National Congress of British West Africa

A Common Destiny

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 6

The aftermath of the First World War saw a spike in African nationalism and political activity. All over the continent and the diaspora, Africans dreamed of their own liberation. One of the most significant inter-territorial movements that encompassed this aspiration was the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA).

The NCBWA envisioned a united British West Africa, viewing all peoples in West Africa as kin who shared a common destiny. This idea echoed the sentiments of prominent Pan-Africanists like James Africanus Horton (1835-1883) and Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912).

The NCBWA was dominated by Western-educated Africans, many of whom came from the elite families of the area. These African elites had become disillusioned by the lack of opportunities for self-determination despite their efforts during the First World War.

The expectation was that more senior positions within the colonial administration would become available. Western-educated Africans had already been serving in senior colonial positions since the early nineteenth century. James Bannerman served as Justice of the Peace as early as 1820 before going on to become the Lieutenant-Governor of his native Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) in 1850. While Henry Carr, a Nigerian graduate, served as Assistant Colonial Secretary in 1900.

British attitudes towards the employment of Africans in the colonial administration had begun to change by the end of the nineteenth century. In the Gold Coast in 1908, of the two-hundred and seventy-four senior service positions, only five were held by Africans. Historian James Smoot Coleman also notes that “despite the comparatively large number of Nigerian barristers, the Nigerian judiciary remained predominantly European…”

The curtailment of administrative opportunities for Western-educated Africans led to frustration and a desire for change. In keeping with the Pan-African gatherings in London and Paris before, a group of Africans met between 11-29 March 1920 in Accra, Gold Coast as the National Congress of British West Africa.

The conference, whilst declaring its loyalty to the British crown, criticised rigid colonial policies, such as the exclusive appointment of Europeans to senior roles, laws leaving indigenous Africans out of land ownership and the indiscriminate partitioning of African countries without regard to the wishes of the people.

Delegates from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and The Gambia also petitioned for educational reforms, such as the establishment of a West African university; legal reforms, including the establishment of a West African Court of Appeal; and health reforms, namely the position of qualified African doctors who had been excluded from practising.

Eleven delegates of the NCBWA went to London in September 1920 to petition the British government for greater African representation in West African colonies - the petition was soundly rejected.

The NCBWA continued to lobby for a self-governing West Africa and sought to set up a West African Press Union in recognition of ‘the important part the Press plays in National Development’.

The Congress met again in Freetown, Sierra Leone (1923), Bathurst (now known as Banjul) in The Gambia (1925) and Lago, Nigeria (1930).

The Freetown meeting saw the formation of the journal, the British West African Review, which would report on the activities of the NCBWA and educate public opinion, especially that of African business-owners and entrepreneurs, as to the ways and means of developing West Africa economically.

The Bathurst meeting advocated for the establishment of national schools, compulsory education in all urban areas, industrial and agricultural education for the rural areas, the establishment of agricultural banks and co-operatives, and called for the ‘commercial and economic independence’ of West Africa, as well as the appointment of Africans to higher posts in the judiciary.

The NCBWA was short-lived, lasting little more than a decade. Among its successes include the introduction of new Constitutions in Nigeria in 1923, Sierra Leone in 1924 and the Gold Coast in 1925. The NCBWA is also recognised as instilling a feeling of unity and common political destiny among the British West African political leadership.