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© Africa Within

The West African Students Union (WASU) was a key organisation in the de-colonisation process of the African continent and one of the first pan-African organisations. In his historical analysis, Daniel Yao Dotse brings us closer to understanding the organisation itself and how it nurtured the growth of the great pan-Africanist and President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. In this week's Pambazuka News, Yao Dotse discusses the heydays of the organisation, its demise and ultimate rebirth in 2004.

With a genesis most attributable to an innocent reception of greedy tourists, evolving into enduring repressions, brutal slavery, an exodus of ancestors, the despoiling of natural resources and a cold despotism of a colonial administration, the reminiscence of the pre-independence period solicits sensations of ecstasy, reverence, despondence and relief for many worldwide.

Indeed, induced in West Africa was the urgency to breed an insurmountable species of martyrs for freedom with the audacity to reclaim the continent's dignity: Oladipo Solanke, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, J.B. Danquah, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Taylor Cummings, Herbert Bankole Bright and Joseph Appiah are among the many intrepid disciples that emerged.

The survival and attainment of the task bestowed upon them demanded altruism, wit, discipline, tenacity and most importantly the need to be literate (Africans were an educated civilisation, just not literate in the white man's culture) to surmount the colonial despotism.

Many West Africans, particularly from the British colonies of the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia studied in the United Kingdom, enduring segregated tuition. Amongst them, a few residents of the colonies were admitted to British universities in the hope of making them British-appointed mediators (stooges) to the indigenous people in order to facilitate the despotism and the ruthless despoil of their natural resources.

By the 1920s, many West African students in London (and to a lesser extent in other large British cities) conglomerated, spawning several organisations which focused on their welfare but evolved into academies furthering African independence. These included the Nigerian Progress Union (NPU) led by Ladipo Solanke, a Nigerian law student, the Union of Students of African Descent (USAD), a Christian social organisation dominated by students from the West Indies, the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), the African Progress Union and the Gold Coast Students Association.

On 7 August 1925, the need for a formidable united front inspired Herbert Bankole Bright, a Sierra Leonean doctor of the NCBWA to solicit a West African students organisation, which received unanimous approval from 21 law students. Enthusiastically, the West African Students Union (WASU) was born, honouring Solanke Ladipo as the first secretary-general, J.B. Danquah as the first president and J. E. Casely Hayford as the first patron, who subsequently used his position to promote African nationalism. WASU earned a reputation for Pan-Africanism and worked for colonial independence. This attracted many independence activists such as ‘Osagyefo’ Dr Kwame Nkrumah.

Before his arrival in London in 1945, Kwame Nkrumah studied in the United States where he formed the African Students Organization, which relentlessly promoted Pan-Africanism, earning him a reputation as an African independence advocate. On arrival he quickly joined the WASU, passionately became active in study groups on key political issues and partook in many discourses with prominent Labour politicians like Prime Minister Clement Attlee. His knack for quickly forming groups propelled him to form a subgroup within WASU known as ‘the Circle’, which was a revolutionary cell agitating for political independence.

While remaining closely connected with WASU, Nkrumah established connections with other organisations such as the Pan-African Federation and the World Federation of Trade Unions. He also became involved in the organisation of the 1945 fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester. This brought him closer to many great leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois, future president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta and American actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

In 1946 Nkrumah left his academic studies to become secretary-general of the West African National Secretariat, which had been formed at the fifth Pan-African Congress to coordinate efforts for West African independence. That same year, Nkrumah became vice-president of the WASU where his numerous accomplishments prepared him for his political career. In 1947, as the fine product of WASU he left to join the first political party of the Gold Coast, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to deliver his expertise as the general-secretary. In 1948, a UGCC-organised boycott of foreign products led to riots in Accra, and Nkrumah and several other UGCC leaders were arrested by British colonial authorities and briefly imprisoned. For being too conservative in its efforts to win independence, Nkrumah broke away from the UGCC and formed his own Convention People's Party (CPP).

After organising a series of strikes in favour of independence and nearly bringing the colony's economy to a standstill, Nkrumah was again imprisoned for subversion in 1950. However, the strikes had convinced the British authorities to establish a more democratic colonial government in a move toward independence. In 1951, after elections for the colonial Legislative Council, the CPP won most of the seats and Nkrumah, while still in prison, won the central Accra seat by a landslide. This compelled his release and he became leader of government business and subsequently the first prime minister.

Re-elected in 1954 and 1956, Nkrumah guided the Gold Coast to independence and in 1957 renamed it after an ancient West African empire, Ghana. He became the first president (1960–66) and the first black African post-colonial leader, representing a powerful voice for African nationalism. Nkrumah also offered generous assistance to other African nationalists and initially pursued a policy of nonalignment with the United States and the Soviet Union.

Nkrumah built a strong central government, unifying Ghana politically and bringing together all her resources for rapid economic development. He spearheaded ambitious and very expensive projects such as hydroelectric projects and the Tema motorway in a bid to industrialise Ghana.

Through his unwavering sovereignty from Western influence, he provoked life-threatening envy from Western powers, worsening in the mid-1960s when he courted development aid from the USSR and other communist states. He was accused of fostering a personality cult, as his supporters called him Osagyefo (‘the redeemer’ or ‘warrior'). Prior to his overthrow in 1966 while on a visit to China, he survived assassination attempts in 1962 and 1964. He did however earn an honorary appointment as co-president of Guinea whilst in Romania receiving treatment for throat cancer shortly before meeting his ultimate death in 1972.

In Nkrumah the WASU had indeed produced a true martyr for Africa, a legend of hope for independence and an inspiration to the universe. Furthermore the WASU is credited with landmark strides in the opposition to the colour bar, influence on the British political dispensation, the pursuit of campaigns against the exploitative African Village exhibition in Newcastle, the breaking of the cocoa cartel of Cadbury for the Gold Coast Farmers Union and the campaign against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

In consonance to the pursuit of universal suffrage, the WASU gained recognition as an anti-colonial confederacy that supported the allied powers in the Second World War, earning recognition from communist groups such as the League Against Imperialism (LAI), the Negro Welfare Association and the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The WASU was also supported by Marcus Garvey, who provided its original headquarters.

The WASU established many branches in West Africa, encouraging the scholarly publication of the widely circulated WASU Journals that bridged the gap between the diaspora and the homelands.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, WASU began to lose its prominence, deteriorating as Ghana attained independence in 1957, followed by other West African colonies. Gradually it wilted into a minor foreign students' organisation as many of its initial goals had been fulfilled, finally closing down in the 1960s.

The hitherto defunct WASU was re-formed during the National Union of Gahana Students (NUGS) week in Accra on 28 May 2004 by O'seun A.R. Odewale (Nigeria), Issaka Moussa (Niger) and Ken Kofi Abotsi (Ghana). Among other visionaries, there were nine national student unions from member states, including the Alliance Démocratique des Etudiants pour le Développement du Burkina (ADEDB) (Burkina Faso), the Student Federation of Cote d'Ivoire (FESCI), the Federation Nationale des etudiant(e)s du Benin (FNEB), the Liberia National Student Union (LINSU), the Mouvement National de Etudiants et Stagiaires du Togo (MONESTO), the National Association of the Nigerian Students (NANS), the Union des Scolaires Nigeriens (USN) and the National Union of Sierra Leone Students (NUSS). Among others, it now boasts Daniel D. Onjeh (Nigeria) as president of the union and Renate Dzodzomenyo (Ghana) as director of female affairs. Today the reformed WASU prides itself on the milestone chalked by the pioneers of this martyrs training academy, with profound appreciation of the inherited responsibility to Africa.


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