The Role of African Student Movements in the Political and Social Evolution of Africa from 1900 to 1975/Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow/African student movements and the question of the African revolution

The Role of African Student Movements
in the Political and Social Evolution of Africa from 1900 to 1975

Paris, UNESCO, 1981, 69 p.

Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow
African student movements and the question of the African revolution

The forty years from 1935 to 1975 saw the African peoples adjusting to foreign domination whilst resisting the excesses of colonial occupation, playing their part in the Second World War, fighting to regain their national independence and undertaking the construction of nation-states with modem economies and cultures

During this period certain important international events had a resounding impact on Africa:

  • the consolidation of the Soviet state and its victory over Fascism the advent of the Popular Front in France
  • the emancipation of the colonized countries in the Middle East (the Arabian states, Lebanon and Syria) and Asia (India, Indonesia, Pakistan and VietNam)
  • the creation of the United Nations Organization
  • the triumph of socialism in China and the Arab revolution in Egypt
  • the Afro-Asian conferences in Bandung and Cairo
  • the armed resistance of the Algerian and Cameroon peoples to French colonialism
  • the victorious resistance of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the coalition between the United States of America and its Western allies
  • the nationalization of the Suez canal the independence of Ghana and Guinea and the events in the Congo
  • the upsurge of the liberation movement in the Portuguese colonies the Afro-Americans’ fight for civil rights
  • the resistance of the black South African people to apartheid and colonialism the Sino-Soviet conflict
  • the revolution of May 1968 in France the Albanian resistance to political and economic pressure from the Soviet Union the events in Cambodia and the invasion of VietNam

The list could be greatly extended. Making these events known and understood in Africa in the face of the censorship exercised by the colonial and neo-colonial powers called for tireless efforts on the part of many workers’ and young people’s progressive organizations, including the African student movements, which, particularly after 1954, played a role of the very first importance

Until the appearance of the Popular Front, and especially until the end of the Second World War, the consolidation of colonial domination over the African peoples seemed irreversible, so uprooted from their ancestral cultures and so depersonalized did their Westemized elites of officials and businessmen seem to have become, mesmerized as they were by the impossible mirage of “assimilation”. “ As of 1936 with the advent of the Popular Front”, wrote Amadou Hampate Ba

« communist study groups began to form on the fringe of school life and almost in secret. The great virtue of these communist study groups was that they acted as a training ground for the political leadership at grass-roots level. Civil servants and business employees learned how to press their claims and confound their political opponents. The first steps towards complete liberation were taken with the creation of ‘non-political’ associations whose professed purpose was mutual aid and recreation, whereas they were really cells of political activity. Out of these associations, unions very quickly sprang, and from unionism to journalism was but one step. »

The students organize in order to fight

The task of the African student movements, therefore, was to find the best form of organization, not only to defend the material and moral interests of their members, as any union must, but also and above all to fight against the overall situation of deculturation and depersonalization, to support, uphold and make known the African peoples’ struggle for emancipation and unity, and to expose and denounce all forms of domination imposed on the peoples of the colonial and dependent countries, the plundering of their wealth and the denial or ridicule of their cultural values, traditions, languages, history and so forth

To implement these objectives, young people in African universities naturally needed student newspapers that would appear at reasonably regular intervals, and these developed particularly after 1954. They included Dakar-étudiant (the organ of Union Générale des Etudiants d’Afrique de l’Ouest, UGEAO), L’étudiant d’Afrique noire (that of FEANF) and others

The student press, gaining ground year by year, became a powerful instrument for the political education and mobilization of students and an effective vehicle for broadcasting news of the struggle of the African peoples and of what was happening to other contemporary revolutionary movements. As a result, the colonial administration stepped up its seizures and other types of harassment in a vain attempt to halt its growth

The student movements launched an extensive campaign of cultural resource development to inform people of the positive achievements of certain kings and emperors of African history, such as Kings Ghezo and Radama I and Queen Abraha Pokou, and to rehabilitate those who, like Behanzin, Samori, El Hadj Omar, Emir ‘Abd al-Kadir, Queen Ranavalona III and so on, had led national resistance struggles against colonial aggression.
It was in this climate of cultural reaffrrmation favoured by the exchange of ideas in the African student movements that young researchers like Cheikh Anta Diop made their name and whole cohorts of African anthropologists, linguists and historians, whose influence dates from 1954, were formed.

The students unite the liberation fighters
and open their eyes to the rest of the world

The student movement generated the patriotic awareness of national liberation fighters. It opened African militants’ eyes to the history and present condition of the world’s dependent peoples and countries in their fight for emancipation. It threw light on crucial decisions, showing the road to follow and the means to achieve a successful outcome. “In view of the special nature of French imperialism, independence has to be won not by a specific package of illusory reforms but by the revolutionary struggle of the mass of the people”?

The student movement smoothed over differences between organizations, defusing conflicts between leaders, individuals and interests. It led to the creation of a broad front, uniting movements of students, young people, women, trade unions and political parties. It helped to place the inadequacies and momentary setbacks of the struggle in proper perspective by situating them in their socio-historical context. The student movements encouraged militants and leaders who were willing and able to resist and fight by showing them that they were neither alone nor anonymous nor powerless against the repression they were subjected to.

This is borne out convincingly in the statements, general policy resolutions and other policy documents produced by student movement congresses and boards of administration, and in the opening and closing addresses and other important reports drafted for such meetings. Such documents informed African militants of what was happening in the world, and analysed the experience of struggling peoples. They also enabled student movements to voice their fellow feeling for African militants and their ‘active solidarity’ with Africa, Asia and the Americas and with the workers and youth of Europe.
Year by year the movements grew more mature, the analyses more subtle and the slogans clearer, while the difficulties and intricacies of the struggle called for more lucid thinking and greater realism and serenity. “In response to the mystification of the Outline Law (loi-cadre), whose aim is to sow confusion and restrain the historical advance of our liberation, the young people and students of Black Africa are resolved to seal their unity and create the practical conditions for the formation of a common front in the fight for national unity and independence.”

One can feel this constant concern of the students for a global view of things: their continent and the rest of the struggling world were one and indivisible. They discussed all the great issues of the time, intervening everywhere and denying no attitude required by their open-handed approach, their genuine internationalism and their exacting and vigilant conscience as militants: in other words, their perception of their historical mission and responsibilities

Thus the twenty-five years from 1935 to 1960 were years of intense and determined struggle for liberation, in which the African student movements helped to create a broad united front of colonized peoples struggling against foreign domination. Their contribution was decisive in overcoming the many difficulties and deficiencies, and in arousing the awareness of Africans to the millions throughout the world who suffer and yearn for greater justice and solidarity, happiness and fraternity. There can be no doubt that ‘a study of students’ associations and their political role would reveal the decisive influence of the movements of ideas that they cultivated in favour of independence

African student movements and the construction of nation-states in Africa

In 1960, the big colonial empires began to break up, giving birth to a large number of states against which the African students’ organizations revolted, voicing the “understandable aspirations” of their peoples for federal units which they considered would be better balanced and more viable. However, now that they were in positions of power, or even heads of state, yesterday’s allies were bent more on feathering their own nests and those of their families and on ensuring stability for the political systems that they controlled

Already in 1960 students denounced the fraud that consisted of replacing the old, direct style of colonialism by neo-colonialism, and of establishing “anti-national bourgeoisies, faithful stewards of the interests of imperialism”. They launched an appeal for the formation of an anti-imperialist front and spelled out the essential conditions for the genuine independence and unity of Africa, as follows:

  1. the breaking of all organic and institutional ties with the old colonial and imperialist powers
  2. the dismantling of all foreign bases on national territory
  3. the ending of all monopolies
  4. the organization of democratic institutions ensuring the control of national construction by the mass of the people and the full satisfaction of their aspirations and legitimate interests

In their analysis of the first years of independence, students observed that the petite bourgeoisie that had led the struggle for independence had taken advantage of the situation to set up and impose bureaucratic structures enabling senior officials and powerful traders to exploit and oppress the masses. “In addition, this petite bourgeoisie, in its anxiety to secure its own economic base, allied itself with various forms of imperialism as in the cases of Guinea and Mali.

The heads of the post-colonial states hounded the student movements mercilessly, using violence, threats and corruption in turn, and employing division, intimidation and demagogy to marginalize and isolate the “thinking, acting and demanding nucleus”

Since their primary concern was to crush the predominantly progressive tendencies of the student movements of the time, they sought systematically to mobilize the least politicized and least interesting elements in the university world, the ‘cha-cha-cha’ students whose prime object was to stock their wardrobe or have a good time, together with a few opportunists and career-seekers, whom they made members of their ‘single party’ or ‘single union’

They were concerned solely with their own advancement, wrapped up in the passivity of newly rich petits bourgeois. While there were some who worked so hard that they aged prematurely, there were others who were pleased to take the place of the Europeans with the apartment, official car, honours and privileges that went with their position, while the duties towards their people that all this implied appeared to be far from uppermost in their minds

Thus it often happened that, with student movements purged in this way of their militants and leaders who had experienced and been hardened in the national liberation struggle, the African political leaders and those who inspired and counselled them undertook the construction of the nation-states of post-colonial Africa.
Fully recognizing the gravity and significance of the situation and of all that was at stake, the militant students denounced the opportunism, careerism and reformism within the movement and decided on a campaign of resistance. This out-and-out search for absolutists among the most questionable elements in the student movements had serious consequences. Many militants were driven to intransigence, disillusionment, passive resistance and even exile, and the movements they led gradually foundered in wordy maximalism, degeneracy, political suicide and liquidation

This neutralization of the best it had to offer was a cruel blow for Africa. Its real elite, born at a great cost in human effort during the liberation struggle, was sacrificed in this way


In short, the African student movements were active at a time of national revolution when the situation in the world as a whole, and in Africa in particular, still favoured the formation of a broad and united front against foreign domination. Everything in those days was expressed in the form of resolutions and declarations, often emanating from the colonial capitals themselves

It would appear today, however, upon critical examination of what has taken place, that the fact that the emerging political regimes were subtly controlled or manipulated from afar by the old colonial capitals was not clearly grasped by the student movements, which went on proclaiming their revolutionary gospel with the same sincerity and truth, and in the same forms, as before. And these heterogeneous and socially unstable organizations of enlightened amateurs — so ready to give lessons on civic policy and good behaviour in foreign languages to a governing class that was no longer listening to them — at length wearied and annoyed so many people that they were stopped and rendered ineffectual. Needless to say, this state of affairs has not put an end to their struggle

. Amadou Hampâté Bâ, “Cultures traditionnelles et transformations sociales”, La jeunesse et les valeurs culturelles africaines, pp. 45-6. Paris, UNESCO, 1975 (UNESCO doc. SHC-75/WS/9).
. General policy statement by the Eighth FEANF Congress, Paris, December 1957.
. Joint declaration by UGTAN (Union Générale des Travailleurs d’Afrique Noire), UGEAO (Union Généerale des Etudiants d’Afrique Occidentale), CJA (Conseil de la Jeunesse d’Afrique) and FEANF (Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France), issued in Paris in December 1957 on the occasion of the Eighth FEANF Congress.
. M. A. Glele, Naissance d’un état noir, p. 330, Paris, LGDJ, 1969.
. General policy statement, Twelfth FEANF Congress, December 1960.
. Opening address by C. Sylla, Chairman, Twenty-third FEANF Congress, December 1970.
. Glele, op. cit.
. A. Quenum, “Culture de l’intelligentsia et culture du peuple”, Bâ, op. cit., p. 30




Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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