A recent article by a fellow columnist on this platform, Dr Moses Khisa, titled “Reclaiming the Pan-African Agenda” had me thinking about the first line of the article: “Pan-Africanism has lately become the object of derision and denigration, partly understandable but largely mistaken.” The paradox about pan-Africanism is that even Africans who believe that they are deserving of dignity as a people tend to denigrate the idea that represents that quest. Moreover, it is precisely this paradox, which is a direct outcome of distortion of values and affirmation of a way of life, that pan-Africanism, as an idea and praxis, seeks to fix.
Pan-Africanism can be traced to the 1791 Haitian revolution that forced the French to grant independence to the slaves. Led by Toussaint-Louverture, the successful slave “revolt” spread to the Americas in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia, shaping new terms of engagement between the captors and the captured. The significance of the events that followed in history explains the common refrain that Europeans and Americans will never forgive Haiti for setting a bad example that Black people were worthy of dignity and that it was a worthwhile cause to die in the pursuit of this dignity than exist on one’s knees in submission.
This spirit of resistance would migrate to continental Africa in the nationalist movements of the 1940s-1960s. However, centuries earlier, Africans had resisted the morphing of legitimate trade with Europeans – and Arabs before them – from commodities exchange to human cargo and the subsequent physical occupation of Africa.
When Africans start teaching the history of these crimes against humanity – rather than the western propaganda that emphasizes the participation of Africans in these crimes – they will come into contact with their gallant ancestors, the fiercest of whom were women, who resisted slavery and colonialism. The dignified African teacher will emphasize this resistance the same way the European and pro-European African teachers place emphasis on the Africans who collaborated with the “well-intentioned” Christian European traders who happened to be there chiefly to look for free plantation labour in exchange for cowrie shells.
In fact, Africans who chose to jump off the cargo ships into the high seas along the coast of West Africa into the Atlantic Ocean rather than accept subhuman existence also constitute pan-African resistance. Indeed, the revolts of black Americans during the civil rights movement in the 1960s as well as the independence movement during the same period owe inspiration to these forms of resistance in West Africa and Haiti. For instance, when in 1958 Guinea was offered partial independence that would keep it as an “overseas territory” of France, Ahmed Sekou Toure retorted that Guineans would rather die on their feet rather than live on their knees. Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, and Samora Machel would echo similar sentiments in Ghana, Congo, and Mozambique respectively, as Malcolm X in the United States and Maurice Bishop in Grenada and Frantz Fanon in Algeria, and so on, all walking in the footsteps of Queen Nzingha Mbande, Toussaint-Louverture, Edward Blyden, Denmark Vesey and others.
Some, like those who resisted slavery and colonialism, had fought and were defeated—or so it seems. Yet, others – like the African nationalists who agitated for independence and the civil rights activists who demanded full citizenship rights – had gained a partial victory. But it was the resistance and courage of those who had been considered defeated that inspired those who won partial victories. It is also the moral obligation of those who came after them to pick up from where they left in the quest for the dignity of Africans – the idea of the African way of life as valid. Pan-Africanism is, therefore, a constant quest to perfect the dignity of Africans: where the end of slavery never delivered full citizenship rights, to agitate; and where independence remained in form rather than substance, to take up the struggle and make it meaningful.
This is the history. However, the same history shows us that the quest for self-respecting Africans has been side by side with self-humiliating ones. For every Lumumba, there was a Kasa Vubu and Moise Tshombe to betray them. For every Thomas Sankara, there was a Blaise Compaore; and for every field negro, there was the house negro. In the latter’s view, the crumbs on his knees are owed to the master’s benevolence rather than the interest to keep him alive in order to preserve labour. In other words, he has lost any memory of what freedom and dignity mean and could conceive life and enlightenment only in light of the master.
In this sense, a person of African descent who claims not to be a Pan-African suggests at once that they are not worthy of dignity. This paradoxical refusal to conceive oneself as being worthy of dignity was a subject that the famed psychiatrist, Franz Fanon, dedicated much of his life trying to comprehend, and which Malcolm X rhetorically asks in the question: Who taught you to hate yourself?
Pan-Africanism is, therefore, a ‘default setting’ for Africans who conceive themselves as worthy of dignity. As a default setting, this suggests it is not essential for one to be conscientious of belonging to a movement that seeks to bring dignified existence to Africans. The act of being is sufficient: being without self-rejection is a sufficient irreducible minimum. While on the extreme end of the continuum are the mobilizers, preachers, teachers, healers, conscientious farmers, politicians, etc. who approach the struggle with a sense of call of duty, especially for those endowed by the different capacities needed in the cause of dignity, that is answered or ignored on the basis of one’s moral convictions.
Consequently, pan-Africanism manifests on multiple fronts and in different areas of life, whether it is in agriculture, medicine, history or politics. A doctor who acknowledges the humanity of a patient as demonstrated in the way she treats them, is involved in a pan-African struggle.
The methods may be different, but the objective is the same. Significantly, the challenges of the time have historically informed the appropriate methods, whether it was a revolution in Haiti, armed resistance in Africa, or civil disobedience in America – all with a single lesson: at no point in this history has the dignity of Africans resulted from the enlightenment of its oppressors. In other words, prayers have not worked, and the belief that the master’s conscience will be nudged by the collaborators who have chosen to live on their knees rather than die standing has proved illusory.
Paucity of leadership
Genuinely pan-African leaders have become extinct because a self-promoting, greedy and acquisitive crop of leaders have emerged to leverage this illusion that the dignity of Africans can emerge from urging their oppressors to look within their conscience for whatever humanity exists there and do better. Arising from the tradition of the Kasa Vuvu and Obama types, they are mobilizing around a counter pan-African narrative that, though elevating themselves as individuals, invariably condemn their people to a second-rate existence that’s unworthy of dignity.
In line with these are those leaders who invoke pan-Africanism as a shelter against western aggression when, in fact, they have no intention of ever delivering dignity to Africans from whom they seek this protection.
It is this paucity of leadership that has Africans ashamed of identifying with who they are and with pan Africanism as a movement. As a result – although some might register individual “success” – as a collective they are neither here nor there and without conviction of whether they believe they are worthy of dignity.