In search of a new spirit of African unity

The litany of injustices experienced by Africa and its peoples in their interactions with outsiders, especially Europeans, includes the transatlantic slave trade and the arbitrary political units into which the continent was carved when colonial rule ended.

Pan-Africanism, which wanted a unity of purpose among Africans, was pioneered by diasporic Africans. It hoped to create a critical mass of talent, resources and goodwill as a bulwark against colonial oppression and save Africans from social denigration, economic exploitation and the like. Hence the pivotal slogan “Africa for Africans” coined in the late 19th century and deployed by pan-Africanists worldwide. 

The first pan-African conference, convened in 1900 in London by Trinidad and Tobago-born Henry Sylvester Williams, made a social movement of it. The fifth such conference, held in Manchester in 1945, was attended by Kwame Nkrumah, then a student at the historically black Lincoln University in the United States. He was later a key ­figure in linking the early pan-Africanism of Williams and others to the later pan-Africanism of independent Africa.

Ghana’s independence under Nkrumah in 1958 marked the dawn of the most decisive phase of pan-Africanism. It gave birth to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which brought all of Africa’s colonially created states under one quasi-political umbrella. This event is celebrated on Africa Day, May 25.

The OAU became the African Union in 2002. There has been no shortage of proposals for Africa’s “unification”, but that unity is as elusive today as it was at the founding of the OAU.

Every such proposal takes Africa’s contemporary states as givens and a culture of silence about this, in turn, undermines the quest for unity of purpose among Africans. Is the quest for African unity, under the auspices of Africa’s contemporary existing states, realistic?

Africa is not a monolith. It is a diversity of distinct peoples, most of whom fit the definition of separate nationalities. Before colonialism, each of Africa’s distinct nationalities had evolved a set of social authority patterns through processes that included interactions with the ­relevant geography and ecology.

Such authority patterns guided politics and the direction of society. Some were subtly democratic, some were highly democratic and others were autocratic.
In cases of highly democratic patterns without apex political structures, the political intricacies proved too difficult for outsiders, especially Europeans, to understand. The opposite was the case where autocratic authorities ruled.

Colonial enterprise
Europe’s conscious preference, in every case, was to ignore, abuse, exploit and mismanage the diversity that confronted it. It was deemed inimical to colonial enterprise. In the parts of the Niger basin that the British carved into Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani people and their autocratic social authority patterns were preferred and co-opted into the colonial state, whereas the Igbo, Yoruba and other groups with democratic social authority traits were seen as opponents.

Yoruba social organisation accommodated monarchical political institutions and their accompanying trappings, but the Igbo presented social authority patterns with fiercely democratic traits. Hence, the Igbo sustained anticolonial resistance throughout the duration of the British colony.

As payback, the British punished and strove to control communities all over the Igbo heartland. Pogroms took place. Tragically, these turned out to be a “dress rehearsal” for a larger act of abuse after independence and the transfer of power to the colonialists’ Hausa-Fulani allies in 1960. Six years later, the Igbo were attacked in what has been called “the foundational genocide of post-conquest Africa”. A total of 3.1million Igbo people, a quarter of this nation’s population at the time, were murdered between 1966 and 1970.

Like the rest of the world, most of Africa stood by while this went on. The perpetrators were never punished for such crimes against humanity. One analyst calls the Igbo genocide “the clearing site for the haunting killing fields that would snake across [Africa] … in the subsequent 40 years”.

Monolithic Africa
An additional 12million Africans are calculated to have died since then in genocides and wars in Rwanda, Burundi, Darfur, the Congo, Liberia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and now South Sudan.

If pan-Africanism is seen as synonymous with a monolithic Africa under the aegis of the continent’s hardcore unitary states, this brand of pan-Africanism is illegitimate. This mind-set has helped to drive the intolerance of Africa’s diversity. Illegitimate pan-Africanism puts today’s African states shoulder to shoulder with their colonial predecessors. 

Africa deserves and must strive for a legitimate pan-Africanism, one that seeks to realise a unity of purpose among Africans everywhere and that compels African states to tolerate and nurture the continent’s age-old diversity.

Professor EC Ejiogu is with the Centre for Africa Studies at the University of the Free State. He is the author of The Roots of Political Instability in Nigeria (Ashgate)

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