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West African Students’ Union: integral in shaping ‘the motherland’

West African Students' Union

In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history

In August 1925, Ladipo Solanke, a Nigerian law student, and Herbert Bankole-Bright, a Sierra Leonean doctor, founded the West African Students Union in the Camden Town section of London, England. The WASU eventually become a powerful influence in both British and West African politics during the 20th century, with some of Africa’s most notable leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, H.O. Davies and J.B. Danquah holding membership in the organisation.

The WASU’s founders were intentional about the organisation’s Pan-Africanism. Solanke visited and established chapters in several British West African colonies. The organisation soon became a hub for anti-racist and decolonial thinkers across the diaspora. In fact, one of the union’s early donors was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, who helped the organisation to obtain its first meeting house.

African immigrants made up a very small minority in 1920s and 1930s London and faced considerable racial discrimination, both legal and extralegal. Denial of housing was a common issue faced by many newly arriving West Africans. As a solution, the WASU established a series of hostels for new arrivals, the first of which, known as Africa House, which opened in March 1933 on Camden Road.

Solanke’s wife, Chief Opeolu Solanke-Ogunbiyi, became the matriarch of the hostel and was known as Mama Wasu. Given that Africa House had a restaurant, Mama Wasu solicited traditional African ingredients like egusi and ewuro from her mother in Nigeria who sent them to her by passenger ship. Mama Wasu hired an Irish cook for the hostel and taught her how to make traditional Nigerian dishes for the tenants.

The WASU also created a journal in which it published its stance on many of these issues. The journal’s title, Wasu: The Journal of the West African Students’ Union, had a double entendre as Wãsù means “to preach” in Yoruba.

The WASU steadily expanded its work from student affairs and social movements to more formal political action. By 1930, the WASU had persuaded a committee of Labour MPs to advocate for West African interests in Parliament. However, over time, the organisation’s position evolved from one of reforming colonial systems to openly opposing them. The union was a leading voice against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The call for decolonisation intensified with the Second World War and the conscription of colonial subjects, including many Africans, in the fight against Nazi Germany. The WASU argued that England could not call on African colonial subjects to fight in its defence while denying them independence at home.

In 1942, the WASU made its first formal demand of the British Empire for independence of its African colonies within five years of the end of the war. Although this demand did not come to fruition, it planted a seed that inevitably contributed to African decolonisation.

Despite its name and seeming focus on West Africa, the WASU was home to many future political leaders from across the African continent. Its members included Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first head of state of independent Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, and Hastings Banda, Malawi’s first president. Other less prominent WASU members contributed to the shaping of the Africa we know today.


Yosola Olorunshola, “How the West African Students Union drove the anti-colonial agenda in 20th century London,” 2021, Quartz Africa, https://qz.com/africa/1979035/how-west-african-students-in-london-fought-for-african-independence/; ““We’ve not had good leaders ” Chief (Mrs) Opeolu Solanke – Ogunbiyi,” 2009, Vanguard, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2009/11/we%E2%80%99ve-not-had-good-leaders-%E2%80%94-chief-mrs-opeolu-solanke-ogunbiyi/; The Role of African student movements in the political and social evolution of Africa from 1900 to 1975, pp. 35-81, 1994, Unesco Publishing, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000096307

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Published February 14, 2023 at 7:57 am (Updated February 13, 2023 at 5:57 pm)

West African Students’ Union: integral in shaping ‘the motherland’

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