Nationalism had a nineteenth-century origin. The wars of resistance in various places during that time later provided inspiration to the nationalists of the twentieth century. The first generation of modern black thinkers, notably Edward Wilmot Blyden, reflected on Africa and racial matters, calling for progress. He called also for the understanding of Africa’s contribution to civilization and for pride in the black race. In the last years of the century, there was a secessionist movement within the Church, an expression of protest against domination. Edward Blyden, for instance, called on Africans to establish their own independent churches. Some members of the new churches became prominent members of the anti-colonial movement. Nationalism in the early years was expressed mainly as a feeling of national consciousness and an awareness that Africans were members of one race. As the colonial era began, an awareness of being residents of the same country became important, and a desire for freedom from colonial rule was a paramount expression of nationalism. Nationalists wanted to work within the new state of Nigeria rather than within their older indigenous nations, such as those of the Yoruba or Ibibio. Nationalism was accelerated by colonial rule, whether those forces merely demanded corrections to abuses in the system or acted more radically, seeking self-rule.
Colonial policies generated discontent among the people – especially the elite who originally demanded reforms, and later on, independence. Among the issues that displeased the people were racism and the damage to traditional values during European rule. Nigerians in the civil service complained of racial discrimination in appointments and promotions. The aspiring ones among them were envious of the status and privileges enjoyed by white officials. Among those who complained about excessive changes, nationalism was expressed in cultural ways – that is, in deliberate efforts to promote Nigerian food, names, forms of dress, languages, and even religions. The Christians among them tried to reform Christianity to suit local values, such as large families and polygamy, and to draw from it ideas of liberty, equality, and justice. To the majority of the population, the Native Authorities were both oppressive and corrupt. Many Nigerians believed they could overcome the problems of low prices for raw materials and expatriate control of the economy only if they had the power to determine their own destiny. To the Nigerian businesswomen and men who saw themselves driven out of trade by foreign companies and combines, an identification with anti-colonial movement became a strategy of regaining control.
On August 26, 1944, the Nigerian National Council was formed, with Herbert Macaulay as President and Nnamdi Azikiwe as Secretary General, to bring together diverse associations and people into one united front. Membership was open to associations including political parties, trade unions, ethnic unions, and professional and literary groups. To allow the admittance of Cameroonian associations in Lagos, the name of the party was changed to the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons ( NCNC). For a decade, the NCNC served as the country’s leading national organization with branches in different towns. It called for self-government.
In 1948, the colonial government granted a number of concessions – the “turning point” towards decolonization. It reformed the Richards Constitution and announced measures to Nigerianize the civil service, democratize the Native Authorities, and expand higher education. Political reforms were introduced. Emerging leaders began to call for greater regional autonomy, creating associations to fight for this. The problems of ethnic politics that would consume Nigeria for the rest of the century had begun. Among the causes of ethnicity were the regional disparities created by colonialism, the competition in the urban environment for limited resources, and the instrumentalization of ethnicity by emerging politicians seeking the fastest means to mobilize support. Regional feelings eventually led to the emergence of regionally-based political parties. The Action Group (AG), based in the west, was led by Obafemi Awolowo, who used the Yoruba creation myth and the importance of the ancestral town of Ile-Ife to create a cultural organization, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa — “the descendants of Oduduwa” — that was transformed into a political party in 1951. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC), established in 1949, revived the memory of the Caliphate of the nineteenth century and used Islam to create a solid party for the north. A second major party emerged in the north, the left-wing Northern Elements Progressive Union ( NEPU), led by Aminu Kano. The NCNC, which had started as a national party, became the party of the east, controlled by the Igbo. Things would never be the same again as the leaders abandoned pan-Nigerian issues and focused more and more on regional concerns. Within one generation, nationalists became tribalists, interested in independence for narrow gains. Regional Houses of Assembly and a central Federal Parliament were established.
The number of trade unions increased, formed by railway workers, teachers, post and telegraph workers, marine staff, civil servants, and others. There were other associations in the cities formed along ethnic lines (for example, Ibo State Union) or town lines (Oyo Progressive Union). More associations emerged in the 1940s as hundreds of people entered wage employment. Nationalist leaders could mobilize these associations for support. More importantly, the workers had a platform from which to organize protest. In 1945, labor unions were strong enough to embark upon a general strike for fifty-two days. The strike was a challenge to the government, it enabled the trade unions and the nationalist movement to fuse, and it revealed the advantages of cooperation and the usefulness of threats to gain concessions. The north, which had been excluded from most of the previous nationalist agitations, was drawn into the strike, thus spreading nationalism and political consciousness to a region that the British had sheltered against new ideas. Many became emboldened to make demands for a transfer of power. In the early 1940s, trade union leaders and students submitted memoranda to the government and wrote essays in the media calling for the takeover of power. In 1941, WASU called for the creation of “a united Nigeria with a Federal Constitution.” Two years later, the same organization demanded ten years of representative government to precede five years of full responsible government led by Nigerians.
Some of the notable changes of the era — urbanization, Western education, and transportation — contributed to the growth of nationalist activities. With cities acting as centers of interaction and acculturation, urbanization contributed to the development of national feelings. Newspapers, magazines, and other information circulated to influence opinions. Political and nationalist ideas grew and spread in the cities. Urban dwellers carried many of these ideas to their villages and ethnic communities, thus connecting the city with the countryside. The new infrastructure aided both the easier movement of people and the integration of different parts of the country. Thousands of Yoruba and Igbo moved to the north, with many of them becoming members of political parties outside their own home areas. The spread of Western education, especially in the south, created a population segment that could read and write and follow the discourse on nationalism and development. Education produced leaders with new ideas, visions, and ambitions.
The economic depression of the late 1920s and 1930s brought economic hardship, unemployment, and retrenchment. Bad times enabled nationalists to criticize and condemn the British and to use these demands to stimulate national consciousness. For instance, Michael Imoudu, a distinguished trade union leader, led the strike by railway workers in 1931 to demand better wages. Unemployment and discrimination generated discontentment with colonial rule and enabled nationalist leaders to enjoy a mass following.
In 1920, a branch of the Garvey Movement (the Universal Negro Improvement Association) was established in Lagos. Militant and race-conscious, this movement was established by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, to unite all blacks into one organization that would establish an independent country. He moved to the United States in 1916 where he created a mass organization and held conventions attended by delegates from Africa. He established the Black Star shipping line (operating to Africa) to encourage blacks in the Americas to return home to fight for freedom. His journal, the Negro World, was eagerly awaited and read in Nigeria. The conventions worked on a plan to create a Negro State of Africa and chose Marcus Garvey as the provisional president of Africa, in addition to choosing a flag and an anthem. Marcus Garvey became a foreman for a large printing business, but a strike in 1907 during which he sided with the workers instead of management derailed his career. The realization that politics was his true passion prompted Garvey to begin organizing and writing on behalf of workers. He traveled to Central and South America, where he spoke out on behalf of West Indian expatriate workers. To Garvey, Africa’s independence was not negotiable, even if violence had to be used. His movement collapsed, however, and he was jailed and subsequently deported, but his political philosophy was not without dedicated converts. His ideas influenced a number of Nigerians, including prominent nationalists such as Ernest Ikoli and Nnamdi Azikiwe.
The decline in polygamy has been related to changing social conditions, the increase in democracy, the decline in arranged marriages, the increase in companionate marriage17 and the improvement in the education of and human rights protections for women. Polygamy may offer short-term benefits to women in societies where women have generally low education levels and few economic opportunities and where their status is linked to marriage and childbirth. However, the consensus is that polygyny can flourish only in the context of gender inequality. This is not to say that all women experience polygyny as exploitative or undesirable,18 only that the practice is connected with gender inequality by organizations such as the United Nations and most social scientists.
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