Gandhi and West Africa: Exploring the Affinities

There are numerous facts and instances that highlight just how much of an impact Gandhi's passive resistance campaigns in India and South Africa had in West Africa.

Gandhi with the leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi with the leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“There is however no hope of avoiding the catastrophe” (of increased racial bitterness)  “unless the spirit of exploitation that at present dominates the nations of the West is transmuted into that of real helpful service, or unless the Asiatic and African races understand that they cannot be exploited without their co-operation, to a large extent voluntary, and thus understanding, withdraw such co-operation.”
– Gandhi in Young India, March 18, 1926

Q: “For some years Britain would continue certain subject territories like Gold Coast. Would Mr Gandhi object?”
A: “I would certainly object”.
– Gandhi in reply to a question in London, October 31, 1931

Mahatma Gandhi, born in 1869, was shot dead in India on January 30, 1948. “We too mourned his death,” wrote Kwame Nkrumah, “for he had inspired us deeply with his political thought, notably with his adherence to non-violent resistance.” As one writer put it, “The message cabled by the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) on his death expressed the sentiments of all African nationalists, for whom Gandhi was the ‘bearer of the torch of liberty of oppressed peoples’ and whose life had been ‘an inspiration to colonials everywhere’.” The Sierra Leone economist-poet David Carney who, as the West African poet Abioseh Davidson Nicol observed, wrote “poetry of a Miltonic grandeur”,  resorted to verse: Carney’s poetic tribute ‘Gandhi’ was “broadcast to millions” in Africa and Asia. Carney, who died in 2014, was Sierra Leone-born and had spent many years in Nigeria and Ghana.

To appreciate what contributed to the impact that Gandhi’s passive resistance campaigns in South Africa and India had in West Africa, it is useful to recapitulate a few facts.


As shown elsewhere, the widening of Gandhi’s outlook on racial matters goes back to his years in South Africa and was not merely a later occurrence, as is sometimes erroneously assumed.

The condition of plantation workers in Africa received Gandhi’s attention even while he was in South Africa. In 1913 he wrote: “In cocoa plantations, Negro workers are subjected to such inhuman treatment that if we witnessed it with our own eyes we would have no desire to drink cocoa. Volumes have been written on the tortures inflicted in these plantations”. A couple of years earlier, he complained to his associate Henry Polak about “the abominable chocolate”, calling it “that cursed product of devilish slave labour.” By this time the Quaker Joseph Burtt’s investigations into conditions on cocoa plantations had become known. These and other inquiries were focused on Portuguese territories in West Africa and had wider significance. J.P. de Carvalho’s work Slavery in West Africa. Portuguese Revelations became known in 1912-1913. Gandhi’s Indian Opinion gave prominence to the critique by de Carvalho, a former curator (official protector of Africans) in Principe, Portuguese Africa, of Portugal’s conduct and attitude towards the African population. In a leaflet issued by the Anti-Slavery Society, de Carvalho, who had resigned his position after investigating the facts, wrote alleging the existence of slavery in the colony: “….I speak of the labourers born in Angola. They are actual slaves. Caught in the interior or sold to Europeans by their chiefs, they come down to the coast like any other sort of merchandise.” Indian Opinion (April 26, 1913) noted that The Spectator, where the report was first published, had observed that de Carvalho’s work appeared to “bear the stamp of genuineness” and also that it was “as regards the main fact of slavery, fully borne out by the first-hand evidence of Mr Nevinson, Mr Burtt, and Mr Harris.” H.W. Nevinson conducted an investigation in Angola and Sao Tome, the results of which were put together in his work A Modern Slavery, published in 1906. John H. Harris produced his work Portuguese Slavery in 1913. Gandhi and Nevinson would meet later, in London in 1931.

After his return to India, Gandhi was in contact with W.E.B. DuBois, the pioneer of the Pan-African movement, who was to spend his last days in Ghana. DuBois had been repeatedly referred to in Gandhi’s Indian Opinion in South Africa. In 1911, Indian Opinion had carried laudatory references to DuBois and his role. Gandhi, for his part, had been referred to in the pages of DuBois’s journal, Crisis, since at least the early 1920s. Crisis, a monthly journal from New York, was the organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In March 1922, the month in which Gandhi was to be arrested, Crisis carried a five-page long appreciative article on Gandhi. The Crisis article referred to the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar in 1919 and set out in detail the content of Gandhi’s non-cooperation and boycott movements. Crisis went on to observe: “The second outstanding factor in Mr Gandhi’s program is the idea and practice of non-violence or passive resistance. Like the principle of non-co-operation, it kills without striking its adversary.” Years later, writing in 1957, DuBois was to recall that “(w)ith the First World War came my first knowledge of Gandhi”. Gandhi sent DuBois a “love message” for Crisis on May 1, 1929.

Gandhi's writing corner while he was in a South African prison. Credit: sweggs/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Gandhi’s writing corner while he was in a South African prison. Credit: sweggs/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

As in South Africa, Gandhi would be imprisoned again in India. The non-cooperation movement against British rule in India was initiated by Gandhi in 1920. Political activities in India were a factor that contributed to the quickening of political events in certain parts of Africa. It was soon after the end of the First World War that Gandhi’s name became known in West Africa too. Events during and after the World War, “plus the example of Gandhi’s Indian Congress party”, led to the formation of the National Congress of British West Africa at Accra in 1920. A notable West African personality, slightly elder to Gandhi, but whose thought is believed to have affinities with Gandhi, was Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford (1866-1930). Casely-Hayford, also known as Ekra Agyiman, “was regarded as the ‘Uncrowned King of West Africa’ and is one of the fathers of Pan-Africanism”.

An influential writer, Casely-Hayford worked for African political rights and was one of the main founders of the National Congress of British West Africa. His efforts for establishing a university in Ghana (then Gold Coast) resulted in the founding of Achimota College in 1927. Although the nature and precise juncture of Gandhi’s influence upon Casely-Hayford, if any, may not be easy to pinpoint, there are multiple points of affinity. In 1911 when he produced Ethiopia Unbound, one of the earliest African novels, Casely-Hayford dedicated it “to the sons of Ethiopia the world wide over” and his interpretation of Ethiopianism was itself wide; it has been argued that Casely-Hayford’s “Ethiopianism encourages all oppressed peoples to identify themselves as historical subjects who will eventually be liberated ”. With this notion of Pan-Africanism may be compared Gandhi’s declaration in his article ‘Independence v. Swaraj‘: “My ambition is much higher than independence. Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner”. Apart from the inclusive nature of their nationalism, there was yet another bridge between Gandhi and other African leaders like Casely-Hayford. This lay in their emphasis on education; like Gandhi, Casely-Hayford had also been impressed by the work of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee.

Gandhi on the Dandi march. Illustration by Ita Mehrotra

Gandhi on the Dandi march. Illustration by Ita Mehrotra

In the course of the non-cooperation movement in India, Gandhi would be arrested in 1922. For his part, Gandhi was prepared even in his non-cooperation to provide the English with an honourable exit. What he sought was equality among the white, brown and black races and, if this could not be achieved under the English, he was, of course, prepared to end that connection. He defined his objective in a letter to his friend and associate C.F. Andrews: “It may be that the English temperament is not responsive to a status of perfect equality with the black and the brown races. Then the English must be made to retire from India. But I am not prepared to reject the possibility of an honourable equality. The connection must end on the clearest possible proof that the English have hopelessly failed to realize the first principle of religion, namely, brotherhood of man.”

Gandhi was aware of the unequal exchange in the labour, commodity and other markets with which the economic life of  people in the colonies was entwined. Following the economic boycott of foreign cloth that Gandhi  encouraged and sponsored in India, he recommended the same course to other Asians and to Africans. He declared in March 1926 in response to reports of racial restrictions in Glasgow: “There is however no hope of avoiding the catastrophe” (of increased racial bitterness) “unless the spirit of exploitation that at present dominates the nations of the West is transmuted into that of real helpful service, or unless the Asiatic and African races understand that they cannot be exploited without their co-operation, to a large extent voluntary, and thus understanding, withdraw such co-operation”.

A year later, the international aspect of the struggle came still further into focus with the invitation to Gandhi to attend the Brussels International Congress Against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, or the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities, to be held in February 1927. In his message sent before February 7, 1927, Gandhi thanked the group “very cordially” for its invitation and, while regretting that his work in India prevented him from participating, he added: “I wish you, however, from the depths of my heart, every success in your deliberations”. In December 1926, the Indian National Congress, at its Guwahati (Assam) session, appointed Jawaharlal Nehru, who was already in Europe at the time, as its representative to the Brussels Congress. The Brussels conference gave birth to the League Against Imperialism. Nehru was made one of the honorary presidents of the general council of the league and a member of the executive committee. Among the three elected secretaries was the African trade unionist Lamine Senghor. Belonging to Senegal in French West Africa, Senghor was then resident in Paris and was chairman of the Ligue pour la Defence de la Race Negre (LDRN). Houenou had become directly involved in Dahomey (now Benin) and Senegal politics, and had even been arrested in Togo. In succession to Houenou’s Ligue universelle de defense de la race negre, Lamine Senghor came to lead the Comite de defense de la race negre, which was later reconstituted as the LDRN. Nehru reported back to the Congress working committee in India that Lamine Senghor’s speech at the Brussels Congress appeared to have led to the latter’s arrest in France for “high treason”.

Nehru reported back to the Congress working committee in India that Senghor’s speech at the Brussels Congress appeared to have led to the latter’s arrest in France for “high treason”. The journal La Race Negre “had been clamoring since July 1927 for complete and immediate independence”; Garan Tiemoko Kouyate from French Sudan (the later Mali) and Senghor, “the two West Africans who had launched upon this radical course”, referred not to “black internationalism” but to Gandhi, the socialists and Woodrow Wilson in support of their claim for national self-government. Articulate sections of francophone West Africa had already been taking a keen interest in Gandhi. For example, Les Continents, a monthly journal established in Paris in 1924 by the Dahomeyan Kojo Tovalou Houenou had been carrying extracts on Gandhi’s ideas and movements.

That Gandhi should have sent a message to the Brussels Congress is significant for he was not especially enamoured by international conferences and it was not often that he would associate himself with them, his emphasis being on strengthening the struggle at hand wherever he was based. The message was also important as the Brussels Congress represented, at this stage, the coalescing of, or an alliance between, groups seeking, in the first instance, freedom from colonial rule and those focusing on change in the social and economic structure. Participants at the Brussels Congress had a wide canvas before them. The problem, as Gandhi noted later in the year, was the idea of inequality itself: “The false and rigid doctrine of inequality has led to the insolent exploitation of the nations of Asia and Africa.”

In 1930, Gandhi resumed civil disobedience in India. While the Indian National Congress was still banned and Gandhi, along with most Congress leaders, was in prison, the British government headed by Ramsay MacDonald called a round-table conference to discuss Indian constitutional reform in London from November 12, 1930. The conference did not result in any specific solution; ultimately the hosts themselves realised that they would have to release Congress leaders and go through the motions of attempting to keep the Congress in the picture. In the second half of January 1931, Gandhi was released from prison. Talks between Gandhi, on behalf of the Indian National Congress, and the British viceroy led to a kind of provisional truce in March 1931. In England, Winston Churchill reacted unfavourably to the prospect of political advance in India and to the spectacle of the viceroy appearing to seek a political settlement with an arch-rebel like Gandhi. A notable African voice that rebuked Churchill at this point was Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, who went on to become the president of Nigeria, then in the US. Azikiwe wrote: “Winston Churchill, former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Baldwin regime in England, is reverting to the jingoism of the Victorian era. After the dissolution of the Round Table Conference on India and the freedom of Ghandi (sic) from jail, this great author of The World Crisis became so emotionally fervent in his irreconciliable attitude that he denounced the MacDonald government for attempting to grant India political autonomy. Such an attitude naturally leads to grave reactions which Churchill himself knows. He went further to suggest severe punishment for Gandhi in order to bring him to his senses. In my humble opinion, I think this is poor statesmanship on his part.”


At the end of August 1931, Gandhi sailed from India for Europe to attend the second round-table conference called by the British government to discuss the constitutional development of India. With Gandhi already committed to Indian independence, and to full Egyptian independence, his commitment to all of Africa could be no less. While in London, Gandhi was asked on October 31, 1931: “For some years Britain would continue certain subject territories like Gold Coast. Would Mr Gandhi object?”

“I would certainly object,” was Gandhi’s reply. He continued: “India would certainly aspire after influencing British policy… I do not want India to be an engine of oppression”. He spoke on this occasion about the exploitation of Zulus and Swazis, which he described as “radically wrong”.

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa in 1985. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa in 1985. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

African activists and students also had contact with Gandhi during his visit to England in 1931. On October 25, Gandhi spoke at the Ruskin Society in Oxford. Among those he met at Oxford was the wondrously talented Gold-Coast-born, and later Sierra Leone-based, poet Gladys Casely-Hayford (1904-1950), then studying at Ruskin College. She was the daughter of the famous Casely-Hayford mentioned before and the African educationist Adelaide Casely-Hayford, then settled in Sierra Leone. The precocious Gladys had spent her childhood in West Africa and Britain, where she had attended schools at various intervals from as early as 1906. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), the Black musical genius, to whom Gandhi’s journal in South Africa, Indian Opinion, had referred in 1911, had been Gladys’s sponsor and godfather; in 1927 Gladys had, while working for the Gold Coast Leader, the weekly paper founded by her father, reported also on the 2nd Achimota Conference of the Congress of British West Africa. Her illustrious father had died in August 1930. Gladys joined Ruskin College in October 1931 and the meeting with Gandhi was barely a fortnight later. She evidently informed her mother, then in West Africa, of her encounter. A letter from Gladys’s mother to a friend mentions her daughter’s meeting with Gandhi on the latter’s visit to Ruskin College where “she got him to autograph her book of poems”. Little is apparently known about the conversation between Gladys and Gandhi. Unlike her mother who had somewhat “Europeanised” herself in style and manner, Gladys would soon turn away from Europe and identify increasingly with Africa and African lifestyles. This was in accordance with advice that Gandhi was known to give to Africans. A week after this visit to Oxford where he had encountered Gladys, Gandhi would declare, in answer to the question put to him in London, to which reference was made above, his objection to the colonial subjection of the Gold Coast. From Oxford, Gladys, also known by her pen-name Aquah Laluah, went on also to assist in her mother’s educational activities in West Africa. Like Jomo Kenyatta, who obtained a message from Gandhi when he met him in London in November 1931, Gladys too carefully preserved the sheaf carrying Gandhi’s signature; a photograph of it now appears in the biography written and published by Lucilda Hunter, Sierra Leonean author and Gladys’s daughter-in-law. Though Gladys had a hard life, taking sundry jobs in the struggle to make ends meet, she made a reputation as the cultural leader of her time in Sierra Leone. There and in the Gold Coast, she “promoted African culture at a time when colonialism had made many educated Africans rather inclined to disregard their heritage”.

When Gandhi addressed a meeting at the London School of Economics on November 10, 1931, an African student asked him: “You love an Englishman as much as an Indian and yet you dislike British Government. Now British people make up the Government”. Gandhi replied: “Man is superior to his method. A man’s method may be vile, and yet you may not apply the adjective to the man himself… ”. In an unusual gesture, Gandhi shared a personal circumstance of his family life as an illustration in response to the African student’s question: “I have a boy who has rebelled against me [referring to his eldest son Harilal Gandhi]. Yet I love that boy equally as I do the other brothers. … I have learnt from domestic law that if I have humanity in me, I should love the Britisher… And yet I detest his method…” Gandhi’s formulations and interactions in England at this time did not go unnoticed in Africa. In Nigeria, Herbert Macaulay (1864-1946), described as the founder of Nigerian nationalism and the “Gandhi of West Africa”, referred in an article to the inspiration Gandhi had derived from the Sermon on the Mount, even as he found solace in his own religion and traditions. Colonial repression in India was to mount presently. On returning to India in the last week of December 1931, Gandhi was again arrested in the first week of January 1932. Not impressed by such restrictive measures, some African leaders did not hesitate to speak their mind. Macaulay, “suggested that Europe had a lot to learn from Gandhi and his policy of non-violence”.


With Gandhi having spoken against the colonial subjection of the Gold Coast in 1931, it was appropriate that Ghana was, after South Africa,  among the first of  the parts of Africa where Gandhian techniques were adopted. This was noted by a prominent Afro-Caribbean scholar-statesman (Eric Williams in Gandhi: A Broadcast on the 90th Anniversary of the Birth of Mahatma Gandhi).

As we have seen, consistent with the boycott of foreign cloth that Gandhi had initiated in India, he suggested similar methods for Africa and the rest of Asia, writing in the spring of 1926 that there was no hope of “avoiding  the catastrophe” of increased racial bitterness “unless the spirit of exploitation that at present dominates the nations of the West is transmuted into that of real helpful service, or unless the Asiatic and African races understand that they cannot be exploited without their co-operation, to a large extent voluntary, and thus understanding, withdraw such co-operation”. A vital formulation, this conceptually extended to the wider world the non-violent non-cooperation he had earlier initiated in India.

A most singular resort to the strategy mentioned in this spring 1926 article would soon occur. In West Africa, Gandhi’s influence had spread substantively. Obviously, such African leaders who invoked or hearkened to Gandhi would adapt his ideas and methods creatively to suit their own national traditions and circumstances. In 1935, four years after Gandhi declared his support for a free Gold Coast, his friend and Andrews spent time in Achimota College. Before Andrews planned his visit he seems to have written to Gandhi to seek out his views. Gandhi responded to say, “I entirely endorse your programme for West Africa.” Andrews and Gandhi had already worked in synergy in relation to South Africa, East Africa and the African-Americans. West Africa was now added to this list. Andrews left an impact on West Africa, with a journal writing in farewell that it envied India “such a champion” who was “capable to interpret to his white brethren that the Indian also has a soul that yearns for self-expression”.

Andrews’s presence there attracted significant attention. A crisis was brewing in the then Gold Coast related particularly to the cultivation and marketing of cocoa, which directly affected the African farmer. It presently came to a head. In 1937, the African-American press reported from London that “Gold Coast Africans by declaring a boycott of British merchandise have caused a panic among London and Liverpool export merchants”; according to the report the boycotters “had sparked the publicity by adopting the tactics of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, paralyzing trade and disrupting the lucrative cocoa industry”. European monopolists controlled the cocoa export trade with West Africa, buying cheap and selling at high prices abroad and were believed to have formed a combine in 1937. Reacting to this, “the chiefs and farmers unitedly took action by holding up cocoa and boycotting the retail stores of the firms connected with the pool. Not only the farmers  and brokers and chiefs joined  but there was unanimity of action….” The cocoa strike was investigated by the Nowell Commission which found that it was a mass movement, “remarkable for its spontaneity and discipline over a wide area”; it remarked on its “protracted duration” and described it as the “first instance of unanimous popular action”. As a consequence, “(t)he economic life of  the Gold Coast was paralysed from October 1937 to April 1938”.

Writing in DuBois’s journal, George Padmore (Malcolm Nurse) related the tactics adopted in West Africa to Gandhi and his methods: “Trouble has broken out in the Gold Coast. An agrarian strike has been declared. Thousands of cocoa farmers, incensed by the attempt on the part of the British monopoly trading companies and merchants to obtain their cocoa below its real value, are holding up their crops. Motor transport workers and dockers are refusing to handle the goods of foreign firms, while a nationwide boycott of British commodities has been proclaimed. …The entire economic life of West Africa’s richest colony is at a standstill. Clashes have occurred between the people and the military… (the) trouble began during the latter part of October, but the authorities are trying to prevent the news from getting abroad. According to authentic reports reaching London, thousands of native cocoa producers of the Gold Coast and Ashanti have been holding meetings at Suhum, Nsawan, Kibi, Dodowah and other cocoa-producing districts, for the purpose of discussing ways and means of defending themselves against imperialist oppression…The strike, coupled with the boycott, has drawn the entire country into action. The urban population, most of whom are related to the farmers, are also refusing to buy foreign goods. For the first time in the history of Africa, three million people have taken up the challenge against vested interest and have applied the economic strike weapon. This is symptomatic of the New Africa, which is gradually becoming conscious of its strength, and is learning to use Gandhi’s well-known technique, the boycott, with effect.”

It was the African farmer’s response to an elaborate economic stranglehold upon him that can be compared with the British trade in cotton and textiles with India, in which Gandhi had so strikingly intervened. According to a summary of Sir Ofori Atta’s testimony before the Cocoa Commission in 1938,  “…European merchants dictated the price at which the African farmer must sell his product, as well as  fixed the price at which the farmers had to buy their merchandise; … irrespective of the quality of the cocoa, the farmer got a fixed price, since grading was done  at a later stage; … when the world price of cocoa rose, the merchants increased the price of some staple goods most in demand, so that the farmer was deprived of the benefit of the increase in the price of cocoa; … by controlling produce prices  and the prices of trade goods, the European buyer-merchant had made the African farmer a virtual serf.”


It was not merely in the economic sphere that Gandhi’s methods had influence.

While in prison on account of the movement that he had launched on August 8-9, 1942 asking the British to Quit India, Gandhi wrote to the British Indian government on July 15, 1943. In his letter, Gandhi reproduced the passage from his article in the Harijan dated July 26, 1942, seeking the freeing of “all other subject peoples in Asia and Africa”. Indeed, he described a long quotation from the article, including this passage, as “an open gate to the whole of my mind regarding the movement contemplated in the resolution of 8th August last.” In spite of the strict control over the flow of news from India during Gandhi’s wartime imprisonment, this sequence of events came to be known in Africa. It further enhanced his moral stature. More than a decade later, in June 1957, Nigeria’s leader Azikiwe, speaking at Oxford, would remind his audience that in the 1940s the Labour opposition in the British House of Commons had pressed L.S. Amery, the secretary of state for India, to release Gandhi and Nehru from prison. Azikiwe, having observed Indian affairs since the early thirties when he charged Churchill with showing poor statesmanship in his attitude towards Gandhi and India, recalled the events of 1942-43: “Mr Amery prevaricated, and on being requested to state categorically what India wanted, Mahatma Gandhi said that Indian nationalists demanded from Britain self-government for India and for the people of Africa.” Azikiwe himself had in 1943 penned a memorandum, The Atlantic Charter and British West Africa urging that the third clause of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which spoke of “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they may live” be applied to West Africa.

Kwame Nkrumah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kwame Nkrumah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two years after Gandhi’s prison letter of July 1943 reiterating his support for the freedom of the people of Africa, the Fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England between October 15-21, 1945 under inspiration from DuBois who was also present. Padmore, the Trinidad-born activist, and Nkrumah, the future leader of Ghana, were the leading organisers. At the conference, Gandhi’s satyagraha methods were discussed and “endorsed as the only effective means of making alien rulers respect the wishes of  an unarmed subject people”. Jomo Kenyatta, who had met Gandhi in 1931, was present at this meeting as chairman of the Credentials Committee, as was “Sierra Leone’s redoubtable trade union leader”, Isaac T. A. Wallace Johnson. Chief Soyemi Coker of Nigeria also pleaded for the adoption of the non-violent methods that had been adopted in India. Clearly, there would be more than one interpretation of any idea or method that was adopted and it would also have to be appropriate to prevailing traditions and circumstances. For example, Wallace Johnson argued in response to Coker that Gandhi was not altogether against the use of force, but used a different kind of force.

Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe, an admirer of Gandhi, was  one of the biggest supporters of the  conference. Another Nigerian admirer of Gandhi, Obafemi Awolowo, was a delegate. Among the women who were present was Marcus Garvey’s first spouse, Amy Ashwood Garvey. From South Africa, the ANC named Marko Hlubi, already in England, to the Pan-African Congress. “He and the other South African delegate, Peter Abrahams, the writer, met many of Africa’s young leaders, among them Kwame Nkrumah, Chief Akintola …” Another England-based delegate to the Congress was Nigeria’s M.I. Faro who represented the Negro Association. “Strongly influenced by Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement, he joined the Negro Association and became its official representative”. Among the resolutions at the Congress was one by Padmore expressing solidarity with the Indian struggle. The resolution was “adopted by the Congress with loud acclaim”; it read: “We, the representatives of African peoples and peoples of African descent assembled at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, do hereby send fraternal greetings to the toiling masses of India through the Indian National Congress and pledge our solidarity with the Indian struggle for national freedom and social emancipation”. The Pan-African Congress set up a working committee with DuBois as chairman and Nkrumah as secretary.


During World War II, African troops were used by Britain in India, Burma and in the Southeast Asian theatre generally. West African troops too came into contact with “politically minded Asiatics reaching out towards political independence”. Some African troops from Gold Coast, along with other Commonwealth troops, had been taken to Durban in South Africa, before being dispersed to various destinations. Many of them heard of Gandhi there and later on even in East Africa, where they were posted along with the Indian Artillery. On returning from Asia, some of them worked for the independence of the Gold Coast. One of these, John K. Baku, who became a politician and trade union organiser after the war, recalled his military experiences in India where he obtained a ‘leave pass’ and went to Bombay (Mumbai) “in order to try and get a glimpse of Gandhi”. It is hardly surprising in this context that the colonial governments of Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Gambia should have sent military officials “to visit the 80,000 West African troops in India and Burma to collect, at first hand, information as to their general outlook and their views on post-war developments” (as the Statesmen reported October 21, 1945). The political exposure that West African troops received in India and Burma became a factor in further developments that occurred in the countries of their origin.

Gandhi was repeatedly stressing the interconnection between Indian and African freedom. As the New Year unfolded, Gandhi, in a discussion with political workers in Bengal, told them: “If India won its freedom through truth and non-violence she would not only point the way to all the exploited Asiatic nations, she would become a torch-bearer for the Negro races that inhabit the vast continent of Africa, and even to Europe.”

Of especial significance is the meeting that some West African soldiers had with Gandhi in Madras (now Chennai) in early 1946. The political importance of this may be gauged firstly from the fact that visitors to Gandhi had, for decades, been under surveillance of colonial intelligence; and second from the particular juncture in January-February 1946 when the meeting took place. It was the time when revolt was simmering among the Indian naval ratings of the British Indian Navy. The revolt broke out at the port of Bombay in mid-February 1946.

A report of the conversation with the West African soldiers was published in Gandhi’s journal on February 24, 1946. The West African soldiers came prepared “with a long list of questions”, which to Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary, indicated “deep stirring in their consciousness”. They had done some preparation for the interview; Pyarelal observes that they “quoted Gandhiji’s observation that to remain in slavery is beneath the dignity of man; a slave who is conscious of his state and yet does not strive to break his chains is lower than the beast”. They asked Gandhi: “How can a continent like Africa fight down the fetters of slavery when it is so hopelessly divided?” His advice was the simple message he had been espousing in India since 1920: “But there is a charm which can overcome all these handicaps. The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others.” Gandhi’s further remarks must necessarily have assumed an added significance by the time of publication in his journal because the Indian Naval Revolt had meanwhile occurred: “Freedom and slavery are mental states. Therefore the first thing is to say to yourself: ‘I shall no longer accept the role of a slave. I shall not obey orders as such but shall disobey them when they are in conflict with my conscience.’ The so-called master may lash you and try to force you to serve him. You will say: ‘No, I will not serve you for your money or under a threat’. This may mean suffering. Your readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom which can never be put out”. They queried him further: “Africa and India both drink of the cup of slavery. What necessary steps can be taken to unite the two nations so as to present a common front?” Gandhi’s replies were noteworthy: “You are right. India is not yet free and yet Indians have begun to realize that their freedom is coming, not because the white man says so but because they have developed the power within. Inasmuch as India’s struggle is non-violent, it is a struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed races against superior might. I do not propose mechanical joint action between them. ‘Each one has to find his own salvation’ is true of this as well as the other world. It is enough that there is a real moral bond between Asiatics and Africans. It will grow as time passes.”

Obviously seeing freedom as being sufficiently within his grasp, Gandhi shared with the West African soldiers some economic ideas about the future. He told them that he wanted Indo-African trade to be non-exploitative and “not of manufactured goods against raw materials after the fashion of Western exploiters”. Another significant comment Gandhi made  was about the spinning wheel which he had popularised in India as part of his programme for reconstruction and utilisation of idle labour time so as to end widespread poverty: “If I had discovered it in South Africa, I would have introduced it among the Africans who were my neighbours in Phoenix. You can grow cotton, you have ample leisure and plenty of manual skill. You should study and adopt the lesson of the village crafts we are trying to revive. Therein lies the key to your salvation.” For years he had been suggesting that the logic of structurally unequal exchange which had driven him to campaign for handspun and handwoven cloth in India, applied equally to Africa: “Cloth manufactured in Manchester is meant for use not in Manchester or England or Europe, but to be exported to Asia or Africa for the use of the people there. On the contrary, khadi is meant to be made for the millions by the millions living in the villages.”


Political events in Africa were gathering momentum. On January 8, 1950 the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in the Gold Coast (later Ghana) “commenced Positive Action, a campaign of non-violent resistance modeled on Gandhian tactics”. J.B. Danquah, founder of the Gold Coast Youth Congress in 1937 and co-founder of the United Gold Coast Convention ten years later, and Nkrumah, both leading figures in Ghana’s national movement, acknowledged inspiration from Gandhi though they differed in their interpretations. There was even a small sartorial symbolism that underlined a symbiotic connection: “CPP members out of prison sported P.G. (Prison Graduate) caps, which were the Gandhi caps of the Indian struggle with the letters P. G. added”. Nkrumah himself took to wearing the cap. The “caps of the Indian struggle” had themselves originated in the prison dress to which Gandhi and his companions had been familiarised in South Africa.

Other activists of the African diaspora, also committed to non-violent struggle and influenced by Gandhi’s example, joined Ghana in support of the movement. These included the African-Americans Bill Sutherland and Bayard Rustin. Padmore of the Pan-African Congress wrote on June 9, 1953 to his old Indian comrade, N.G. Ranga: “Do not be discouraged. Africa is on the march. Nothing can hold the Africans back. We shall suffer many blows before achieving freedom, but now that they have learned the Gandhian technique of non-violent non-co-operation they have a mighty weapon in their hands. I have discussed its application in the Gold Coast in my book ‘The Gold Coast Revolution’, a copy of which I have sent you. I hope the book will become a sort of text book to guide other African movements which have not yet reached the stage of the G.C. Already the British are trying to divide up Nigeria along the lines of India – on religion and communalism but we are fighting it tooth and nail. Thanks for the warning and example from India, we are prepared to meet the imperialist challenge.” Ranga, along with  Kenyatta and Harold Moody, had founded the League of Coloured Peoples in England in the 1930s. Another scholar assessed the significance of the events set in motion in Ghana: “Nkrumah’s declaration of Positive Action on January 8, 1950 was influenced by Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent revolution in India. It constituted the first major political action in the history of the country. It was to bring to an end British colonial rule not only in Ghana, but also in the rest of Africa….The non-compromising non-violent Positive Action was also the second confrontation of this kind that the British government had to face after that of Gandhi in India years earlier.”

Visiting Africa in 1952, the African-American Rustin, who had been  influenced by Gandhi’s methods, found the continent “afire”, with “every imaginable form of resistance being used to break 300 years of … European domination”. In that year South Africa was boiling over with the Defiance campaign. Rustin met Nkrumah in Accra. And in Nigeria he met Azikiwe (“Zik”) near Lagos. Rustin and Azikiwe, “an eager student of Gandhi’s campaigns” discussed Gandhi and Nehru. Later comparing Azikiwe and Nehru, Rustin wrote: “I have never met two men more alike than Zik and Nehru. Each is fiery and sensitive. Each has a world view. Each has the love of his people.” The African-American added that “each respects the ideals of Gandhi and each is inwardly sorry he cannot see clearly to follow him all the way”.

Though diverse tactics would be available for adoption in West Africa as in other parts of Africa, Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa and in India continued to inspire activists and thinkers in and from the continent. There were parts of West Africa where Gandhi struck a chord. In the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, for example, regarded Gandhi as a source of inspiration and was himself spoken of as the “Gandhi of Africa”. Houphouet-Boigny was associated with the Parti Democratique de la Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) and persuaded the French constituent assembly in 1946 to support legislation “to outlaw the forced labour system in all of France’s colonies”, a measure which ensured wide support for him among the people of West Africa.

As colonial repression mounted in some parts of Africa, independence dawned in others. The Gold Coast having become the independent state of Ghana in 1957, the first conference of independent African states was organised in Accra in April 1958. This was followed by the All African Peoples’ Conference, also in Accra, in December 1958. A Nkrumah’s posthumously published work reproduces the provisional agenda prepared for the conference: “The main purpose of the All-African Peoples’ Conference to be held in Accra, Ghana, in December 1958, will be to formulate concrete plans and work out the Gandhian tactics and strategy of the African Non-violent Revolution…”

According to one contemporary observer, the final resolution was a compromise between what was described as the Algerian point of view, which considered “violence to be one of the weapons used by subject peoples to achieve independence from colonialism” and other Africans who “wanted non-violence and the policies of Ghandi (sic)”.

Violence was always lurking around the corner. In a pamphlet first written and circulated in the forties, Nkrumah, mentioning the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by British-led troops in Amritsar (India) in 1919, had referred to colonial policy in Africa which “in 1929 mowed down by machine gun fire poor defenceless Nigerian women for peacefully and harmlessly protesting against excessive taxation, the counterpart of India’s Amritsar.”

On April 7, 1960, in the shadow of the Sharpeville incident in South Africa, Nkrumah addressed the Positive Action Conference for Peace and Security in Africa. “The beginning of the year 1960,” he said, “has seen the climax of ruthless and concerted outrages on the peace-loving people of our continent. The explosion of an atomic device in the Sahara by the French Government and the wanton massacre in the Union of South Africa of our brothers and sisters who were engaged in peaceful demonstrations against humiliating and repulsive laws of the South African Government are two eloquent events in this climax, a climax which is a sign post to the beginning of the end of foreign supremacy and domination in Africa.”

 “Positive action has already achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of our continent and I feel sure that it can further save us from the perils of this atomic arrogance. If the direct action that was carried out by the international protest team were to be repeated on a mass scale, or simultaneously from various parts of Africa, the result could be as powerful and as successful as Gandhi’s historic Salt March. We salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember, in tribute to him, that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practiced in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country.

But now positive action with non-violence, as advocated by us, has found expression in South Africa in the defiance of the oppressive pass laws. This defiance continues in spite of the murder of unarmed men, women, and children by the South African Government. We are sure that the will of the majority will ultimately prevail, for no government can continue to impose its rule in face of the conscious defiance of the overwhelming masses of its people. There is no force, however impregnable, that a united and determined people cannot overcome.”

At the end of the sixties, the West African nationalist pioneer, Azikiwe wrote in the light of his own experience: “On Gandhi’s teachings of satyagraha, history has proved Gandhi right.” Azikiwe understood a vital aspect of Gandhi’s method: it did not consist in mere expression of love towards the opponent, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed, but of a struggle to change the existing state of affairs. Azikiwe elaborated: “Those Indians who tried to love and co-operate with the alien Sahibs who ruled over them, and continued to do their work without seeking a political means of effecting a radical change in their status, had learned from experience that they were living in the clouds. Who but a fool would co-operate with evil or with his oppressor?”

Mahatma Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As Tom Mboya noted in Africa Quarterly, Gandhi’s influence in Africa was felt across “political or racial boundaries”. His impact, such as it was, appeared to cut across nations, races, linguistic areas and religions. Among his most ardent students, for example, were Nigeria’s Aminu Kano and the leading Algerian intellectual and Islamic scholar, Malek Bennabi. A devout Muslim, Kano, according to his biographer, “analysed Gandhi’s success in lifting millions of Indians to a high level of dedication and endeavoured to adapt Gandhi’s non-violent techniques to Northern Nigeria”. Kano came, at least according to one source, to be referred to as the “Gandhi of Nigeria”. A progressive Muslim and secretary of the Northern Elements Progressive Union, Kano started several initiatives for land and social reform, supporting peasants’ cooperatives and advocating gender equality. The name of Aminu Kano came to be associated with high ideals and moral purpose. Underlining the “importance to society of people like Aminu Kano or Mahatma Gandhi”, the West African litterateur, Chinua Achebe would write: “Gandhi was real; Aminu Kano was real. They were not angels in heaven, they were human like the rest of us in India and Nigeria. Therefore, after their example, no one who reduces the high purpose of politics which they exemplified down to a swinish scramble can hope to do so without bringing a terrible judgement on himself.”

There was another aspect of Gandhi – his strategy for national rejuvenation and reconstruction which often interested West Africans.  Senegal’s writer, poet and statesman Leopold Senghor identified Gandhi as an inspiration. According to Senghor’s biographer: “His non-violent approach to colonial problems had been inspired in 1944 by the example of Gandhi. He called Gandhi ‘the most surprising revolutionary of our time’ because he was non-violent and because ‘his goal was not political victory but spiritual victory’”. Senghor emphasises the social and economic content of Gandhi’s message: “Let us not mistake the Mahatma for a soft dreamer. With a truly Western realism he works for the economic and social liberation of his country, but that liberation itself is a means, not an end. It is from this point of view that he considers colonisation less an evil than the symptom of the malady from which India suffers. He invites the coloniser to collaborate with him in the spiritual liberation of the country.” In 1948, Senghor would form the Bloc Democratique Senegalais (BDS) and in 1956 the Bloc Progressiste Senegalaise (BPS) before becoming the President of Senegal in 1960. In Cameroon intellectuals closely studied Gandhi’s ideational resistance to colonialism. The influential journal Abbia, was guided by Bernard Nsokika Fonlon who was “quite explicit” in his “resort to writings against imposed forms of education by Ireland’s Padraic Pearse and India’s Mohandas Gandhi, nationalist rebels who made those descents from elite to mass surroundings Fonlon called for and were respectively executed and jailed for their efforts”. “Their resistance served Fonlon as models for Africa’s leaders”.

Gandhi’s advocacy of African freedom led India in its support for freedom struggles in Africa. And with reconciliation stressed by Gandhi, most former British colonies opted to remain in the Commonwealth after independence. The extent to which Gandhian non-violent struggles came to draw upon the emphasis that Gandhi placed on a non-racialist construction of peoplehood, especially and expressly from May 1908 onwards (when he had spoken in Johannesburg looking forward to the day when “all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen”), the influences which served to bring this about and Gandhi’s repercussions in West Africa remain a promising area for further  study.