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Pan Africanism must be decolonised and Africanised

It must be brought down from political and intellectual towers to the ordinary bread eaters and water drinkers of Africa in the towns and the villages

To say that the philosophy of African Unity, otherwise known as Pan-Africanism, itself needs to be Africanised will likely unsettle those who claim to be Pan-Africanists, as well as those studying Pan-Africanism. I will even go a step further to submit that Pan-Africanism might need to be decolonised. And here is why.

Defective from inception

Pan-Africanism was born outside of Africa. The first Pan-Africanist Congress, which was held in London in 1900, was attended largely by African Americans and political activists from the West Indies. Most of these were congregates of anti-slavery Pentecostal churches in the USA. In other words, the Pan-African philosophy and movement was born from the African diaspora and generated by descendants of slaves in the Americas.

Widely considered ‘the father of Pan-Africanism,’ William F. Burghardt DuBois was introduced to Pan-Africanism in London in 1900 at the very First Pan-African Congress. The person who introduced Pan-Africanism as a term to DuBois was a Trinidadian lawyer, H. Sylvester Williams, who is recorded as the first person to use the term publicly. At any rate, that the first Pan-African conference in Africa was held as late as 1957 in Accra, Ghana, is a telling fact that Pan-Africanism came late into Africa.

It was imported into Africa by African intellectuals, some of whom studied in the US and Europe and became political leaders in post-colonial African countries. These include the founder of the African National Congress (ANC), Pixley Ka Isaka Seme (South Africa), Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria), Mr Peter Mbuyi Koinange (Kenya), Dr Hastings K. Banda (Malawi), Dr Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), and George Padmore (a Jamaican). It is worth noting that Marcus Mosia Garvey was a Jamaican who, paradoxically, never set foot in Africa, even though he led the ‘Back to Africa’ movement.’

Remarkably, both the founding fathers of Pan-Africanism and the western-educated African elite knew no other knowledge or political sensibility except the colonial education and colonial political system bequeathed to them by the colonialists. This mainly explains why the African elite were so alienated from ordinary Africans to the extent that some of them became black and native colonisers of their countries.

In his famous 1975 essay pungently titled Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement, Peter Ekeh forcefully and convincingly argues that western-educated African intellectuals and political leaders had become colonial in their political orientation. They fought and ousted colonial administrators in Africa only to replace them in power and not to institute alternative political and economic systems in Africa.

Jean-Paul Sartre famously described the colonially educated intellectuals and political leaders of the Global South as “walking lies” that had lost connection with the communities and ordinary peoples of the Global South.  These ‘walking lies’ who called themselves ‘founding fathers’ did little to nothing to improve the living conditions of ordinary Africans. Such figures chanted Pan-Africanist slogans with one hand and with the other clobbered Africans. They did much to harm Africans by negating the tenets of Pan-Africanism whilst singing its name. Their attitude proves that Pan-Africanism, as they understood it, was un-African from inception.

I am not discouraging young Africans from celebrating African heroes or discouraging them from standing on the shoulders of the giants, as it is said. I am also not about to give currency to the unfortunate sentiment that African Americans or white people should not be admitted into a Pan-African intellectual and political universe. I am only asking that we do none of these uncritically.

Pan-Africanists against Pan-Africanism

Because of its genealogy, Pan-Africanism remains colonial and un-African, largely a buzzword in university corridors and a slogan in political rallies, and not an experience of the mass of ordinary Africans on the continent. In many ways, it is true that as Pan-Africanism was born in the anti-slavery and anti-colonial struggle, it became infected with the slavish system and coloniality. It was co-opted, usurped, and weaponised by the same structures of power that it was birthed to fight. In this regard, Nietzsche’s advice that “those who fight monsters ought to be careful of becoming monsters” becomes useful.

In his 1962 book, Pan-Africanism: A Short Political Guide, Colin Legum reports how Pan-Africanism was generated as a kind of imitation of the then-existing movements of Pan-Europeanism and Pan-Asianism. He narrates how the founding Pan-Africanists in the Americas were bitterly divided, with W. E. B. Dubois publicly calling Marcus Garvey “an ugly black man with a large head” and Garvey accusing Dubois of being a white man (Dubois is said to have frequently boasted of his French blood and light skin). The personal egos of leading Pan-Africanists came in the way of Pan-Africanism.

When the Pan-African movement arrived in Africa, the African founding Pan-Africanists also had strong divisions of their own. Kwame Nkrumah, on the one hand led a school of Pan-Africanists that demanded radical African unity that would lead to a United States of Africa under one government.  On the other hand, Julius Nyerere led a school of moderate Pan-Africanists that privileged African economic unity by independent African countries with their own national governments. In that way, paradoxically, the divisions and disunity of the African elite negated African unity. African masses were left divided and disunited as intellectual and political elites performed ideological feuds. Legum reports how Nyerere and other heads of independent African states feared that Nkrumah was selfishly consumed by the ambition to be the life president of Africa, reducing other countries to provinces and leaders to his governors. In that way, the fears of the tyranny and dictatorship of leading Pan-Africanists attacked Pan-Africanism and maintained the African divisions that colonialism imposed on the continent.

Concerning Nkrumah’s tyrannical tendencies, Ali Mazrui, in his 1997 article, Nkrumah: A Leninist Tsar, details not only how Nkrumah imitated Vladimir Lenin but also how he had despotic political tendencies. Mazrui, who was a keen Nkrumah watcher, noted in other writings how Nkrumah, at some points in his declared life presidency and one-party state career, had more political prisoners in Ghana than in apartheid South Africa, punishing political opponents in the country. There was a leading Pan-Africanist ruling his country the same way colonialists and apartheid regimes did in Africa, with an iron hand. That is another way in which Pan-Africanism itself was usurped and colonised. African leaders had come to imitate and reproduce the same colonial ethos that they had risen to fight. In that, Nkrumah, the prophet of African unity, had become a tyrant in his own country. Mazrui concluded that the first black president of an Independent African country had become a “great African” but a “terrible Ghanaian.”

Then, there’s the feminist dimension to the equation. African feminists such as Amina Mama and Hakima Abbas, in the editorial of Feminist Africa of 2015, ask stubborn questions about what Pan-Africanism has done to African women by marginalising them from African economies and polities. The Pan-Africanist movement began and grew as a ‘boy club.’  Even though Rwanda leads the entire world in the political representation of women, women remain politically and economically peripherised in many African countries, while non-gender conforming people are punished.

Not only is the marginalisation of women a growing problem in Africa, but Africans are also increasingly going to war against one another on the continent. Recently, for instance, African political commentator Dr Lonzen Rugira decried how the South Africa-led SADC military deployment in the DRC might further destabilise the troubled East African region. This military deployment comes when, as Dr Rugira observes, diplomatic opportunities for peace in the DRC have been unbelievably squandered by African leaders. Besides the spectacles of xenophobic and Afrophobic violence that frequently explode in South Africa, Africans are increasingly warring against each other on the continent, much to the exhaustion of the Pan-African ideal.

Towards an African and decolonial Pan-Africanism

All of this does not mean that the Pan-African political and philosophical ideal should be abandoned. I am only advocating that it be Africanised and decolonised, and be brought down from political and intellectual towers to the ordinary bread eaters and water drinkers of Africa in the towns and the villages.

Most importantly, African divisions and disunities continue when the continent needs African unity most. As the world gets engulfed in large-scale wars that involve superpowers, African countries are increasingly being pressured to support this or that side of what might be unfolding into a Third World War. Once again, as it was in the Cold War era, African countries are being bullied into being spheres of influence and proxies of superpowers of the world. In this world of disorder, Africa needs to unite and speak with one voice in resistance to coloniality. Only a united and decolonised Africa can resist the recolonisation of the continent by marauding superpowers that have not abandoned their imperial and colonial ambitions. African intellectuals and political leaders need to advance a new Africanised and decolonised Pan-Africanism that has learned from and corrected the mistakes of early-day pan-Africanists.


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