Nations and Nationalism in Developing Countries

Many new nations in the global south struggled to find national unity following independence because of ethnic and religious divisions within their national borders.

Most countries classified as developing today were once colonies of European countries and achieved independence at some point during the 20th century.

The development of nationalism followed a very different path to that of European nationalisms, and was very much influenced by the politics of many years of colonial rule.

During the 16th to 19th centuries European powers travelled to the Americas, Asia and Africa and subjected those regions to colonial rule, setting up colonial administrations, sometimes staffed by a mixture of Europeans and willing allies from the colonized regions (who were often given a European education to facilitate these roles).

When the Europeans set up their administrations they did not take into account existing political and ethnic divisions among the local populations and so each colony was a collection of peoples and maybe old local states brought together under and arbitrary boundary created by external powers.

The straight lines of African borders are a result of European colonists ‘carving up’ Africa themselves, with no respect for existing ethnic groups.

When former colonies achieved independence they often found it hard to create a shared national identity because of these divisions and in the 2020s many postcolonial states still struggle with internal rivalries and conflicts and competing claims to political authority.

In some countries nationalism based on shared ethnic identity did play a significant role in helping to achieve independence, such as in Rwanda and Kenya, but this was often limited to small groups of urban elites and intellectuals.

Many nationalist movements emerged in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s which promoted independence from European domination, but once liberation had been achieved the leaders of these movement in practically every country found it almost impossible to create a sense of national unity. It didn’t help that these leaders had usually been educated in Europe or the USA and so there was a vast gap between them and ordinary people in their countries.

Many African countries saw overt conflicts around ethnic and religion divisions and some ended up in overt Civil War, such as in Sudan, Zaire and Nigeria.

Nationalism in Sudan

Sudan is a good example of how one post colonial nation struggled to find national unity given the ethnic and religious divisions following independence.

About 40% of the population were Muslim Arab, mainly habiting the north, while the rest were mainly black and followed traditional religions with a minority being Christian, mainly in the south.

Following independence, Arab Nationalists took power and started a programme of national integration based on Islam as the national religion Arabic as the national language, which 60% of the population did not speak and saw the new government as imposing a national identity on them.

Civil war broke out in 1955 between the new government in north and the south, and it wasn’t until 1972 that a peace accord granted some level of autonomy to the south, but these were annulled in 1983, leading to more conflict until 2005 when a new agreement finally granted the south regional autonomy.

After a few years a referendum in 2011 gave the south full autonomy and a new nation: South Sudan was created, but disputes over the border continued.

However the sad story doesn’t end there: in 2013 a further civil war broke out within South Sudan which lasted five years until a power sharing agreement was reached in 2018, then a coalition government formed in 2020.

Colonialism: A barrier to national identity?

Many ex colonies struggled to create a clear sense of nationhood following colonialism and independence, and in some cases, like Sudan, the original independence nations fragmented into smaller nations, reflecting the intense political and ethnic differences within these ex-colonies.

The process of establishing nation states has gone much more smoothly in those areas outside of Europe which were never fully colonised or which had high degrees of ethnic unity, for example in China, Japan, Korea and Thailand.


This material is relevant to students taking the Global Development option as part of the second year of A-level sociology.

It might also be relevant to the the topic of nationalism and identity within the Culture and Identity module.


Map of Africa: Eric Gaba (Sting – fr:Sting), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from ReviseSociology

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading