As an African, I have always been intrigued with the history of the African continent- where we come from as a people and where we are going to. What makes us different, unique? Infact, what makes us African.
This desire started when during a boring literature lesson, my teacher explained a poem on panafricanism, the slave trade and how Africa had been colonized mentally and physically. I have since then forgotten the name of the poem but the feeling of utter helplessness I felt that day still reoccurs once in a while.
Pan Africanism as history
The beginnings of pan Africanism can be likened to the ‘butterfly effect’. This happens when a tiny butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the earth- a seemingly innocuous event- but this flutter then develops into a storm on the other side of the earth.
This same can be attributed to pan Africanism. It started as an idea coined by a west Indian native, H S Williams in the early 1900s which gained momentum fuelled and driven by the likes of George Padmore, Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois to cause a great storm on the other side of the world in Africa with the uprooting of several centuries of seemingly entrenched form of social, political governance known as colonialism.
This idea did not die after the independence of Africa but metamorphosised as a struggle for the unity and solidarity of the entire continent and its people and continues to this day. And for this idea we gather hear today. This indeed is a very practical example of globalization in action.
But was this journey easy? Not at all. Historians and critics tell us of the 4 stages of pan Africanism and the debates that characterized each stage and how these debates were either resolved or continue to challenge the idea. The first stage starting with the abolishment of slavery, was when Africans and blacks in the Diaspora were in search for a spiritual home. The case was made for equality, justice and black empowerment. According to Robert Chrisman (1973, p. 3): ‘It was precisely the capture and uprooting of millions of Africans and conditions of slavery which laid the foundations for pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism in the United States and West Indies.’ Spanning from the early 1800s with the return of freed American slaves to Liberia and British slaves to Sierra Leone and going on much longer with the pan Africanist Congresses of the early 20th century and the intellectual and conceptual work done by its protagonists- W.E.B DuBois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and many others. What most people do not know was that this period was characterized by an ideological divide between Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s ‘Africa for Africans’ and American WEB DuBois’ more moderate stance that emerged from, as Mario de Andrade put it, ‘ a conceptual convergence based on a utopian vision of Africa’.
The second phase occurs with the importation of the ideals of pan Africanism unto the continent by African students returning from studies in the land of their colonizers-the United States, Britain, Portugal and France- and whilst there, having come into contact with the initiators of pan Africanism. In most instances, these students became active initiators of pro-African liberation groups such as the Kwame Nkrumah’s West African National Secretariat, the Paris based newspaper Presence Africaine, Cabral’s Casa dos Estudantes do Imperio, and many more. They later became the intellectuals who reinterpreted pan africanism in the light of their experiences as colonized subjects. Intellectuals like Chiek Antar Diop in his thesis, ‘The African Origin of Civilization’ showed empirically that the black man had a history dating back to Egyptian civilization. Frantz Fanon, through his analysis of the negative psychological effects of colonial subjugation upon black people, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaer and Leon Damas, the trios peres who reinterpreted the miseducation of the Blackman in their literary and ideological movement of ‘Negritude’. And then there were the guerilla freedom fighters such as Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Julius Nyerere, Herbert Chitepo of Zimbabwe who not only made political warfare sexy, but also gave it an ideological, spiritual and cultural significance- linking freedom at all costs- even the peril of losing their lives- to the independence of humanity. This next phase led to the political independence of Africa and by 1960 almost 30 African countries had their own self governance structures. Woven within the independence struggle continued the debate about whether pan africanism should be a fight for cultural rights (Amilcar Cabral), political rights (Kwame Nkrumah) or based on race, blackness or Negritude (Leopold Senghor).
The third phase culminated with the creation of the Organization of African Unity when the schism was on what form African unity should take, a loose federation of individual states with joint economic interests or a single political body? Nationalism versus continentalism, the struggle for the territorial integrity of inherited arbitrary borders versus Pan-Africanist ideology; the discourse about national construction versus the troubled multi-ethnic reality or as Ali Mazrui (1995) puts it, a pan-africanism of liberation or a pan-africanism of integration? Within this debate, African leaders of the time took various stands based on their specific ideologies. The most known groupings were the Casablanca group and the Monrovia block. But there were other groups such as the Lagos chart, the Conakry declaration and the Brazzaville group which also had different views of the form and content of African Unity. The success of the OAU’s creation can be firmly laid at the feet of Emperor Haile Selassie who brokered a truce in 1962 between these varying groups and says in his 1963 speech at the creation of the OAU, ‘ the commentators speak , in discussing Africa of the Monrovia state, the Brazzaville groups, the Casablanca powers, of these and many more. Let us put an end to these terms. What we require is a single African organization through which Africa’s single voice may be heard within which Africa’s problems may be studied and resolved’. The establishment of the OAU in 1963 can be credited to its many fathers –and mothers-, and indeed many intermediate midwives. This process of negotiation between the various groups affected the declaration that was eventually adopted, making it a compromise, actually far from the original proposal from the Emperor. But the significance of that 23rd May meeting is to be found more on the agreement about the key objectives for a total political liberation of the continent, solidarity, and integration, all of which came straight from the common body of the Pan-African ideology.
In the early 21st century, the face of pan africanism changed once more, following on from decades where pan africanism was subdued to the challenges of managing a continent beset by war, famine, strife and economic crises and the phenomenon of the African strong man. Thus the metamorphosis of the OAU into the AU was not without good reason. Whilst the OAU has primarily focused on the political liberation of the continent, which was finally achieved with the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, it had dismally failed on the economic and social front. The creation of the AU ten years ago and almost 40 years after the OAU coincided with significant changes in global institutions and concepts- the end of the cold war, the glasnost and perestroika, the fourth big wave of independent states (with the dismantling of USSR and Yugoslavia) and on the African continent, the end of apartheid, signally the true achievement of the objective of political independence of the continent. Thus the shift from the OAU to the AU was not only semantics but also a change in focus- a shift from political independence to economic independence.
The point I wish to make is that the journey of pan africanism has neither been easy nor has it been free of impediments and on this path there has been no easy victories. Each and every small step has been taken with the sweat, toil and in many instances the blood of people who believed in the ability of the Blackman to unite. Examples from Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Cabral. Africanists, in our quest for the unknown holy grail called pan africanism have had and continue to struggle to define it conclusively.