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How the West African Student Union (WASU) campaigned for the end of colonial rule in West Africa

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

In August 1925, a Nigerian law student, Lapido Solanke, and a Sierra Leonean doctor, Herbert Bankole-Bright founded the West African Students’ Union (WASU) in London, England. It became a key political, social and cultural organisation for West Africans in Britain and the main African organisation in the UK for over thirty years.

As early as 1923, Solanke had proposed that the Union of Students of African Descent (USAD), a Christian social organisation dominated by students from the West Indies (and which had grown out of the earlier West African and West Indian Christian Union, founded in 1917), should incorporate itself into the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA). In 1925, Bankole-Bright of the NCBWA called on USAD, the Nigeria Progress Union, the African Progress Union and the Gold Coast Students' Association (GCSA) to join together to form a single organisation for West African students, inspired by the Indian Students' Union. Many students joined together to form WASU, and Solanke became the new organisation's secretary-general, while J. B. Danquah became its first president. J. E. Casely Hayford was the new grouping's first patron, a post he used to promote African nationalism.

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 WASU’s early donors was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), who helped the organization obtain its first meetinghouse.

African immigrants made up a very small minority in 1920s and 1930s London but faced considerable racial discrimination. Records from the Colonial Office suggest that there were around 125 African students at universities in Britain in 1929. By 1951, this number had risen dramatically to 2,300. Over its 30-year history, the WASU would move to a new location in Camden and open a second hostel on Chelsea Embankment due to increasing demand.

White-owned establishments could legally refuse Black tenants, and so a key aim of WASU was "to provide and maintain a hostel for students of African descent." The Colonial Office were keen to take control of the project, and in 1929, whilst Solanke was away in West Africa raising funds for the hostel, they assembled a secret plan to build their own hostel. This became Aggrey House, which WASU exposed in their pamphlet The Truth About Aggrey House – An Exposure of the Government Plan to Control African Students in Great Britain.

WASU opened its first hostel in March 1933 on Camden Road to provide accommodation to students and visitors of African descent. At a time when white-owned establishments could legally refuse Black tenants, the hostel was designed to be a “home away from home” for Africans in the diaspora. Known as “Africa House”, it gave members access to meals, a library, a reading room, a games room and space to welcome visitors.

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, things 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 campaigned against racism in Britain and against colonialism and for independence in West Africa. Its activities included producing a journal, Wasu, and founding four hostels in London to provide lodgings and a ‘home from home’ for West African students and other African visitors at a time when as a result of racism and the ‘colour bar’ it was difficult or impossible for them to secure accommodation.

In October 1934, the Colonial Office opened the rival hostel ‘Aggrey House’ in which political discussion could be monitored and discouraged. WASU opposed the scheme and formed an "Africa House Defence Committee", including Paul Robeson, who was awarded the title "Babasale of the Union", also gaining the support of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Negro Welfare Association, and League Against Imperialism. They encouraged students to boycott the hostel which remained unfilled until the Colonial Office offered WASU official recognition and financial support to run Africa House. In financial difficulties, WASU accepted the deal, and also accepted funding from organisations such as the United African Company.

WASU also undertook some political campaigns within Britain. In 1929, it successfully stopped plans for an African village exhibition in Newcastle, which it felt would be exploitative. This campaign was taken up in Parliament by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Member of Parliament Shapurji Saklatvala.

During the 1930s, WASU steadily expanded its work from student affairs and social movements to more formal political action. By 1930 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 group developed increasing links with communist groups, such as the League Against Imperialism (LAI) and the Negro Welfare Association, in particular in its campaigns against the colour bar and against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

WASU was a leading voice against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The call for decolonisation intensified with World War II and the conscription of colonial subjects including many Africans, in the fight against Nazi Germany. WASU argued that England could not call on African colonial subjects to fight in its defence while denying them independence at home.

In 1937, the Gold Coast Farmers Union wrote to Solanke, asking for his assistance in breaking the cocoa cartel of Cadbury's and the UAC. With Labour Party MPs Reginald Sorensen and Arthur Creech Jones, WASU campaigned in support of the 1938 Gold Coast cocoa hold-up, where small farmers attempted to pressurise the companies by disrupting their supplies.

The following year in July 1938, with grants from various West African governments and British companies, WASU opened a new hostel, on Camden Square. This also solved the union's financial problems and enabled it to step up its campaigning activity. WASU became increasingly identified as an anti-colonial group, and it called for dominion status and universal suffrage for the West African colonies. Clement Attlee gave a speech to the union in which he suggested that the Atlantic Charter would apply to all nations, effectively endorsing WASU's aims, but Winston Churchill insisted that self-determination could only apply to European nations.

In 1942, WASU made its first formal demand of the British Empire for the independence of its African colonies within five years of the end of the war. Harold Macmillan personally visited Africa House to argue the British government's case. And although their demand didn’t come to fruition, it planted a seed that inevitably contributed to African decolonization. Five years later in 1947, under vice-president Kwame Nkrumah, WASU called for an immediate decision on independence for the West African colonies and criticised the Labour government for its failure to deliver this.

By the 1950s WASU’s influence began to decline as the fight for West African nationalism moved to the colonial territories. But It was one of the most important political organisations in Britain from the 1920s until the 1960s. It acted as a training ground for future West African politicians and from the late 1930s established branches and distributed its journal throughout West Africa and internationally. Through its branches and individual links, it was a major influence on the anti-colonial movements in Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Gambia. Its members included Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first head of state of independent Ghana in 1957, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, and Hastings Banda, Malawi’s first president.

WASU played a pivotal role in West Africa’s fight for independence from colonial Britain. That must and can not be forgotten. In 2012, University of Chichester history professor Hakim Adi created The WASU Project to revive the legacy of the movement. The WASU Project aims to document the history of West Africans in Britain, especially those who campaigned for an end to colonial rule and against all forms of racism during the 20th century, by presenting information, photos, and eventually a film about WASU.

He told the Quartz Africa publication:

“The dominant view of Black British history tends to exclude people from the African continent and focus on people from the Caribbean. There are a lot of things that people don’t know about the history of Africans in Britain, or in Africa for that matter,” he told Quartz Africa. “You don’t see documentaries or dramas on TV about it, and that’s problematic. In that sense, it’s not widely recognised but that’s a reflection of the way that history is presented.”

On the 30th October 2020, the Nubian Jak Community Trust launched the Black Plaque project to celebrate notable Black Britons and organisations. A temporary Black Plaque was erected on Camden Road to commemorate Lapido Solanke and WASU.


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