West African Student Union Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In response to racial discrimination, West African students living in the United Kingdom formed the community-based West African Student Union (WASU) to provide support and information for Africans and to promote anticolonial activism in their quest for an independent homeland. WASU members also participated in the larger pan-African movement and Pan-African Congresses, which trained future African leaders.

Summary of Event

In the 1920’s, many West African students living in London and in other large British cities gathered to address numerous grievances, such as constant racial discrimination, and to draft an agenda for political change in the British colonies in Africa. As a result of these meetings, on August 7, 1925, twenty-one West African law students studying in Britain formed the West African Student Union (WASU) at the University of London. The word wasu means “to preach” in the Yoruba language, although the term is often mistaken for a direct acronym of the name West African Student Union. [kw]West African Student Union Is Founded (Aug. 7, 1925) [kw]African Student Union Is Founded, West (Aug. 7, 1925) [kw]Student Union Is Founded, West African (Aug. 7, 1925) [kw]Union Is Founded, West African Student (Aug. 7, 1925) West African Student Union Pan-African movement[Panafrican movement] [g]Africa;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [g]England;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [g]Gambia;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [g]Ghana;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [g]Nigeria;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [g]Sierra Leone;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 7, 1925: West African Student Union Is Founded[06490] Solanke, Lapido Garvey, Marcus Nkrumah, Kwame Appiah, Joseph Emmanuel

The organization provided room and board for West Africans in London, but it also served as a space for political discussion and action. Led by Lapido Solanke, a Nigerian (Yoruba) law student, and Herbert Bankole Bright, a doctor from Sierra Leone, WASU opened a hostel for West Africans in Camden Town (part of London) in 1933. The hostel also served as an information and resource center on Africa for all who needed it. Gradually, WASU spread throughout West Africa, and as it did the link between Great Britain and the African continent became essential to anticolonial activism. Much of the funding for WASU’s activities was raised by Solanke on trips to West Africa and elsewhere.

WASU sought to raise awareness about the plight of African people, to educate and mobilize Africans on civil rights issues, and to work against the colonial regime when necessary. To accomplish these tasks, WASU members traveled in Africa and Europe to garner support for their efforts. They also formed youth organizations all over Africa, and these groups held regular meetings that provided opportunities for community discussions and consultations with British political officials. WASU members also utilized various media to inform people about their activities, and they created a regularly published magazine called WASU in 1926. The magazine included articles by prominent union members and supporters from the United States such as the noted scholar Alain Locke; it also featured news, information, and fund-raising appeals from the branches of WASU in Great Britain, West Africa, and the Caribbean. The periodical was essentially a public relations tool used to establish the movement’s voice and to spread the gospel of liberation.

Despite the communication barrier created by the diversity of African languages, WASU members organized and inspired followers, rallying them around their shared goals: a vision of an independent Africa and a feeling of urgency about addressing colonial Africa’s problems. During the 1920’s, students such as Lapido Solanke, Kusimo Soluanda, Olatunde Vincent, Ekuudayo Williams, M. A. Sorinola Siffre, W. Davidson Carrol, B. J. Farreira (from Nigeria), J. B. Danquah (from Ghana), Otto Oyekan-During (from Sierra Leone), and Kushida Roberts (from Gambia) wanted to create the United States of Africa.

Like these students, many West Africans, particularly those from the British colonies of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Gambia, had been living in the United Kingdom, and the numbers of promising young (and typically male) students arriving from West Africa grew significantly during the late nineteenth century. Wealthy West African families sent their children to Britain to be educated, but the limited number of scholarship opportunities meant that few Africans were admitted to British universities. Those admitted were courted by the British Colonial Office, which hoped to obtain the sympathies of these future agitators and leaders. Ironically, the students’ stay in London only facilitated their development as activists.

WASU’s cause was furthered when Lapido Solanke and Marcus Garvey met in London in 1928, when Garvey was working with the local branch of the United Negro Improvement Association United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey (who would later be deported) offered financial support for WASU, and he and Solanke began a lengthy correspondence. Garvey allowed WASU to locate its original headquarters in a recently vacated UNIA building, and this house became a base for WASU’s expanding intellectual and militant activities. Between 1928 and 1930, WASU’s branches in Africa included eleven in Nigeria, five in Ghana, and two in Sierra Leone, all of which were founded while Solanke was on a fund-raising trip in West Africa. Because many of the educated West African elite, such as Kwame Nkrumah, future president of Ghana, were active in WASU, economic support for the organization was relatively easy to find.

During World War II, WASU continued its anticolonial activities and consulted with the British government on its colonial policies. WASU supported the Allied Powers in the belief that British colonial rule was better than German or Italian. Meanwhile, however, the organization remained focused on achieving independence and on promoting Africans’ self-determination. Toward that end, in 1945 WASU played a significant role in the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England. Following the war, a Labour government came to power in Britain, and it was much more sympathetic to WASU. As a result, WASU enjoyed greater access to political officials and more influence on the policy-making process.

Also important to the organization was the work of Nkrumah, who was active in WASU from his arrival in London in 1945. He participated in study groups on key issues and in discussions with prominent Labour politicians, including Clement Attlee (who would later become prime minister in the United Kingdom). Nkrumah also founded the Circle, a revolutionary subgroup within WASU that agitated for political independence. While he remained closely connected with WASU, Nkrumah also formed connections with other organizations such as the Pan-African Federation and the World Federation of Trade Unions. Nkrumah was also closely involved with the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England. He collaborated with Joseph Appiah, a WASU member from the Gold Coast. Appiah served as the union’s president for a time, and like Nkrumah, he was a key player in nation-building efforts after Ghanaian independence. For both Appiah and Nkrumah, WASU was a crucial training ground for future work.

Significance

Although ethnic and religious differences within WASU became increasingly salient and the group found it difficult to speak with one voice, WASU’s efforts effected significant social change by influencing a shift in the British political climate toward colonial Africa. Once independence for the British colonies seemed inevitable, the political work of WASU lost its urgency. As a direct result of the group’s work, however, West African governments appointed officials to protect the interests of their students in Britain. At the same time, the achievement of Ghanaian independence in 1957 and the subsequent independence of other West African colonies meant that many of WASU’s initial goals had been fulfilled. While the organization continued to exist, it evolved into a minor group for foreign students rather than a major source of continued support and political action for West Africans. Nonetheless, its history serves as a model for leadership, unity, and organization in the face of huge geographic, economic, and linguistic challenges. West African Student Union Pan-African movement[Panafrican movement]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adi, Hakim. West Africans in Britain, 1900-1960: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998. Traces the history of the movement and identifies leaders and issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olusanya, G. O. The West African Students’ Union and the Politics of Decolonisation, 1925-1958. Ibadan, Nigeria: Daystar Press, 1982. Explores the influence of WASU in colonial and postcolonial Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwood, Marike. Kwame Nkrumah: The Years Abroad, 1935-1947. Legon, Ghana: Freedom, 1996. Provides the biographical chronology of this militant member of WASU’s work in London and Europe.

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Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter

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