Pan-Africanism is the golden child of African political philosophies. An ideology and movement that dates back to the mid 19th century, Pan-Africanism started gaining steam in the 1940s. After World War ll, African soldiers that fought in the front-line came home to find that they were still denied the principles of freedom and self-determination that drove the Allies into war.
With the independence of Ghana in 1957, Africa’s liberation era began, and with it a continental embrace of the philosophy of African unity and cooperation. The popularity of Pan-Africanism culminated in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 1963. Created to “promote unity and solidarity amongst African states” and “to rid the continent of the remaining vestiges of colonisation and apartheid”, the establishment of the OAU was such an important point in the continent’s history that the date of its creation is celebrated as Africa Day. Grandiose speeches and planned festivities aside, is it really in Africa’s best interest to commemorate the creation of an organisation which, let’s be honest, doesn’t have the best track record?
The OAU was replaced by the African Union (AU) on 26 May 2001, with the belief that some of the structures and aims of the OAU were out of date and out of step with the reality of current Africa. There was the hope that this time, the AU would get right what the OAU had so woefully failed to do: be a Pan-African organisation invested in its people, not a “Dictators Club” that had no real power or presence. Sixteen years on, has the AU fully embodied the spirit of Pan-Africanism? The answer depends on who you ask. Were you to ask the AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, he might say that the AU fully embraces the ideals of co-operation and unity that Pan-Africanism calls for, and it is indeed true – the AU has had its successes and demonstrated a desire to live up to its call for a unified Africa. The best example has been the organisation’s crisis prevention and peace keeping efforts, with efforts in areas such as the Sudan and post-election violence in the Ivory Coast and Kenya. Then there’s the AU passport, launched in 2016. The passport, which will allow Africans to travel around the continent without the need for a visa, is a crucial step in allowing free movement in the continent and breaking barriers between states. The AU has shown that it hasn’t abandoned its mandate for a unified Africa.
Critics of the AU would believe otherwise, pointing to its failed institutions as proof. Look no further than the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), one of the AU’s 11 organs. Billed as “a platform for people from all African states to be involved in discussions and decision-making on the problems and challenges facing the continent”, the Parliament sits in Midrand, Johannesburg – a break from the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa – and has just finished its fourth ordinary session. The PAP was meant to serve as a governmental body for the continent, with members from each signatory country being elected to the parliament. Serving initially as an advisory body, the Pan-African Parliament was to have been granted legislative powers in 2009, five years after its creation.
That hasn’t happened.
The PAP still has no legislative powers. They can debate and discuss issues as well as bring forward recommendations (including a recent proposal from some countries to form a continental police force), but other than that, it has no authority. Only four countries have both signed and ratified the Malabo Protocol, which would give the Pan-African Parliament and the AU Assembly legislative powers. It’s a shame that this body can’t do more, because the debates and discussions have produced good ideas (such as a recent conversation about establishing a continental police body). The Pan-African Parliament isn’t the only organ of the AU whose potential is stunted, but it stands as a symbol of how much hasn’t been achieved, all under the banner of Pan-Africanism. The question now is, who is to blame? Is it solely African leaders and politicians who have failed to uphold the philosophy that underpins the AU, or is it that Pan-Africanism itself is impossible to practice on the ground?
Levi Kwabato, a political commentator with a particular interest in Pan-Africanism, believes that the creation of the OAU did a great disservice to the Pan-Africanist philosophy. “In my opinion, Pan-Africanism died on 25 May 1963, when it was given this structure. We lost something in that process, the organic spirit of wanting to unite and having common aspirations.”
Pan-Africanism in Africa really gained ground just before the liberation era period, in the 1940s. The call for black unity and solidarity in the face of imperialism was an attractive rallying point for oppressed groups, mushrooming into liberation movements and organisations. It was only natural that when the Winds of Change began to sweep across the continent, that newly independent countries felt the need to organise themselves in a way to help their still oppressed compatriots.
However, it’s not as if these new African states had completely rid themselves of the colonial systems and mentalities in their own borders. For Kwabato, this is an underlying problem in the structure and capability of the AU. “State-centred and organised Pan-Africanism is problematic because the states themselves aren’t fully transformed. This coming-together of states that aren’t transformed, in the name of African unity, is inherently flawed.” If decolonisation is failing at a state level, African states cannot become true champions of Pan-Africanism, and that harms the continent as a whole. “In practice, Africa remains a divided continent. In thought, it remains a colonised continent. In practice and in thought, it’s not an integrated continent.”
The fact that the responsibility of fulfilling the ideals of Pan-Africanism falls largely on the state is a problem. When politics becomes about preservation of self and structure, the interests of the general public are relegated to second place. What it means is that Africa Day, a day meant to celebrate the zenith of African solidarity and unity, has lost part of its meaning. “25 May is about statements and fanfare, not about making serious moves. I don’t need a poem from Thabo Mbeki or a statement from the AU. I need action,” says Kwabato, pointing to the festivities and commemorative addresses that crop up around Africa Day. As vital as it is to take a moment to celebrate the essence of being African, there’s a question that still lingers – are we celebrating an institution whose Pan-African directive has stalled time and time again, and is it time to take that directive out of their hands and do it ourselves? DM
Mako Muzenda is a freelance journalist and blogger