National Congress of British West Africa

National Congress of British West Africa
National Congress of British West Africa

The National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) displayed the relatively moderate, reformist spirit of many black African professionals and intellectuals of the interwar period.

Without challenging British control over their territories, the congress pressed for an increase in African representation in advisory councils, the creation of a West African university, and a respect for traditional forms of land ownership.

The group's leaders, particularly Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford, promulgated a Pan-African ideology and attempted to build a sense of shared interests among the inhabitants—or at least the native-born black political leaders—of the four British colonies in West Africa: Nigeria, Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone, and the Gambia.

The congress achieved a few of its goals, as it encountered opposition from the majority of traditional elites, from radicals in and outside the NCBWA, and from the Aboriginal Rights Protection Society, which the congress sought to supersede.

From the perspective of Casely Hayford and other future leaders of the NCBWA, the Aboriginal Rights Protection Society had failed to capitalize upon its success in convincing the British not to impose the proposed Lands Bill in 1897.

Further, its leadership remained ensconced in Cape Coast and constrained the development of branches in other areas of the Gold Coast. In 1912 Casely Hayford began to broach the notion of a West African Congress with contacts in Nigeria.

This scheme attracted support, especially as delegations sent to London from Nigeria and from the Gold Coast had each failed to convince the colonial secretary either to grant Africans greater influence over administration or to include some democratically selected members on governing councils.

Advocates of the NCBWA hoped that the concerted efforts of representatives from all four colonies would prove more fruitful. The Aboriginal Rights Protection Society refused Casely Hayford's 1918 request that it endorse such an organization, so the NCBWA formed under its own auspices and developed its own agenda, including Pan-Africanism.

Primary Goals

The 1919 petition presented to the governor general in Accra by 11 representatives of the general committee of the Protected West African Conference offered an indication of the NCBWA's primary goals. The document was signed by Casely Hayford and presented by the Nigerian leader.

After congratulating the British on Germany's defeat in World War I and the latter's removal from the ranks of colonial powers, the petitioners requested that the British ask West Africans for their opinions on matters relevant to their governance; the people of the colonies would choose those West African councillors through free elections.

They also encouraged the British to respect traditional land rights and to prohibit the importation of alcohol. The Nigerian governor-general transmitted the petition to London; the colonial secretary did not respond.

The NCBWA met for the first time from March 11 through March 29, 1920, in Accra, Nigeria. Representatives from the Gambia (1), Sierra Leone (3), Nigeria (6), and Gold Coast (42) chose Hutton-Mills as their president and Casely Hayford as vice president. They also agreed upon 83 resolutions pertaining to local governance, judicial reform, commerce, and colonial policy.

They suggested that the British alter the composition of West African legislative councils to include equal parts Crown nominees and democratically elected representatives. They wanted the creation of municipal institutions, a West African university, and a West African appellate court.

They advocated new medical and sanitary efforts, the end of racial segregation in housing, and the establishment of a West African press union to promote national development throughout the four colonies. Further, they rejected the Franco-British decision to partition Togoland and the British handover of Cameroon to the French, which had occurred without any consultation with its inhabitants.

In 1920 a delegation from the new NCBWA led by Casely Hayford traveled to London and demanded elective representation for the four colonies. Unfortunately for them, the governors-general of Nigeria and Gold Coast resisted such an erosion of British control. Many of the traditional kings and chiefs in Gold Coast disliked the plan because it would diminish their status and the scope of their authority.

Another three years passed before the British granted a new constitution, which included a provision for the election of representatives, to Nigeria. Soon thereafter, they granted a similar constitution to Sierra Leone and to Gold Coast. The acquisition of these new constitutions represents the most concrete achievement of the NCBWA.

The NCBWA met several more times: in Freetown in 1923, in Bathurst (now Banjul) in winter 1925–26, and in Lagos in 1930. The congress ratified its constitution at the Freetown meeting. Each meeting generated a list of resolutions, most of which the group never realized.

At Bathurst the delegates discussed the possibility of a British West African Federation under a single governor-general. They pondered the establishment of schools across their territories, agricultural banks and cooperatives, and overall commercial and economic independence for West Africa. The congress never achieved any of these items.

The NCBWA remained hampered by its inability to appeal to traditional elites, a rural constituency, or radicals who wanted far more than reform. The colonial office and governors-general regarded the opinions of the congress's members as unrepresentative of African attitudes. The NCBWA's limitations were also caused by internal dissent and an overall antipathy toward tactics any more radical than petitions or newspapers.

Ironically, the institution of the new, partially elective bodies that the NCBWA had so fervently advocated ultimately served to divide congress members politically; they found themselves running campaigns against each other and supporting divergent policies. When Casely Hayford died in 1930, the NCBWA disappeared too.

Despite its relative lack of concrete achievements, the NCBWA did help West African leaders in British colonies to understand the region better and to perceive the commonality of their interests. The vibrant civil society and journalism typical of British West African cities, something that did not really exist in French West African colonies, might testify to the success of agitation by local committees of the NCBWA.

The education in activism and the increased political consciousness also facilitated the rise of the next generation of Pan-Africanists and independence leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah.