(1926) John Williamson Kuyé, “Right of the People to Self-Determination”

John Williamson Kuyé, an early 20th Century advocate of African self-rule was in many respects part of the first wave of African nationalists.  Born in Bathurst, Gambia, on November 10,  1894, he attended Stanley Day School and Wesleyan Boys’ High School in Sierra Leone.  Kuyé worked for 34 years with the Bank of British West Africa and eventually became the first African senior cashier. Kuyé’s nationalist activities however were channeled through his membership in the Gambia branch of the National Congress of British West Africa. On January 4, 1926  Kuyé gave a paper expressing his views at the 3rd Biennial Session of the National Congress held in St. Mary’s Schoolroom, Bathurst, Gambia.

There never has been recorded in the history of British West Africa, a principle so unifying in influence and so broad in outlook as that of self-determination—the energising force which has brought into being the National Congress of British West Africa.

Within the first quarter of this century we see a destruction of that element which had hitherto isolated the Gambian and Gold Coaster from the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean i.e. Tribe prejudice. For today are assembled in this hall representatives of the Colonies (and of the indigenous tribes of those Colonies) to determine the destiny of British West Africa as a whole and British West Africans as a people. In spite of local and tribal limits which have been considered insurmountable barriers to its progress, the Congress holds today its third biennial session without a hitch in the brief space of five years since its inauguration.

The spirit of self-determination is world-wide in its embrace. It has brooded over almost the whole of our Continent—East, South and West. And everywhere its captivating power has been felt with a keenness and exhibited to a degree which has astonished the outside world. Hence Africa is recently designated by the apt description of ‘the Continent of Surprise’. But the question of the moment is the Right of the people to self-determination.

It may be of interest to observe that the subject of our inquiry is a phrase invented by the late President Wilson of America, at the close of the Great War, in the year 1919. Since then, it has been handed down to posterity as a memorable phrase. But like many other phrases of the time, it is so fraught with the most obvious truths that one is tempted to call it axiomatic. As I understand it, its meaning is that every people has the right to determine its own destiny by choosing its own institutions and forms of government best suited to its own peculiar circumstances (and I may add, with a view to satisfying the needs of all concerned).

And if this be applicable to what we call the lower order of Creation how much more attributable should it be to man, the lord of Creation? If there be a right to self-determination in the world of instincts ought it to be otherwise in the realms of thought and reason? Man’s natural endowment of free will makes it impossible to be otherwise. Right through life he exercises, consciously or unconsciously, this right as observable from the very early stage of individual existence… One of the peculiarities of man’s existence is, that he alone can choose for himself the desirable things of life; they can never be chosen for him As with individuals so also with tribes, nations and races, for each of these is made up of individuals with innate qualities and rights. Nor can those qualities or rights become less so for the mere grouping or classing of the individuals. Rather, those innate qualities and individualistic rights are strengthened and broadened to form the idiosyncrasies of the mass. How fittingly then this explains our qualification at the outset? This being so, we state quite positively that every people, every race, every nation has a right to choose for itself its own forms of government and institutions.

Nor can we as a people be delinquent in the exercise of this right. Our connection with Great Britain for centuries past has opened for us a vista of thought. A new era has dawned upon the world and humanity, en masse, is on the move—impelled by a sense of race consciousness which has also influenced our mode of thought. This sentiment of African race and African nationality1’ has become more important in this century than ever before; it is interesting to note its wonderful development among West Africans, for today, it is the classic of society. Not only have the teachings of thinkers set forth the importance of the theory, but the deeds of public men and patriots have more or less successfully demonstrated the practicability of it. The efforts of men like Booker T. Washington and Burghardt Du Bois of America, of Blaise Diagne of the Senegal, of James Taylor the Nigerian, of the African Telegraph fame, of the Honourable Casely-Hayford of the Gold Coast, of the Honourable D. J. Bankole Bright and the energetic and patriotic Edward Small of the Gambia, have proved the indestructible vitality and tenacity of race even to the most superficial observer of African times.

It is therefore impossible for West Africans to stand still. Although we have become British by alliance, yet, not un-African in aspiration. We have secured the great benefits of the Pax Britannica, we want also to preserve our race individuality. This progress which is Nature’s policy can only be made by self-determination, for we have learnt that by it the stability of British Nationalism is secured.

The history of the Magna Charta corroborates this fact. But if we are citizens of Great Britain, if we form an important and altogether indispensable unit of our glorious Empire, if it is ‘impossible now to separate our lives’, then it is but right that we move in harmony with the Mother Country in this reconstruction period—not in the venture of finding satisfactory solutions for the great problems of state, but rather beginning to perform the duties expected of us for the accomplishment of the purpose of that alliance as embodied in the oft-quoted proclamation of 1865. A study of that proclamation suggests that the predominant thought of that Committee was the preservation of African Nationalism which can only be done by Africans, in no other way than by self-determination; by the exercise of the right to choose institutions and forms of Government best suited to African circumstances and ideals. It is admitted now that despite the long term of relationship between ‘Black Africa’ and ‘White Europe’, there is existing the unfortunate ignorance on the part of the latter to the psychology of the former and no effort has been made by the former, until quite recently, to remove this impediment to its progress. And so long as West Africa allows this ignorance to prevail, so long is she keeping back her opportunity to preserve African Nationalism.

How fittingly this coincides with Mary Kingsley’s opinion as quoted in Blyden’s ‘African Life and Customs’ :— ‘I believe,’ she says, ‘that no race can, as a race, advance except on its own line of development, and that it is the duty of England to preserve the African’s Nationalism and not destroy it, but destroy it she will, unless you who know it come forward and demonstrate that African Nationalism is a good thing, and that it is not a welter of Barbarism, Cannibalism and Cruelty. The public has been taught that all African Native institutions are bad and unless you preserve your institutions, above all your land law, you cannot, no race can, preserve your liberty.’

Sir Samuel Lewis has recorded that ‘Foreign influence may— indeed it must—for some time to come do much for Africa, but not least by recognising the fundamental fact that, when all is said and done by Europeans and Americans that they can do, the African himself is, and must always remain, the fittest instrument for the development of his country.’

On this question of African Nationalism no argument is necessary or effective. Argument may be effective in discussing methods or course of procedure for the preservation of African integrity or the development of African efficiency, but not as to the necessity of such preservation and development. If it be realised that ‘every race has something special to give to the world that no other race possesses’, I believe no reasonable mind need be convinced by argument about the propriety or necessity for its preservation and development. But if there be he in whose heart this feeling does not rise with spontaneous and inspiring power, he needs only be left unconvinced and regarded in the light of Scott’s description in the famous stanza beginning with:—

‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead…’

I may be permitted however to suggest that in the exercise of this right to self-determination, much success lies in our attitude to the Land question. The African ought to have a full right to the land of his fathers. In other spheres of the social economy of West Africa, in the commercial, educational and political sections, he is being pressed to a back seat and if this pressure be directed towards his title to the land—I daresay the experience of the aborigines of parts of the South [sic—South Africa] would be more keenly felt and realised.

To state a truth, he would be ‘enslaved in his own country’, to use the phraseology of Basil Matthews. In the exercise of this right, therefore, the first thing, I believe, that matters most, is the security of West Africa for West Africans—our title or right to the land must be preserved first before any real progress could be achieved; if this be so, then we certainly cannot be ignored when questions relating to the land come up for consideration. The recent action in relation to Togoland and the Cameroons soon after the War has its impression on the minds of all true-hearted and patriotic Africans.

‘I cannot close this paper without calling attention to the manner in which our exercise of this right of choice should be made. It should be made in a manner as would meet the satisfaction and aspirations of all sections of the country. Therefore the form must be consistent with order, goodwill, progress and above all with democratic ideas or it will end in destroying itself and the latter state of West Africa would be worse than the former. We shall then become like the foolish builder who erects his house on shifting sand, or like the philosopher, the basis of whose theory is not ‘tenoned and mortised on the granite foundation of truth’, for only truth will prevail. Russia’s Bolshevism is a case in point, for it stands condemned by its results. Let us take therefore a timely heed of the proverb which says ‘By the mistakes of others wise men correct their own’.

But if the Right is natural and God-given, then there are duties attached to it. The owl must perform the duty of vigilance to avoid the approaches of the enemy just as the fish must perform persistently the duty of activity if it must subsist. Similarly, so must we perform the duty of Sacrifice, Effort, Loyalty to and Constancy of purpose if we would realize the benefits of and establish our fitness for the exercise of the Right to Self-determination. History abounds with records of how the great nations of Europe have attained to their present position by centuries of hard struggle, bitter sacrifice and unflinching loyalty to duty as also an adherence to constancy of Purpose. The Magna Charta was wrested from John not in circumstance pleasant to either Sovereign or Subjects nor the Petition of Right obtained from Charles I in a sudden and spasmodic feat during a caprice of Parliament. So in these modem times we can only will our destiny by willing to fight for our Rights—not by physical force but morally compelling the respect, esteem and admiration of the outside world.

Africa has long been of service to other races and still continues to be so; but today she asks for an opportunity to ser herself. She calls on her own children of vast tribes and tongues in the West to unite in a common cause—the determination of her destiny, the uplift to a place and rank befitting her majesty.

Her destiny depends on our attitude to that call as well as on that of those whom she has been serving. True it is that ‘Providence has interwoven the interests of Europe with those of Africa. What will bring Light and improvement, peace security to thousands of women and children in Africa will bring food and clothing to thousands in Europe’. If we therefore pursue our cause with diligence and loyalty, Europe will necessity follow in the wake and the interests of all concerned in West Africa will ever remain secure.

In visions of the future of West Africa, I behold her everywhere inspired with the consciousness of one brotherhood from the hinterland of mighty Nigeria, through the diamondiferous districts of wealthy Gold Coast, past the salubrious hills of progressive Sierra Leone, on to the peaceful banks of secluded Gambia; from the humble hut in the hinterland of ‘primeval innocence and glory’ to the stately edifice of 20th century civilisation. I see, too, chiefs and people, Christians and Mohammedans and pagans, the intellectual celebrities and the unsophisticated artisans, the leaders of African thought and the confiding mass of the country all daring and doing something for the progress of the race.

And under the united efforts of both West Africa and Great Britain, I see the standard of a race raised out of a state of primitive backwardness to the progressive march of civilisation; from the debasing elements of ennui to the noble ideals of intelligent patriotism; and with the peace of the emancipation comes the silent but effective working for the regeneration of a people. I see, too, in place of the gloom which now enshrouds her, emblazoned in scintillating colours and hanging on the canopy of heaven like the Aurora Borealis of the North, determining the destiny of West Africa by illumining the hearts of her people, this self-evident principle IUS VIM VINCIT and then, in a higher sense than has yet been appreciated, will be the recognition of the Right of the people to Self-determination.