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On Africa Day, the rekindling of Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-African dream

The president of Kwame Nkrumah Pan-African Centre, Ghanaian politician Samia Nkrumah, attends an event to mark the 50th founding annivesary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Rome, Italy, 29 May 2013. EPA/CLAUDIO PERI

Pan-African unity is often treated like a pipe dream by the continent’s powerful, but there are some, like Samia Nkrumah, who believe in the vision of people like her father, Kwame. Daily Maverick spoke to her and a few other thinkers who gathered at the shores of Ethiopia’s mystical Lake Tana about whether this ideal could become real.

Africa could be a country, but when last did you hear a politician campaign for an election at home with promises of opening more borders and ceding sovereignty? Pan-Africanist talk is often hauled out and polished on special days like 25 May – Africa Day – and heads of state and African Union officials use it to decorate speeches at this organisation’s summits twice (soon to be once) a year.

Then there are those, like Samia Nkrumah, daughter of Kwame, who, more than 60 years after he led Ghana to independence and preached his vision set out in his book, Africa Must Unite, actually believe that African countries really should unite, not just economically, but in other ways too, such as militarily and in terms of foreign policy.

Samia Nkrumah grew up and worked in Egypt, Italy and the United Kingdom, but her views on African unity are a little different to the Africa-as-a-country view of uninformed outsiders.

The 57-year-old Nkrumah moved back to Ghana over a decade ago to attempt to revive the much-declined Convention People’s Party of her father, to mixed success. After a stint in domestic politics, she is now pushing for African unity on continental platforms.

It’s already a lived reality of many on the continent, she told Daily Maverick on the sidelines of the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia in April, where she delivered the 2018 keynote Meles Zenawi lecture on the legacy of former Egyptian president Gama Abdel Nasser.

If you move around the continent and talk to the people, I think the people are ready for unity. I believe the people don’t have a problem,” Nkrumah said.

They might not know Pan-Africanism intellectually as defined by intellectual and political leaders, but they have no problem moving from one country to another to seek greener pastures.”

The problem, she said, was with the political leaders, the decision-makers, who were not ready to cede sovereignty on matters such as foreign policy, the military and their economies – as would be required under the union of African states, a federation which Kwame Nkrumah envisaged would be the ultimate logical conclusion to the fight against colonialism.

If it was possible for her father to bring together a diverse Ghana, it’s possible for Africa, “one of the most diverse continents culturally, religiously and linguistically”, to unite, she said. Religion, language and culture “never stopped us from identifying as a similar people”.

Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism comes from an unusually personal place. She is the product of a marriage, arranged by Nasser, between Fathia, an Egyptian woman, and Kwame, a Ghanaian, and in the lecture she spoke about it at length.

This is a story, but it is actually a symbol,” Samia Nkrumah said. “I like to think of it as a symbol of the personal solidarity, the personal friendship between Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah.

It was personal and political, because that was the time when the two blended, that era where our leaders sacrificed and where there was a fusion between the personal and the political.”

The two worked together to fight the common enemy of colonialism, she said. Back then, countries were fired up enough about the concept of African unity, political and economic integration that they were willing to give up some of their newly won independence in its favour – a “revolutionary” concept.

Countries like Ghana, like Egypt, like Mali, like Tunisia, even like Guinea of course, they all included in their constitutions in the ‘60s a provision or a clause which said that the country will be ready to surrender part of its sovereignty only for the furtherance of African unity,” she said.

They were saying that we cannot tackle economic integration and other forms of unity without political unity to guide us. That we need to make that extra sacrifice, and agree to surrender a little of our sovereignty for a union government of Africa.”

Despite the reverence for her father in the African Union, it’s possible that most heads of state don’t realistically think this kind of thing will come to pass in their lifetime.

In March, 44 out of the 55 AU member states signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to take the continent a little closer to realising this ideal. It’s off to a so-so start as the two biggest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, declined to sign for now because of domestic and legal issues that still need to be sorted.

The plan’s been four decades in the making already, starting with the Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa in 1980, and it could take another decade or so to become a reality.

Or it could fail because of too much emphasis on trade and not enough on politics.

Former Nigerian president and outgoing Tana Forum chair, Olusegun Obasanjo, told the gathering of policy-makers and opinion-formers, which included former heads of state like himself (and also, somewhat bizarrely, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir), that politics was already coming in the way of continental efforts at peace-keeping.

Nanjala Nyabola, Kenyan writer and political analyst, is concerned that “this current (AU) reform doesn’t have enough ideology. It seems to be just about markets and money, and tweaking the mechanics, and not a real introspection on what the AU is supposed to represent”.

She told Daily Maverick: “Ideology is a really important part of any political project, and the AU is a political project.”

She said that although Pan-Africanism is a good ideology “in its purest sense”, this wasn’t how it was being practised.

It seems to need a common enemy to find purpose.

The last time it manifested was in the anti-apartheid movement, Nyabola said, and this movement came to an end when South Africa had its democratic elections in 1994.

Another case in point is colonialism and covert efforts by the West to fend for its interests above those of Africa.

Some of the responses to Nkrumah’s lecture, which veteran leaders said filled them with nostalgia, point to that.

Former Ghanaian president John Dramani Mahama, this year’s chair of the Tana Forum, said there were efforts from outside the continent to thwart African independence leaders.

If you read the declassified documents of the CIA, you see the extent of sabotage that was launched against these leaders. It’s something we need to look at,” he said.

The “external meddling” nowadays was more subtle, he said – and the implication is that there is a financial dimension to it.

This is evident, among others, from the AU’s efforts to scale down its project funding from Western funders and to find money on the continent instead. This is, perhaps, also why latterday Pan-Africanism concentrates more on economics and free trade zones than politics.

European Union ambassador to the AU, Ranieri Sabatucci, however, had some lessons of his own from a continent where the unity project seems to be crumbling.

The sovereignty of states, he said, wasn’t like a cake that changed its size when sliced.

Because you work through the AU, and because you are the AU, the cake has become bigger,” he said of member states. “The AU (reform) process is increasing the sovereignty of Africa.”

Professor Tim Murithi, head of peace-building interventions at the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, told Daily Maverick that he agreed. Countries should consider self-sufficiency in a continental context and pool their strength.

If sovereignty is ultimately about the ability to be self-defining and self-directed in your interventions, if that is the sovereignty we use, being part of a larger body with increased resources, industrialisation, information and communication technologies means individual countries will become stronger and less reliant on former colonial powers.”

He said a continental free trade area was desirable because of the low level of intra-African trade, only around 16% of the total trade of African countries at present.

Currently, however, Pan-Africanism was more alive among citizens than among leaders.

You will find Pan-Africanism in unions and civil society a lot more. Trade unions are linking with each other, and at societal level linkages are also increasing. Governments pay lip service, because they want to control their territory and perceived threats to their authority.”

It’s up to NGOs to raise awareness on how Pan-Africanism could benefit the continent socially, politically and economically, he said.

There is also a possible generation gap between post-independence leaders and hustling, tech-savvy youngsters.

After a disagreement with one of the participants, Obasanjo closed the space for contributions on Pan-Africanism from younger participants.

He told the gathering there could be no difference between “young Pan-Africanism” and “your fathers’ Pan-Africanism”.

He said: “Pan-Africanism is Pan-Africanism. You are either a Pan-Africanist or you’re not.”

He said young people should look to the Pan-Africanism of Kwame Nkruma, Patrice Lumumba and Nasser.

We must learn from what they did, what they went through and what they left behind, and what sacrifice they made.”

Without learning lessons from them, the “efforts that we are making here will be to no avail”.

Obasanjo said the leaders who took over from the colonists continued to run their countries “in the same way the colonists did”.

Some younger analysts, however, point to the massive domestic fractures within countries such as Nigeria as an example of why unity on the greater continent was still a dream.

They point to the recent fracturing of the European Union as evidence that countries should be on the same level of development before they attempt unity.

Africa should “focus on increasing intercontinental trade, build infrastructure and people movement, and nationally improve education outcomes, health and security”, one young analyst said.

Jesutimilehin O Akamo, Masters student at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria and who won a prize at the Tana Forum for his essay on the AU’s financing, told Daily Maverick that outside interests in Africa forced African countries to emphasise national interest, and this was difficult to change.

If there is African unity, that would definitely affect foreign interests (negatively),” he said.

As a dream, though, I think Africa should unite.” DM