Sunday, 26 May 2013

Pan-Africanism and African renaissance: More questions than answers as the African Union celebrates 50 years

Antony Otieno Ong’ayo


The African Union is going to celebrate its 50 years of existence in May 2013 and its Assembly has adopted the theme of the 2013 Summit as ‘Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance’. This celebration is underpinned by the collective African aspirations namely protection of their civilisation, emancipation of the African people to fend off slave conditions, racism and colonialism among other historical injustices that were meted on the continent by global powers. However, the focus of the African Union has shifted from its original goal of 1963, and instead it currently focuses on Africas’ development and integration.

With this shift, the questions that come to mind relate to the AU achievements as a continental body that was expected to uphold the aspirations of the African people through political, economic and social integration. The tenets of Pan-Africanism are its call for African unity both as a continent and a people. It also advocates for political and economic independence and cooperation, as well as cultural integration. In the eyes of many in Africa, the continental body has been expected to promote African identity and facilitate regional integration that would catapult the member states to a relative state of development and prosperity. As captured in its vision, the African Union was envisioned as an institution that would promote an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in global arena.

The idea of Pan-Africanism as a noble and timely call gained root with the founding of the African Association in London in 1897, and the first Pan-African conference in London in 1900. Among significant Pan-Africanists in the diaspora included personalities such as JE Casely Hayford, Henry Sylvester Williams, Martin Robinson Delany, and Marcus Garvey. Also influential in expansion of the idea of Pan-Africanism were scholars such as WEB Du Bois, George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, Isaac Wallace-Johnson, Aimé Césaire, Paul Robeson, Walter Rodney and CLR James. In the continent, eminent persons such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania, Sékou Ahmed Touré, Ahmed Ben Bella, Amilcar Cabral, and Patrice Lumumba represented the ideology and spirit of the movement. Compared to the eminent persons in the early periods of Pan-Africanism, contemporary African leaders have largely paid lip service to the ideology and spirit.

Despite being well placed to articulate the Pan-African agenda through their rotational chairmanship of the continental body, majority of African presidents have been busy with self-preservation and less on initiatives that promote regional and continental integration. Such performance at the continental level has reduced the African Union to a talking shop rather than a serious institution that could facilitate the leveraging of the developmental potentials of the continent through its diversity, resources and strategic position in the global order. In the context of such gaps in visionary and inspiring leadership at the heads of state level, the more pertinent questions are to what extent has the African Union guided the continent towards achieving Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance? What is the continent actually celebrating? Looking at the continent from East to West and South to North, what can be noted as a significant change within the continent over the past 50 years?


Although Africa is making significant strides in terms of economic development, with some countries registering economic growth above 6 per cent, situations of instability, poverty, civil war, ethnic violence, electoral theft and violence, impunity, human rights violations, crimes against humanity against own citizens, disaster unpreparedness, and stubbornness of some leaders to discard dictatorial tendencies continue to undermine these milestones. While in many parts of the world, societies are increasingly recognising the importance of political stability and democracy as an underpinning for societal development, the African continent is still bogged down by instability in a number of regions.

From a political perspective, quite a significant number of African countries claim some form of ‘independence’ from their former colonial masters. The experiences in specific African country contexts suggest that the reasons for different struggles for independence have not changed despite the shift in leadership from colonial masters to African leaders. In what has been descried as a form of ‘neo-colonialism’, the contemporary Africa leadership has not had a mental or ethical re-calibration in terms of how the treat their own citizens, the society and public goods. Elite-capture of the state institutions, stomach philosophy, patronage, political corruption, nepotism and tribalism in public service and abuse of state power and resources or what is referred in the Kenyan everyday parlance as ‘our turn to eat’ and impunity remain the hallmarks of many governments in Africa. The government is never a government of the people, but belongs to the tribe of the leader. Long term perspective of governance for the sake of the common good, sustainability, regeneration, and innovation are rare concepts to most contemporary African leaders, hence, they tend to be reactionary to situations (both domestic and global) because most of the planning is informed by acts of political expediency and less by the fundamentals of politics and political ideologies.

Fifty years on, many Africans still dream of basic services such as clean drinking water, schools, medical care, basic infrastructure, decent housing and dignified living. Many communities in Africa continue to live under one dollar a day with the main sources of livelihood threatened by policies of their own governments. Despite the abundance of natural resources, large populations of Africans continue to live in poverty due to mismanagement of national resources and imbalanced allocation of resources and development inputs. Over the past two decades a wave of democratisation has been sweeping different regions of the continent with resultant features such as transitions from one party dictatorship to multiparty democracy. Additionally, the continent has seen efforts and a shift towards new constitutional dispensation. There are nevertheless some cases where octagorians rule and expanded terms of office are features of leadership that have stubbornly refused to die.

In terms of political stability, the continent still experiences bouts of coup d’états, civil wars and revolution-driven transformations taking place in North Africa through the ‘Arab Spring,’ to the latest developments of rebel take-overs in the Central African Republic and Mali. With these unending conflagrations, the African Union has many questions to think about as it celebrates its 50 years of existence.

The latest ailment, which seems to be taking root in the relatively stable countries, is the inability to hold credible elections. Over the past decade, significant trajectories have been noted in the case of Southern Africa countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Namibia. Other notable examples of efforts to remove the shackles of bad governance and transition towards democracy and the rue of law in recent years include Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. While in the East and Horn of Africa Uganda and Ethiopia exhibit engrained symptoms of allergy to credible elections with a tendency to uphold the status quo through authoritarian tendencies. Although uniquely making strides towards unprecedented economic growth in their respective regions, Ghana and Kenya represent cases where elite interests are increasingly holding hostage the electoral systems thereby threatening the democratic consolidation and people’s belief in peaceful elections and political transition through the ballot.

Kenya’s case offers a worst scenario in the sense that elite interest and impunity have converged to maintain the status quo regardless of the consequences for national stability. While the country made significant gains through experimentation with various types of government structures, the democratic gains made over the past 20 years are currently much more vulnerable than 30 years ago. These examples point to the challenges that the African Union faces as a continental body that represent an amalgamation of diverse countries with very different socio-economic, cultural, language and political orientation. These internal dynamics and contradictions therefore have implications for any continental level initiative towards integration.

Unless the African Union begins to confront these factors instead of buttressing the leaders that perpetuate such retrogressive tendencies, the notion of African integration will remain an illusion for many years to come. From a political economy perspective, realities in many Africa countries expose the inconvenient truth that political and economic marginalisation, negative ethnicity and unequal distribution of national resources are the most significant obstacles to integration right from within the individual nation states in Africa. The inward looking attitude, which is informed by experiences that were gained from the divide and rule logic during the colonial era continues to hold many African governments hostage. For these reasons, the leadership and governance system is not focused on the well being of the entire nation but sections with which they have primordial affinities.


An integrated continent where there is peace and prosperity and is driven by citizens, is a dream that is realisable but looking at the track record of the various regional corporations (RECs) and the African Union in particular, serious questions have to be addressed even if the African leadership is in a party mood. The aspirations of many Africans to see some form of African Renaissance are as old as the African Union itself. In the continent, eminent persons such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania, Sékou Ahmed Touré, Ahmed Ben Bella, Amilcar Cabral, and Patrice Lumumba represented the spirit. These personalities represented an African leadership with unique sense of the collective well being of the continent. It was composed of a calibre of people whose grasp of leadership was on the one hand informed by a world-view that captured both the authentic African perspectives on leading a people through phases of transition and development that is inclusive. One the other hand, they had a good grasp of the reality of the interconnectedness between Africa and other regions in the world and the mutuality of such relations. Unfortunately, these leaders did not live long enough to continue with the inspiration work that was necessary at the time. Moreover, such views as inclusiveness and equity, respect and mutuality in socio-economic relations were contrary to the dominant world powers of the time, hence this breed of leaders could not stay long enough to nature the Pan-African spirit and propagate the ideology and implement its agenda.

The spirit of Pan-Africanism thus helped to galvanise the political will as illustrated by the role of Nkrumah, Nyerere and Abdel Nasser in supporting the liberation struggle many African countries. These were leaders that had passionate commitment and involvement, through material and moral support to countries that were still under colonial yokes and apartheid regimes. Today, Africa requires leaders who will do away with dictatorships and civil wars, but also respect human rights, and speed-up the process of economic renewal through progressive social and economic policies. At the continental level, Africa requires new breed of leaders with a vision for the continent in the 21st century and beyond. It needs leaders that are focused on democratic practices and societal transformation, prosperity, equity, sustainability, posterity and legacy. These conscience-pricking realities are some of the factors that hinder continental integration. With unresolved internal contradictions in many countries where democratic governance and equity still remains a pipe dream any talk of integration at the continental level will remain a lip service as far as the expected role of the AU is concerned.


The celebration of African Unions’ 50 years of existence in 2013 comes at a critical moment in world history. First, it exposes the level of self-awareness in the African psyche with regards to its position in the world from a human development perspective. Different regions of the world have been experiencing human development within trajectories that are diverse. Nevertheless, there are fundamental issues that transcend continents and countries. The human rights as stipulated in the UN charter and the just ending millennium development goals for instance, have been critical indicators of human development and have cited as benchmarks for societal transformation. Taking these as the first lot of reflection points, the forthcoming celebration could be used as a moment to reflect on and take stock of where Africa has come from, where it is in the 21st century and where it is going. The celebrations and activities that are planed in Addis Ababa and other African capitals could provide the much-needed platforms to engage in a continental-wide debate and discourse on what ailments inform the stubborn stagnation in Africa. Honest discussions around this theme and acknowledgement of the self-generated commissions and omissions could lay the path for a critical discourse and inspiration of new generation of leaders to re-direct the continent on the right track that could eventually lead to socio-economic and political integration and development.

Establishing a dynamic force in the global arena cannot be achieved through the Africans in the continent alone, but also the participation of Africans in the diaspora. For this reason, there is the need to revisit the original Pan-Africanism belief ‘that African peoples, both on the continent and in the diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny’. This fundamental belief recognizes and acknowledges the developmental potentials of Africans in the diaspora. This group of Africans have developed enormous capacities through their diasporic experiences and are better placed to act as bridge builders and interlocutors at the regional and global levels. They not only act out of self interests, but evidence from many African countries suggest that diasporas are engaged in the local development processes in the countries of origin and in some cases, act as the backbone of the economy through financial transfers and social remittances.


Looking for continental-wide synergies that could propel African renaissance in the 21st century ought to entail a serious decision to look inside and the political will to do so. That is a conscious decision to re-examine the notion of Pan-Africanism from a personality, cultural, social economic and political perspective, and the patterns and processes of African interaction with the rest of the world and how Africans adapt to the external influences. In the foregoing, it is imperative to engage in honest discussions about the socio-economic problems in Africa and how progressive political, economic and social policies, and significant capital investment could be made to address these conditions. These factors play an important role in the self-definition and finding a place in society hence, any move to facilitate integration must address the socio-economic dimensions of the integration as the basis for introducing other dimensions of the envisioned continental integration. A forward-looking agenda also needs to learn from experiences elsewhere.

The European Union is an example of complex institutional, socio-cultural, linguistics, economic, and political institutional configurations that has been a work in progress over the past 50 years. The process of integration in Europe has been incremental, based on fundamental building blocks that address the collective interests of all Europeans. The emphasis on the well being of the Europeans has played a very fundamental role in the acceptability of the EU institutions and their decisions. Consequently, the framework for participation and legitimatization of EU institutions and policies has given the citizens the incentives for contributing to the integration process at member state levels.

Once again, the issue of self-awareness and mindset in Africa has to be at the centre of the debate because the African identity at the nation-state level is highly contested in many countries. Hence seeking an all-inclusive identity at the continental level would require much more than signatures on declarations. The AU must address the questions of identity and belongingness, what are the benefits of belonging, what are the rights and obligations. But most important, how to address such fundamental issues as livelihoods within the envisioned entity? Will members be safe, free, enjoy their fundamental rights and realise their life dreams in an integrated African? These questions require a re-think and vigorous debate about how to balance the African culture in relation to local social conditions and exotic influences from the west. It calls for a re-examination of the ‘African psyche’ in the 21st century in order to recalibrate the psychological orientation that enhances self-worth in an African. It is not possible to realise a state of reawakening in the context of a deprived self-worth, destroyed self-belief and lack of self-appreciation as an individual and collectively as a society. Africa requires more than ever, endeavours towards developing strategies for dealing with the impact of intense globalisation which brings along such characteristics as socio-cultural particularism and Western individualism, and the neo-liberal economic policies that tend to increase both individual and collective vulnerabilities in Africa. Such dynamics thus provide the impetus for a re-examination of conscience among Africans in order to rediscover who they are, independence from their assimilated or blindly copied Western values, as well as in their ways of thinking and behaving.

These realities point to the challenges for integration in Africa since the internal contradictions that are inherent in the contemporary ‘African identity’ and everyday life holds them hostage from freethinking, and development of a conscience that is reflective of the true self. Likewise, the contradictions within the member states also pose challenges to finding convergences and integration due to the likely spill over of the national level undemocratic tendencies to the continental level. Moreover, due to tendency of African leadership to divide and rule their own populations, many countries tend to find divergences rather than convergences. Over the past four decades it is evident that majority of African leaders prosper in disorder hence a more structured way for finding commonalities seem to posse a threat to their very existence which is based on shallow if not non-existent philosophical underpinnings for being in leadership.

These traits eventually spill over from the national contexts to the regional and continental levels, thereby causing more disintegration rather than integration. With such an outcome, the AU will remain a divided house. As the saying goes, ‘a divided house cannot stand’. This is most serious when that house is poor, malnourished, deprived, oppressed, illiterate and in constant conflict with itself. Such a weak house cannot withstand pressures or defend itself from detrimental external intrusions. The Pan-Africanism philosophy calls for the need to return to ‘traditional’ African concepts about culture, society, and values. However, Africans have to acknowledge that Africa does not exist in vacuum. The impact of globalisation is not selective hence, developing capacities to deal with externalities that come along with globalization and its localized versions is one of the issues that has to be incorporated in the Pan-African discourse. Moreover, cultures are not static, hence it is also imperative to re-think what values to retain, which ones to reform, which ones to discard and which ones to adopt in ways that do not undermine the very essence of African identity and self-worth. Approaching other cultures in a stopping position is what will continue to entrench the imbalanced African relationship with the rest of the world from a social, cultural, economic and political perspective.

Although noted at the AU level, that the realization of the Pan-African objective would lead to ‘power consolidation in Africa’ and ‘compel a reallocation of global resources’, Africa cannot have a political or economic clout unless it addresses the fundamental issue that affects its population across member states. The power of a nation derives from the investment it makes on its people, that is, the human capital and subsequent capacities that are developed by individuals in the form of innovation, creativity and ingenuity. Within an environment of freedom and access to basics of life, individuals begin to dream and it is the nation that benefits from the realization of such dreams. At the continental level, the African Union can only realize its objectives if the member states have realized theirs or agree to look for convergences, build on their strengths, and seek to minimize the effects of their weaker sides through collective initiatives and incremental integration process. But most important, the African people will most likely to contribute to the transformation of the continent if they have the necessary capacities, developed within the environments that the leadership in specific country contexts are able to create. The African people have to see tangible outcomes of policies for them to believe in the political institutions, systems and processes. Their full participation is also possible only if there are frameworks and mechanisms for their involvement, which starts at the nation-state level and systematically, linked to the continental processes. Such an approach would rekindle the Pan-Africanism call for ‘collective self-reliance’ that is underpinned by both governmental and grass root initiatives as advocated by Pan-African leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois.

* Antony Otieno Ong’ayo is a PhD researcher at the International Development Studies, Human Geography Department, and Faculty of Geosciences in Utrecht University

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