I recently received a phone call. On the other end was a whispering voice: why aren’t you at the meeting, he asked. I informed the caller that I was not aware of any meeting that I needed to attend at that particular time. To this he continued to whisper: “Pan-Africanism.” I said I knew nothing of any such meeting taking place let alone having any knowledge of having been invited to it. “I’ll get back to you after [the meeting],” he concluded before he ended the call.
He is yet to call back. But that is not the point. It is obvious that common courtesy required my friend, usually vivacious, to speak in undertone. More than anything else, however, the call left me with a feeling as if an underground movement, akin to a sect or cult, was underway in our midst.
This is not a knock on this organisation. However, it is to bring to attention the present obscurity of Pan-Africanism. Few are still convinced by its ideas and even so they tend to whisper them, and only to friendly audiences. The swagger that its adherents carried themselves with in the 1960s and 1970s, its heyday, is a distant memory.
In those days, the triumphalism of independence led them to grow long beards and to wear Kitenge as an expression of self-discovery and a salvaged esteem. At the time, Pan-Africanism was the light that shined on the possibilities for Africa and its people.
But this swagger didn’t last long. One by one, independence began to eat its babies. Ethnic groups that had worked together to defeat colonialism turned against each other: cronyism, tribalism, nepotism, regionalism, and all other isms that are expressions of marginalisation and exclusion became the order of the day.
Anxiety and despondence replaced hope. Books were written: False Start in Africa, The Curse of Africa, etc. Why? Because the possibilities were there for all to see: a continent gifted with abundance had succumbed to the triumph of the trivial.
For Pan-Africanism, the contradictions were glaring. Milton Obote, then Uganda’s President and an ardent Pan-Africanist, had no problem deporting Banyarwanda who had sought refuge in his country to the Habyarimana regime even when these people were often made to “disappear” upon return. Nor could Mobutu of Zaire see as problematic that while he was pushing for authenticité he was also sucking at his country’s veins vampire style. I could go on. But you get the point.
Pan-Africanism began to die a slow death. Why? Because an ideologically schizophrenic leadership was at the same time claiming to be Pan-Africanist in orientation while subjecting its population to oppression. It was simply untenable that they could claim solidarity across countries when this was lacking within them. Most importantly, Pan-Africanism had lost its original aims and aspirations as an idea for advancing liberation and dignity. It remained neutered; the swagger sucked out.
One by one its adherents started to shave off their trademark beards and traded in their Kitenge for the (Kaunda) suit and a briefcase to boot. Socialists became capitalists overnight. Was this proverbial burying of the head in the sand in haste? Partly.
Pan-Africanism had done a lot of good, too, despite its contradictions. Its consciousness had informed Kwame Nkrumah’s decision to dictate resources of a newly independent Ghana in 1957 in support of liberation movements across the continent. For him, “The Liberation of Ghana would be meaningless without the total liberation of Africa.”
For similar reasons, Julius Nyerere would refuse to accept the independence of Tanganyika from the Brits if it was not followed with that of Uganda and Kenya so that three countries could form an East African Federation.
When it was discovered that settler colonialism was a more ferocious beast, it was Pan-African mobilisation that came to defeat the brutal regimes in Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and to establish the Frontline States that gave sleepless nights to the Apartheid monster in South Africa.
When Africa has been pushed against the wall, Pan-Africanism has particularly been useful. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that its revival is in places where there is a belief, rightly or wrongly, that Africa’s sovereignty is under attack through new instruments of colonialism such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The contents of the speech that Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta made to the African Union on the eve of his appearance before the ICC give credence to this argument. As do the statements by the Government of Rwanda and, more recently, the African Union condemning the arrest of Lieutenant General Karenzi Karake (KK) in Britain, denouncing it as part of a plot to subvert African sovereignty.
Clearly, therefore, Pan-Africanism has proven itself able to mobilise African agency. However, it tramples upon itself when its adherents forget its core virtues: sacrifice and dignity. It is a philosophy in the defence of the value of human life.
Pan-Africanism is not a philosophy for bystanders. Consequently, the silence of its adherents to the lives being swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea or to the fact that Burundi is currently bleeding to death is conspicuous.
This is why the most enduring lesson for this generation of Pan-Africanists is to iron out the contradictions that they have inherited. It is by removing the kinks in an otherwise fine fabric that they will be saved from having to whisper about what they say they believe in. Otherwise, they will be reduced to conducting themselves as if they were social deviants.