The NCBWA sought to have them work as a cohesive political unit. The war itself had caused many European officials to depart Africa, turning a number of services over to Africans to administer and thus providing new roles for them to play in the running of their countries. Many imperial powers also squeezed their African colonies to produce more for the war effort but failed to pay fair prices for these items. This clear exploitation, along with a growing sense of their power, led many Africans to embrace nationalist movements after the war.

With the Great Depression came increasing pressure to “do more” with African colonies, as a way for imperial countries to deal with their economic problems. Those that could cultivate greater economic development in the colonies would benefit from increased resources and develop a colonial population with greater buying power for its own goods. Such development was a slow process in the 1930s, however (Figure 12.16). The British government enacted a Colonial Development Act at the end of the 1920s that funneled small amounts of money into its African colonies. But larger investments did not flow into Africa until after World War II.

The map is titled “Africa in 1923.” Central Africa is labeled Belgium. Madagascar and the northwest fourth of Africa is labeled France. Some of north Africa and some of the coast of the horn of Africa are labeled Italy. The southeast coast along the Mozambique Channel and part of the southwest coast are labeled Portugal. Part of the southwest coast is labeled South Africa. A piece of the northwest coast is labeled Spain. Parts of west Africa and east central Africa are labeled Great Britain. South Africa, the region of Egypt, and most of inland horn of Africa are labeled Independent regions. A region south of Egypt is labeled Disputed territory.
Figure 12.16 This map shows European nations’ colonial holdings in Africa during the 1920s and 1930s. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

A growing Pan-African movement also developed in the early twentieth century, with the goal of uniting African peoples to achieve greater independence. The first Pan-African Congress met in 1918 in Paris, organized by African American activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Its goal was to influence the Paris Peace Conference to support self-determination for the African colonies. Its impact was minimal, but it did contribute to the ideas of African nationalism that were growing at the time.

Another influence on the growth of African nationalism was the work of Marcus Garvey. Garvey was born in Jamaica and lived in the United States for many years. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which hoped to unite all people of African descent into one body with one government. Garvey’s work was focused on specific plans for a migration of African Americans from North America to the West African country of Liberia. These “Back to Africa” plans fell apart, however. Sufficient funds did not exist to make the migration possible. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the largest African American civil rights organization in the United States, also refused to endorse Garvey’s ideas, and the migration never materialized.

One way people in Africa expressed their independence of thought was by developing an African-based church system. Christianity in Africa had been inextricably tied to the missionary model, in which Europeans came to Africa and established church missions to spread the Christian faith. The independent African churches that began emerging in the late 1800s were formed in places like Ethiopia and Nigeria with the idea that Africans should be in charge of them rather than Europeans, whose churches were often seen as simply an extension of colonialism. The independence that African-led churches advocated in religious matters soon evolved into support for independence in political matters as well.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax