The Pan-African Dream: is it a political reality or has it been condemned to the ideological realm?

A dream born within the diaspora, pan-Africanism has been defined by W.E.B Du Bois asthe idea of one Africa united in experience and exposed to the impact of other cultures”. One may regard the fall of colonisation within Africa as being indicative of the dream coming to fruition, but if we are to look at the responses of African nations to the  pan-Africanist endeavours of the African Union, we can see that the political reality remains starkly different. 

The pan-African dream could be said to act as an ideological remedy to the consequences of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 – a conference which sought to strategically divide Africa up into pieces of colonial territory, dividing and separating thousands of ethnic groups in the process. Thus, as pan-Africanism would endorse political and ideological unity amongst all those of African descent, these Western-imposed borders would have less significance. However, the African Union’s patronage of the pan-African dream can be interpreted by some African leaders to infringe upon their sovereignty, and as such they are less likely to co-operate. 

What does this mean for development? Can development take place within the context of pan-Africanism, or is it to be hindered by nationalist desires? In order to assess the implications, I interviewed Professor Julia Gallagher, who specialises in African politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and has authored numerous books and articles, most recently “Zimbabwe’s International Relations: Fantasy, Reality and the Making of the State”. Below, she analyses the roots of pan-Africanism, as well as its impact, and the clash between nationalism and the search for pan-African unity.

Q1: As an intergovernmental organisation, the African Union (AU) may be interpreted as epitomising the quest for Pan-Africanism. What influence has the AU had on Pan-Africanism?

Let me start by saying that I think one of the problems about the relationship between the AU and pan Africanism is that pan-Africanism is an ideal and it really works at its best when it doesn’t get too close to reality. And I think you can understand that when you actually see where it comes from. Pan-Africanism wasn’t born inside Africa, but amongst the African diaspora in the United States and the Caribbean. So it was really a kind of idealisation of Africa from the beginning, as sort of a  place of ideal return, after years of slavery and discrimination. The founding fathers of pan-Africanism in Africa – I’m thinking particularly of Kwame Nkrumah – took on this ideal. The problem with the AU is that it is a real institution and it has a political objective, it is run by real people, with real things to do. When you get an ideal and a political institution coming up against each other it can be quite a problem. The AU takes on the pan-African mantel because after all the AU, or its predecessor the OAU, was set up as a political pan-African project: it’s born out of pan-Africanism. It needs pan-Africanism also as a kind of way of justifying itself as the engine of a different kind of politics for the continent, much as the EU did in Europe at the beginning. But it’s not a particularly popular organisation, it’s not well funded, it doesn’t have fantastic capacity – it struggles. And so it is often portrayed quite unfavourably as though it is somehow betraying the ideals of pan-Africanism. You can see this in the recent Agenda 2063 document that discusses what’s going to happen  in the next 50 years across the continent. Pan-Africanism absolutely runs through as an ideal, it’s very much part of the language that the AU uses, and it’s really important, and it is about the ideal, how we work together, and how we add up to more than the sum of our parts, how we punch above our weight in the world – a lot of the ideas that Nkrumah had about why it was important for African countries to unite. So it’s really important to the AU., I just think it’s quite difficult for them to actually be able to use it and influence it because of this difficult tension between the ideal and the political project.

Q2: Is nationalism a bigger driving force than a desire for continental unity amongst some leaders within Africa? How does this affect pan-Africanism?

I think this was the other side of the tension within the pan-Africa project from the very beginning. If you look at the history again of, say, the late 1950s, when Nkrumah was promoting pan-Africanism, there was always this tension – his dream of a united states of Africa, and the idea that you could make this a common political and economic project. It immediately ran into problems with the fact that most African elites really were not that keen on this idea, partly because they thought Nkrumah saw himself as some sort of President of Africa, and they worried they and their countries were going to lose ground. You reach this moment of independence where suddenly you’ve gained a political kingdom, as Nkrumah put it himself, and Nkrumah is now asking you to give it up and says I don’t want you to focus just on your country, I want you to think about this bigger project. This happened in Ghana too. If you look at  the downfall of Nkrumah, one of the reasons why he became so unpopular, or one of the reasons why Ghanaians lost faith in him so quickly was because he seemed to be more interested in the United States of Africa and hosting or organising OAU or pan-Africa conferences, and supporting struggles in other countries like in Congo or Guinea or Rhodesia – he wanted to send forces, he wanted to devote resources to these other countries – he said this is what good pan-Africanists do. Meanwhile, Ghana itself was becoming more and more impoverished and he became increasingly unpopular. So, there was a tension in Ghana – why is our president spending so much time on the rest of Africa and neglecting us? I think it’s an inescapable problem that it’s always been there, and now you see it with African Union officials who try to create forms of peer review or norms that they want to apply across the continent, to things like democracy, constitutional observance, ideas about intervention in conflict situations or in human rights abuses, and it is really limited by the fact that most of its member states really don’t want interference, they don’t particularly like the idea of having this supranational body that interferes with them. I think this is probably true more generally, that there isn’t a strong feeling of a pan-African identity across the continent. People are more inclined to have an identity with their own country or their own region or ethnic group, or religious group. pan-Africanism comes way down on a list of what’s important to people, and I do think given also particularly the difficulty in establishing national identity and sense of self identity after independence in many African countries, that national feeling been a priority to pursue – rather than a bigger pan-African identity.

Q3: Africans who have migrated elsewhere in Africa may find themselves on the receiving end of intense hostility. What challenge does intra-continental xenophobic violence pose to pan-Africanism?

Another really good question. The context I know best is Zimbabweans in South Africa, who have had a very difficult time. A Zimbabwean colleague was recently pointing out to me that they are definitely at the sharp end of it in South Africa, although South Africa has lots of migrants from other parts of Africa. I think this, in a way, is a kind of really extreme example of one of the problems that pan-Africanists have faced since the 1950s, which is that some of the pan-African philosophy – as I mentioned at the beginning – is this sort of idealisation of Africa from far away , from the other side of the world.  You’ve got this talk about African personality, and that “we share so much”. Nkrumah’s book, Africa Must Unite, is full of very very clearly idealistic statements about how, when Africans get together, they find that they have so much in common, they find that they have this enormous affinity and it’s almost like they’re one and they’re unified. And even Nkrumah in the early days when he was setting up, didn’t actually always get on with other African leaders. They didn’t come from the same backgrounds, and they didn’t have the same sort of norms and cultural frameworks. They also had different political ideas, as you would find anywhere within a country, never mind between lots of different countries. Africa is a very large continent and the idea that somehow because you’re black and have the shared experiences of being black, such as racism or colonialism, might create this identity that would make you transcend all the other parts of who you are, always comes up against problems when people actually meet and find out that they are different. And so I think that this question puts its finger on that. Yes, when you find if you are South-African and you can’t get a job, and Zimbabweans are coming over the border and seem to be taking really low wages, and by the way seem to have better schooling than you had and so are taking jobs – this is an existential threat, and the idea that you are brothers and have the same African personality and should support each other melts away pretty quickly. But I think that has always been the case with the pan-African ideal. If it was a bit more grounded in a political sense of how you hammer out differences, how you reach compromise, what politics is actually made of, then it might have a better chance at surviving these kinds of encounters, but it doesn’t.

Q4: What does the future hold for Pan-Africanism? 

I think it matters enormously to talk about it, and the AU is founded on the idea of it, and it matters to the continent’s identity, so I don’t think it is going to fade away. I am in favour of federations, so I think it is a useful and good thing to have, so I would hope that pan-Africanism and the AU might become more of a political organisation that thinks more about what a collection of countries could achieve together which is a bit more pragmatic, and perhaps messier. Messier because it has to confront these differences. So, I’d like to see pan-Africanism become more complicated, more realistic, more pragmatic, and more political I suppose, which means letting go of it as an ideal – which a lot of people won’t like. I think if it is actually going to be a useful political program, which I think would be a good thing, then it’s going to need to come up against some hard truths. 

To conclude, this article offers a glimpse into how some of the African Union’s pan-Africanist intentions can often be looked upon with disdain by leaders who wish to maintain national independence. For some leaders, relinquishing part of their sovereignty to the African Union feels too great of a concession, and as such, actions which may seek to promote development (such as intra-continental intervention) may be viewed quizzically by African governments. 

Furthermore, violence towards Africans who have migrated elsewhere in Africa can also pose a significant risk to development within a pan-African context, as it displays a lack of unity amongst Africans and therefore hinders the strive towards following pan-African ideals. There is still hope for pan-Africanism however, and  perhaps development will have more room to flourish within the context of pan-Africanism rather than nationalism, if as Professor Gallagher has mentioned above, the dream evolves into a pragmatic political program, which gives more consideration to national and regional differences. 

I would like to thank Professor Julia Gallagher immensely for her valuable contribution to this article.

By Shereece Linton-Ramsay