Read this article to learn about the condition of ‘Africa and its Countries’ between the two World wars!
By the end of the First World War, there were about fifty states in Africa and, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia; they all were under the rule of one European colonial country or the other.
While stirrings of nationalism were felt everywhere, the level of political struggles varied from country to country.
During the inter-war years, generally speaking, the resistance and revolts of the type that had occurred during the early period of colonial rule were no longer the form of struggle waged by the African people.
On the surface, colonialism seemed to have established itself, and the stability of colonial rule led some people to refer to this period as the ‘golden age’ of colonialism in Africa. However, the stability was more apparent than real as new anti-colonial forces had already begun to take shape. In some countries of North Africa, this period saw the emergence of powerful nationalist movements and struggles. In others, including most countries of southern Africa, this period marked the beginning of the rise of modern nationalism and of nationalist political movements.
One of the most powerful nationalist movements in North Africa arose in Egypt. In 1918, an organisation, called the Wafd, was set up, which led the Egyptian struggle for independence. A delegation of Egyptian nationalists prepared to go to Paris during the Peace Conference to demand independence for Egypt but the members of the delegation were arrested by the British and the Wafd leader Saad Zaghlut Pasha was deported.
This provoked a rebellion in Egypt which was suppressed. However, anti-British disturbances continued and, in 1922, the British government was forced to end her protectorate over Egypt. Ahamd Fuad was made king of the independent Egyptian kingdom.
In 1923, a constitution came in force, which gave Egypt a parliamentary system of government. The British forces, however, continued to remain in Egypt in the name of providing “defence of Egypt and the Canal” and for continuing British rule over Sudan which, nominally, was under joint Anglo-Egyptian control.
In the elections to the parliament, Zaghlul Pasha’s Wafd party swept the polls and formed the government. The government demanded complete independence. The Egyptian king dissolved the parliament. The Wafd party swept the polls in subsequent elections that were conducted, with the king, instigated by the British, dissolving the parliament four times in a period of six years. After the death of Zaghlul Pasha, Mihas Pasha became the leader of the Wafd party, which continued to pursue an anti-British policy.
In 1930, a new constitution was proclaimed, which increased the powers of the king and reduced those of the parliament. There were widespread popular protests and, in 1935, the constitution of 1923 was restored. In the elections held in 1936, the Wafd party again came to power. This marked a victory for the nationalist forces.
The new government signed a treaty with Britain which ended the British occupation of Egypt but Britain was allowed to keep 10,000 soldiers in the Suez Canal zone. The continuation of the British troops in Egypt was to become a major source of conflict between Britain and Egypt after some years.
Powerful nationalist movements also arose in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. In 1921, the Rif’s tribes of Spanish Morocco rose in rebellion under the leadership of Abdel Karim. They inflicted a crushing defeat on the Spanish troops and established the Rifian Republican Nation.
Soon after, the French sent their troops against the Rifian Republic but they were repulsed. Finally, in a war which continued for two years, Spain and France launched joint military operations with a disproportionately large army of 400,000 soldiers. In May 1926, Abdel Karim surrendered and, by 1927, Spain and France were again masters of their respective parts in Morocco.
The Rif Rebellion became a source of inspiration to anti-imperialist movements all over Africa. During the French war against the Rifian Republic, many people in France, notably the Communist Party and various other trade unions, extended their support to the Riffs. On 12 October 1925, the French workers went on strike and held demonstrations against the French policy in Morocco. They also extended support to the cause of Algerian and Tunisian independence.
In the countries of southern Africa, the growth of nationalist movements was uneven. The states which the colonial rulers created in southern Africa were mostly new entities and the people inhabiting most of these states did not necessarily share a common past. Therefore, the people in these states took time to develop a sense of national identity.
This situation was different from the one in the Asian countries or, earlier, in the countries of Europe. The growing sense of national identity among the people of these states was a major development during the inter-war years.
In every country, the grievances of the peasants, workers, the intelligentsia and other sections of society led to the formation of trade unions and various other types of organisations. These organisations inevitably had an anti-colonial political character as the source of all grievances was the existing colonial regime. The intelligentsia played a leading role in arousing political consciousness and setting up nationalist political organisations.
Educational facilities in southern Africa had been extremely limited and even secondary education was considered dangerous for the continuance of the colonial rule. Many African historians are of the view that the European colonial rulers of Africa deliberately kept the level and facilities of education in the African colonies extremely low because of the experience of the British colonial rule in India.
However, some Africans did receive education and were absorbed in the administration as it is impossible to run any colonial administration solely with the help of people from the mother countries. Those who were absorbed in the administration experienced the discrimination against them practised by the colonial rulers and were increasingly made aware of the exploitation of their people. Many of them went to other countries, particularly Britain, France and USA, for higher studies, and thus came into contact with the revolutionary and democratic ideas and movements.
Some of the future leaders of Africa who rose into prominence during their stay in other countries were Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Nnamdi Azikiwe who became the first president of the Republic of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Gold Coast (Ghana) and Leopold Senghor of Senegal.
A number of organisations were set up in different countries of southern Africa in the 1920s. In the countries where some representative institutions had been introduced, regular political parties came into being. For example, the National Democratic Party of Nigeria was formed with the introduction of constitutional reforms in that country.
Some of the organisations which were formed during this period were the Young Kikuyu Association, the Gold Coast Youth Conference, the League of the Rights of Man and Citizenship, and the Liga African in Angola.
During this period, many international organisations and movements played an important role in the emergence of anti-colonial movements in Africa. Many of these movements were initiated by the leaders of the Black people’s struggle for Equality in America.
Some had their origin among the Black people in the French and British colonies in the Caribbean. A common feature of these movements was the advocacy of the unity and solidarity of all the Black peoples. The most important among these were the Pan-African Congresses organised by WE.B. Du Bois who placed an important role in setting up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois convened the first Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference.
The Congress passed resolutions demanding equal political rights for the Black people in the US and other parts of the world and the right of self- determination for the African people. In 1921, 1923 and 1927, Pan- African Congresses were held in different capital cities of Europe and brought together Black intellectuals from Africa, USA and the Caribbean. Another Pan-Africanist movement was initiated by Marcus Garvey, who was, by birth, a Jamaican.
In 1914, he had set up an organisation, called the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He organised a campaign to encourage Black Americans to immigrate to Africa, and played an important role in developing a sense of pride among the Black people everywhere.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there also emerged a cultural movement which promoted a sense of identity and pride among the Black people and a rejection of White and colonial domination. This is known as the negritude movement.
It was based on an affirmation of Black culture, the beauty of African art and music, and “a belief in a common cultural heritage among all African and African-descended peoples”. Some of the prominent figures in this movement were Aime Cesaire of Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, who later became the president of Senegal, and Langston Hughes of USA.
All the three were poets of great eminence, the first two of French and the last of English. Another poet, of Jamaican origin, who inspired Black people to “protest against their common suffering and assert their dignity”, was Claude McKay.
The anti-imperialist movements which had their origin in Europe also promoted nationalist movements in Africa. In 1927, an International Congress was held in Brussels at which the League against Imperialism was formed.
This Congress was attended by leaders of left-wing movements and radical intellectuals from Europe and representatives of Asian and African countries that were under colonial rule. They included delegates from Egypt, Kenya and South Africa.
Among them were Jomo Kenyatta and La Guma. Jawaharlal Nehru represented the Indian National Congress at this Congress. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia and world-wide protests against it also strengthened anti-imperialist feelings in Africa.
Racial Oppression in South Africa:
The inter-war years saw the further strengthening of the system of racial oppression in South Africa as well as of the struggle against it. In 1910, the British colonies, Natal and Cape Colony, and the Boer states, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, had been brought together as a self-governing state—called the Union of South Africa— of the British Empire.
After the First World War, the White population of South Africa was about 1,800,000, which was about 20 per cent of the total population. The Whites comprised people of British origin and Boers, who were of Dutch origin.
The majority of the population was African. There were about 200,000 people who were of Asian, mainly Indian, origin. The government was completely in the hands of the Whites. During the last quarter of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century Gandhiji had initiated a struggle in South Africa against racial discrimination to which Indians were subjected.
In 1912, the African National Congress was formed. It was to play a leading role in the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa. In 1921 the Communist Party of South Africa was formed.
The Nationalist Party, which was mainly a party of the Boers (or Afrikaners), was dominated by ideas of extreme White racism. It advocated a policy of colour bar to maintain the social and political supremacy of the Whites who, it said, were threatened by the Blacks.
From the mid-1920s onwards, the White rulers, influenced by racist ideas, passed laws to exclude the Black people from getting skilled jobs or getting training for skilled jobs, or living in areas where the Whites lived.
All the best lands had already been taken away from them. They were asked to move to areas called ‘tribal reserves’, and were required to seek permission to work in the cities or on farms owned by the Whites.
They had to carry identity cards and passes in the cities to prove that they had been permitted to be there, and were arrested if found without them. They were forced to live under horrible conditions and in specific areas of the towns or cities.
The average wage of a White worker was about ten times that of his African counterpart. The Blacks were debarred from forming trade unions or joining unions of White workers. They had no right to vote, and were completely debarred from having any say in the political life of their country.
In the 1930s, the White racists organised fascist movements on the model of the Nazi party of Germany. There was widespread discontent against the racist policies and a united struggle to overthrow the vicious system began to be built up.