Thoughts on the Practice of Pan-Africanism

Published on 27th October 2009

Prof. Carina Ray
In August I had the opportunity to participate in a special plenary session on the practice of Pan-Africanism sponsored by the Accra-based W.E.B. Du Bois Centre for Pan-African Culture and the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) during the latter’s biennial conference, which was held in Accra. Having just ten minutes to address the audience forced me to identify and tersely articulate the most pressing issues facing the Pan-African movement/s today. I take the liberty of more fully fleshing my thoughts out here.

Let me propose the following five key issues as areas that warrant our urgent consideration: First, the multi-generational composition of the Pan-African movement underscores the need to pay attention to the similarities and differences that shape the kinds of issues that are of concern to both the older and younger generation of Pan-Africanists. Second, disparate regional identities and geographic dislocations still plague the coherency and unity of the Pan-African movement. Third, the broad range of political orientations and ideologies espoused under the Pan-African umbrella can be a strength or a weakness depending on how we choose to handle our differences, while embracing our similarities. Fourth, the deepening divide between governmental and non-governmental branches of the Pan-African movement, which has been exacerbated by the assassination of our greatest Pan-Africanist governmental leaders, has increased opportunities for members of civil society to take on leadership roles, but has often left the movement without identifiable figureheads. Fifth, we need to urgently develop a more coherent infrastructure and communication network that can take the Pan-African movement’s message and advocacy work beyond its regular audience into more mainstream channels of information dissemination.  

Let me begin with the last point since I wholeheartedly believe that today, more than ever, Pan-Africanism is relevant to the fate of the global African world, and Africa in particular, when we consider the way in which the discourse on Africa has been hijacked from Africans by a powerful group of Euro-American celebrities, including Madonna, Bono, Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow, and Bob Geldoff, to name just a few. The intention here is not to cast aspersion on their motives, but rather to point out that it has become nearly impossible to raise awareness of important issues without the help of celebrity advocates.  This has had the perverse effect of allowing celebrities to dictate what the world focuses its attention on when it comes to Africa.  Here the comparison between Darfur and Congo is illuminating. The vicious war in Darfur captured the attention of the likes of Mia Farrow and George Clooney who then mobilized their star power to help transform the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) into one of the largest Africa-advocacy organizations in the United States. Yet, the far more devastating war in Congo, what I call the intentionally ignored genocide, has had no celebrity advocate equivalent. Over five million dead Congolese and it remains nearly impossible to raise the alarm.  

This leads me to consider another comparison, this time between the SDC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which sheds further light on the way Africans, themselves, are increasingly muzzled by this new wave of western advocates.  While there was an extremely vigorous and well organized anti-apartheid movement in Britain, mainland Europe, and later the United States, it was led by South African exiles and took its queues from the African National Congress. In short South Africans were calling the shots. Fast-forward to today and Darfurians are in the minority of the SDC leadership, never mind calling the shots. Trust me, this is not because there is a shortage of capable Sudanese.  The current state of affairs draws dire attention to the need for a far more effective and equitable partnership between advocacy groups and the causes they support.  The SDC and others like it would do well to follow the example set by Trans-Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle.  

Let me return to the issue of the changing generational composition of the Pan-African movement.  While our late nineteenth and early twentieth century Pan-Africanist originators have long since joined the ancestors, many Pan-Africanists who ushered in Africa’s independence are still alive and doing important work. I was reminded of this during the Special Plenary as I spoke alongside Dr. Robert Lee, an African-American who set up one of independent Ghana’s first dental clinics under the auspices of Kwame Nkrumah and Madame Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo, the widow of the Burkinabe historian, writer, and politician Joseph Ki-Zerbo.  The presence of Mme. Ki-Zerbo was a potent reminder of the fact that this generational question has long been unanswered; after all, it was during the time of the young Thomas Sankara’s August Revolution that the Ki-Zerbos fled into exile in 1983.  Given that both men shared similar visions of Pan-African unity and African independence, one wonders what role their different generational orientations played in the rift between them.  

Today, one senses that for the older generation of Pan-Africanists the overarching grand theme of Pan-African unity still tops their agenda, while the younger generation of would-be Pan-Africanists is often preoccupied with more localized national issues. Indeed it might very well be that the increasingly precarious life chances of many African youths are preventing a new generation of Pan-Africanists from coming into being.  On a more positive note, I was inspired to see a sizeable number of young people from across the global African world in attendance, including Samia Nkrumah, who is carrying her father’s Convention People’s Party mantle as a member of parliament representing Nkrumah’s home region of Jomoro.   Now Nkrumah’s task is to convince her young constituents that her father’s brand of Pan-Africanism is not only relevant to their lives, but also critical to their shared future. 

Different and often conflicting regional identities within Africa and geographic dislocations between Africa and its diasporas have been a persistent thorn in the side of Pan-Africanism.  Just as there are many people of African descent in different parts of the world who choose not to identify as African in favor of seeing themselves as American, European, Latino, Arab, etcetera, within Africa, especially in the northern reaches of the continent, there is an anti-African prejudice which has led many people to identify themselves with the Arab world. Equally south of the Sahara anti-Arab sentiments have also played a role in cooling the once vibrant relationship forged between the two regions by the likes of Nkrumah, Ben Bella, and Nasser, when Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism were not mutually exclusive goals, but rather complimentary political and ideological projects. By way of example the vast majority of African states severed diplomatic ties with Israel in the 1970s in protest against its occupation of Palestinian and Egyptian territory and Algeria, Egypt, and the PLO lent considerable logistical and material support to African liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and elsewhere.  Let us also not forget that Nkrumah purposefully chose an Egyptian bride as a potent symbol of north-south African unity and when he was overthrown in 1966 it was Egypt that opened its doors to his family, while Guinea-Conakry’s Sekou Tore made him honorary co-president. It seems to me that two important conversations need to take place: one amongst the global Pan-African community aimed at identifying the common agendas we can organize around and the unique issues we can support each other on and the second between continental Africans aimed at confronting the simmering tensions and misconceptions between so-called Arab and Black Africa.  

We also need to contend with the different political agendas and ideological orientations that not only characterize Pan-Africanism globally, but also (and perhaps more urgently) on the continent itself. The persistence of the Monrovia and Casablanca schools of Pan-Africanism can be seen in recent debates surrounding Gaddafi’s renewed call for a United States of Africa.  The difference today is that the Casablanca school, favoring a unitary African government, has dwarfed in size while the conservative Monrovia school’s gradualist approach which foregrounds economic cooperation, characterizes the preference of most African leaders. For Pan-Africanists, like myself, who adhere to the Casablanca school, this is a sad situation, further complicated by the fact that it is Gaddafi who is espousing African unification on a scale that has long eluded us. Given his track record of wanton destabilization in many parts of the continent we must keep close tabs on him while he advances an agenda near to our hearts. Let me add that asking for caution where Gaddafi is concerned should not be taken as an open invitation to engage in anti-Arabism and Islamophobia.  

Connected to this is the final question of governmental versus non-governmental Pan-Africanism. The time when we could count on African governments to advance a Pan-African agenda is long since gone. The legacy bequeathed by the assassinations of Lumumba, Mondlane, Cabral, Sankara, Machel, and Nkrumah’s political assassination, has been one of conservative, pro-capitalist, at times pro-imperialist, and in most instances nationally-oriented governments. In short we are still reeling from the extermination of our greatest Pan-African visionaries and have yet to see a new wave of leaders emerge to fill their shoes at the governmental level.

Ironically this tragic history opened a space for civil society to produce its own cadre of Pan-Africanists, like our dearly departed Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, and important information organs, like Pambazuka News and New African. While the decentralized nature of the non-governmental Pan-African movement has created greater opportunities for a plurality of voices to be heard, we suffer from a lack of charismatic figureheads. Far from advocating demagoguery, what I am calling for is the emergence of Pan-Africanist visionaries and spokespersons, from both the non-governmental and governmental sectors, who can effectively reenergize and reorganize the movement in ways that honor the legacy of those who died in its service by reclaiming the best of the progressive politics of the 1960s-1980s.  This includes the broad internationalism that characterized Pan-Africanism as practiced within the continent, between Africa and its diasporas, and beyond global Africa, whereby Pan-Africanists stood in solidarity with the oppressed everywhere.

By Prof. Carina Ray,

Assistant Professor History Department, Fordham University, USA.

An abridged version of this essay first appeared in the October 2009 issue of New African.

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