I was quite pleased the other day as I drove passed a billboard in the outskirts of Nairobi City which had a wonderful message on it.
It was a map of the East African Community drawn without any borders, just names of the former ‘nations’ were written on the areas where the old borders once divided them. Just below the map was written in a dark blue colour and in bold letters in Kiswahili ‘Umoja ni Nguvu’ (‘Unity is strength’).
This got me thinking about the necessary steps that we citizens need to make in order to translate this statement into action- in other words, how can we as citizens begin to unite and create strong bonds amongst ourselves without having to wait for our presidents to congregate at summits and reproduce nice-sounding resolutions that take time to come to action.
This took me back to the early ‘Independence years’ of Africa (mostly the 1960’s). Most of the leaders who carried the torch of African Independence were equipped with only one weapon- that of nationalism.
However, their nationalism was of a different breed than that which many of us hold onto today. Nationalism can be defined as a sentiment and ideology of attachment to a nation and to its interests.
These days, many African individuals would like to believe that their nationalism is limited to where their borders demarcate- after that, they are not concerned with the issues of the other African nations.
A Rwandan leaves his nationalism at the Gatuna border; a Kenyan drops off his nationalism at the Malaba border; and the same applies to many other nationalities.
However, this type of nationalism that is limited to our false boundaries that were drawn up in Berlin. By the way, there was no African representative at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.
European scholars defining nationalism have posited that the theory of a state should be founded in a nation, and a nation should be constituted as a state.
They go ahead and suggest that national identity entails nationhood (a nation that one belongs to), common language, custom and culture. Cast this definition against the African continent, and then it would suffice for our territorial nationalisms.
However, we must also question whether this definition covers the whole African context- not only its present configuration, but also its historical context. With this in mind, we might want to ask ourselves whether Africa is made up of legitimate states just because they satisfy the Eurocentric definition of Nation-States.
The difference between our nation-states and those of Europe and indeed America is that we are not independent states thus we are non-viable states.
Many African countries remain heavily economically and technically dependent on the countries of the West. Whenever an African country would like to embark on a national project- for example, a hydro-electric project, the President of this country is forced to make numerous trips to the White House or other centres of influence in order to get a stamp of approval- which means financial guarantee of assistance from that super power.
Of course if the project seems to threaten the interest of the super powers, then it is rendered useless, and the African country shelves its plans for another time in the future.
Such incidents are so common that I need not to point to a specific African country- so for this rare occasion, we can generalize Africa to mean a grouping of unviable states.
In his book ‘Neo-Colonialism: The Last stage of Imperialism’ Dr. Kwame Nkrumah offered a wonderful explanation of the African predicament of nation-states when he wrote ‘by far the greatest wrong which the departing colonialists inflicted on us, and which we now continue to inflict on ourselves in our present state of disunity, was to leave us divided into economically unviable States which bear no possibility of real development.’
Many are fooled by small hints of ‘development’ that take place in Africa- smooth roads, sky scrappers, larger State Houses’ and so on.
However, we are rarely informed about the extent to which we are controlled by powers in the West to the extent that if we decide to chart our own path of development and resist the super powers, all they have to do is withdraw their capital and our economies spiral out of control.
This challenge of our economically unviable states is not impossible to solve. As I aforementioned, territorial nationalism seems to be doing us more harm than good.
We look back to the 1945 Manchester Pan African Congress, organized by the brilliant W.E.B Du Bois, George Padmore and others, and we see the power of continental nationalism.
Many of the individuals that came together at this historic congress were to become the leaders of de-colonized Africa; Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and others. These individuals were not yet poisoned by territorial nationalism that is limited to the colonial boundaries.
They were strong continental nationalists who believed in the inter-relatedness of Africa and the unity of purpose between the various anti colonialist movements of the territories they represented. It is with this strong urge of continental liberation that allowed each leader to go back to their colonial territories and dismantle the colonial regime.
The support they gave each other- materially and morally, was also a major factor in the first liberation struggle of Africa. If they did not believe in a continental nationalism, then each leader would have been too selfish to work together with other Africans from far off places in order to achieve one objective.
We can easily remember the words of Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the independence leader of Tanganyika-later to be known as Tanzania, when he said that ‘when Tanganyika gains Independence, a freedom torch shall be lit on top of Mount Kilimanjaro to throw the light of freedom all over Africa.’
Mwalimu Nyerere, as far back as 1961, was even ready to postpone the Independence of Tanganyika in order to get independence together with Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar so as to establish the East African Federation. This is an example of continental nationalism being practiced by a head of state.
A betrayed cause
Although many of the leaders went ahead and betrayed the African cause and capitulated to the imperialist forces- leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta went ahead and granted himself huge chunks of land just as the colonists had done, the visionary leader that was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah remained steadfast in his belief and practice of continental nationalism for Africa- what is now known as Pan Africanism.
In the speech delivered at the Independence celebrations of Ghana, on March 6, 1957, Dr. Nkrumah firmly stated that ‘the Independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of the African Continent.’
Shortly after these celebrations, Nkrumah convened the first conference of the so far ‘Independent’ African states at that time in 1957- they were seven independent African countries, five of which had quite a lot in common.
They were: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Liberia, and Ethiopia. The conference yet again had a ‘Continental Nationalist’ agenda where they discussed the state of the liberation movements around Africa, and also served as a time to get to know each other better and share experiences.
Dr. Nkrumah of course led the way and indeed stood out as the most unifying factor.
Constantly pointing towards the future of Africa as being one great Nation that would revolutionize inter state relations and usher in a new epoch of peace, egalitarianism, and humanity, he managed to ‘fire up the troops’ and by the time all the delegates were back to their countries and resumed their own respective state-centric agendas, the vision of Nkrumah had been heard loud and clear: that the only salvation for Africa was in their collective strength and effort towards a unity of purpose.
The stalwarts of Pan africanism were not few at that time. Dr. Nkrumah may have stood out as the most ‘vocal’ or visionary; however he was joined in arms by other revolutionary African leaders.
Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt did not hesitate any moment to voice his strong anti-imperialist revolutionary ideas, similarly, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haille Selassie was also committed to the Pan African vision, more so after Ethiopia experienced the unchanged whisk of imperialism: aggressive, inhumane, arrogant and brutal, the Italians kept to the tradition as their kith and kin in Britain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, and others had been doing and continued to do for many years.
It is thus another important aspect of continental nationalism, or Pan Africanism to be exact, that it is fundamentally out of the anti imperialism struggle that such African nationalism was borne, and it is what sustained the revolutionary leaders of Africa in their joint effort against all forms of imperialism.
Not too late
In the year 2007, Africa still has a great longing for a continental nationalist approach to solve her problems.
Whether we are discussing crisis in the North, South, West or East, Africa is still exposed to Imperialism as it was before and immediately after ‘Independence.’
The Darfur genocide cannot be analyzed without considering the oil factor being fuelled by American and Chinese interests, and it is necessary for continental nationalists to rally around the cause for stopping yet another tragic story of human suffering.
Likewise, the Zimbabwe crisis may be brought to us through Western propaganda as being solely a ‘Mugabe issue,’ however little information is exposed about the ‘Economic warfare’ being waged against this African country let alone the explicit reasons for such sophisticated warfare.
This issue too necessitates that Pan Africanists from all walks of life engage in their own small means of activism against not only the stubbornness of an aged African freedom fighter that is Robert Mugabe, but also against the Western imposed ‘sanctions’ that the West is supposedly waging against ‘only Mugabe and his cohorts’ but which is affecting the masses of the Zimbabwean citizens; some may have attempted to sweep the Niger Delta crisis under the carpet (like all resource conflicts in Africa), however the resilience of the indigenous Africans being ruthlessly treated by Multinational Companies and their local cohorts has risen the tempo to intolerable levels, and we must also remember the inspirational story of the Nigerian activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa who fought against both local and foreign oppression and eventually died at the hands of local compradors in 1995.
This calls for us to retain the vision and unity of purpose that many of our ‘Independence’ leaders had; and for Pan Africanism to remain relevant in this day and age of globalization.
The writer is a Rwandan Pan Africanist student leader at the United States International University, Nairobi- Kenya