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Nigerian Nationalism

Nationalism means the love for one’s Nation to defend it, and fight in the struggle for its survival.

The major event in West Africa and Nigeria particularly in the 20th century has been the opposition to foreign rule and the struggle for self-government.

The term may be classified to refer to any of these: a protest movement, struggle for independence and patriotism; a protest movement, Nationalism refers to the spirit behind activities that constitutes a resistance in violation of valued norms and traditions by intruders.

Struggle for independence from colonial masters e.g. the thirteen colonies of America against Britain, and patriotism is to defend one’s country against external infiltrators, fight or defend one’s nation against another nation. Example is Germany against France.

 More so, nationalism can also be a struggle or fight against an external enemy or within one’s country against the government e.g. French revolution.

It also means “National feelings”. This national feeling made the Italians and Germans fought various wars of unification during the second half of the 19th century. However, nationalism within the context of study (Nigeria) manifested in three stages.

First, resistance movement was against the penetration of Europeans embarked upon by the various traditional rulers.

These traditional rulers retaliated against the imposition of colonial rule but were later overpowered by the Europeans. Notable examples are Jaja of Opobo, Nana of Itshekiri, overami of Benin, Kosoko of Lagos amongst others

 The second was before the Second World War when the elite agitated for greater participation in government and in the economy.

Organizations of mostly African-educated elites e.g. WASU and NNDP were formed due to the general discrimination against Africans. For example, Adeniyi Jones agitated for equal rights among whites and blacks of same degree.

The modern and last segment of nationalism involved sentiments, activities and organizational development aimed at creating a sovereign sense of Nigerian, identity and unity amongst people of different nationalities.


 The origin of nationalism in Nigeria could be found in the various resentments against the oppressive, exploitative and discrimination of the British government in Nigeria. As at that time, in both the public and private sectors, white, whether trained or not automatically becomes high-ranked officers.

The gradual resistance to British control brought about the rise and elevation of Western-educated elites into leadership positions.

Thus, they look upon as leaders because traditional rulers lost their ability to defend people’s interests. Lagos and Western Nigeria were the major centres and the people’s union, the first organization to reflect nationalism thought was formed in 1908.

The major activities of the nationalists between 1908 and 1945 were concentrated in Lagos. Interestingly, Herbert Macaulay was regarded as the father of Nigerian nationalism.


 The first of all these was the deliberate exclusion of educated elites in the British colonial administration. This has been criticized by nationalists as a tactical way of political domination.

Again, Western education to compensate Africans for causing mental and physical anguish during the slave trade introduced by the Christian missionaries gave Nigeria the impetus and opportunity to challenge the oppressive and exploitative

European rule, Schools were built and this produced brilliant Nigerians, exposing most Nigerians to political consciousness and therefore influencing their constitutional struggle for fundamental human rights.

In another case, the awareness that all the sensitive offices in the civil service in the economic scene were dominated by colonial officials without due recognition of the Nigerian elite also influenced the rise of nationalism.

It is also crucial to add that the formation of political parties and socio-cultural groups in Nigeria was very instrumental to the rise of nationalism.

National Congress of British West Africa cut across territories in British West Africa. The Nigeria National Democratic Party (NNDP) formed in 1922 by Herbert Macaulay, in 1934, the Nigerian Youth Movement, NCNC in 1944 and Action Group sprang up in 1951. These parties were used to convey national agitation or grievances during this period.

Of course, the role of the religious protest movement must not be eluded. As a result of disillusionment religious discrimination and the monopoly of God ownership by the Europeans, some Africans broke away from the mission Churches. One of the first of these separatist movements was the United African Church, which separated from the Anglican Church in 1891.

For instance, most Africans were displeased with the replacement of Ajayi Crowther by a White man. Some other group of African Christians protested against European mode of worship.

Babalola of Ilesha founded the Christ Apostolic Church while Orimolade Moses of Ikare Akoko found the C&s.

The contribution of the African churches to the rise of African nationalism was tremendous and the major aim was to attack the colonial mentality by providing the ability of African pride in vernacular, and music in communicating to God and this fostered African leadership and cultural nationalism.

It is connectedly important with the aforementioned views that the post-first World War economic depression was a vital factor that provoked the rise of nationalism in Nigeria.

Huge funds were released for civilians immediately after the war. Thus, production, sales, profits increased. It was this economic hardship that further stimulated nationalists agitation and unpopularity of the British government.

More so, the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945) was significant in the nationalist movement.

The Atlantic charter, which was issued during the war, promised universal human rights for all races. Africans fought on the side of the Allied powers hoping that the provisions of the Atlantic charter applied to them also spurred the growth of nationalism.

          Another notable factor was that African ex-servicemen who fought during the war became exposed and since they found uniqueness in the Whiteman, they cast aside their colonial mentality, especially with the jobless situation after the war and got fully prepared for the nationalist struggle.

Besides, the activities of trade unions must not be forgotten in the struggle for self-rule in Nigeria. Workers union was formed to prevent any inhuman exploitation of African labour. 

For instance, there was a general strike in Nigeria in 1945, which forced the introduction of the Richards constitution the following year.

Other factors included the emergence of the press through which obnoxious policies of the colonial government were exposed and criticized.

For instance, there were only four newspapers for regular publication in 1912 but by 1926, there were already thirteen newspapers.

The formation of the West African Student Union (WASU) in 1925 under the leadership of Ladipo Solanke facilitated the demand for political, economic and social reforms in London from the British government enabling them discuss their common interests, especially on national consciousness and racial pride.


Various tactics were adopted as tools for attainment of independence by Nigerian nationalists  

They adopted dialogues. The nationalists engaged in dialogue with colonial masters in conferences on the issue of self-rule. E.g. constitutional conferences in 1957 and 1958 in Nigeria.

There was also the use of propaganda. Nationalists employed cunning tactics and exaggeration just to arouse public sympathy on the name of attainment of 22

Independence. The press and political parties also served as ways to vent their grievances and express their common problems.

The use of trade unions and other social groupings was instrumental to the attainment of independence by Africa nationalists. The formation of the student union and pressure groups were helpful instruments for attaining independence. Confrontation was also used. This was in form of a strike. Street protests e.g. Aba women riot of 1929 and demonstrations.


 The nationalist movement aided the rapid constitutional and political rapid constitutional and political developments in Nigeria. As constitutions were reviewed and revised.

 It encouraged the development and formation of political parties throughout West African countries. E.g. WASU was established in 1925, NNDP in 1922 led by Herbert Macaulay, NCNC in 1944m amongst others

Nationalism stimulated the establishment of various higher institutions of learning in West Africa.

For instance, improved educational arrangements in Nigeria were discussed with Phelp Stroke’s commission which visited West Africa between 1920 and 1921. Establishment of the Yaba Higher College in Lagos on January 19, 1934, and the University of  Nsukka amongst others.

          Nationalist movements in Nigeria left indelible imprints on Nigerian political party formation, the nature of future agitations and leadership qualities.

          The movement spurred African to participate actively and effectively in the economic development of their own countries.


  The forceful and fraudulent penetration of Nigerian territories, exploitation and discriminatory administration of the Europeans spurred the natural urge of Africans to rule themselves.

Other factors that influenced the growth of nationalism like the role of religious protest movements, the formation of political parties, the Second World War, and the emergence of the press among others complemented each other, that is, work for hand in hand.

The nationalist struggle in this discussion against European political and socio-economic domination and exploitation was not in futility.

Although many people died in the course of loyalty on patriotism, others were imprisoned in the end Nigeria gained the long-awaited “freedom” in 1st October 1960. Thus, this marked an end of an era (Colonialism) and beginning of another (post-colonialism).

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Dr Afe Adedayo Emmanuel

AFE, Adedayo Emmanuel Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Department of History and International Studies Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.