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Africa for Africans: A Lost Promise?

March 1, 2022
Photo Credit | Ingram Pinn/Financial Times

“Our objective is African union now. There is no time to waste. We must unite now or perish,” exclaimed Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, during his speech at the founding of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) in 1963. Nkrumah’s words were symbolic of an erupting pan-African culture that had been thriving under the last vestiges of reigning colonial empires.

The pan-African movement was first conceived in the late 19th century by African American and Afro-Caribbean intellectuals, with the aim to unite all people of African descent across the world against slavery, the ravages of imperialism, and exploitive colonial cultures.

According to Paul G. Adogamhe, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, early pan-Africanists and African leaders confronted with American and European racial, social, and economic oppression, advocated pan-African unity as the catalyst for Africa’s development.

Prominent African leaders, writers, and revolutionaries that pioneered and supported pan-African thought included Edward Blyden, WEB Dubois, Stokely Carmichael and Kwame Nkrumah. The movement was considered a driving force for active social and political change on the African continent.

After World War II, pan-Africanism fuelled the fight for liberation and decolonisation. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a leading African philosopher and cultural theorist, attests to the fact that, across the continent, African leaders such as Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Gamal Abd El-Nasser, and others, were turning pan-Africanism into a continental reality.

A Dream of Africanism Envisioned:

Gamal Abdel Nasser (L) and Kwame Nkrumah (R) at United Nations General Assembly in New York, USA | Photo Credit: Stan Wayman

The hopes and aspirations to institutionalise African political cooperation, coordination and unity came to the fore with the founding of the OAU in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on 24 May 1963. However, the organisation would be confronted with multiple setbacks of incessant conflicts, political instability, the HIV-AIDS pandemic, and crushing debt that hindered efforts of regional integration.

The OAU’s limited authority also meant that addressing these challenges would become increasingly difficult. Although African states were keen on cooperation and integration, many reserved the right to their own autonomy. This would essentially render the OAU without the needed legitimacy to intervene on behalf of member states on political and economic issues.

In an attempt to restructure the OAU to accommodate for cooperation amongst member states, as well as decreased dependency on African dictators, the African Union (AU) was formed in 2002. This was considered a magical time for continental diplomacy filled with aspirations for a more prosperous, egalitarian Africa. However, the shifting political landscapes made it difficult for the AU to keep up with continental realities.

Candice Moore, a Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, believes that geopolitical landscapes worked to stagnate continental cooperation. Grandiose visions of regional integration remained fleeting “as a number of dormant conflicts bubbled over once more (such as the RENAMO insurgency in Mozambique) and new conflicts erupted, not least the Arab Spring”. The uprising in Libya had dire consequences on the efforts and operations conducted by the AU; it was estimated that Ghaddafi’s Libya contributed around 20-25 percent of the AU’s budget.

Additionally, the AU had “as its predecessor the OAU, been blamed for being disconnected from the African people”. Despite the promotion of good governance and democracy, the AU had shown a lack of force observing elections, as well as avoiding intervention when there were clear signs of electoral malpractice. The election of heavily criticised Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe further cemented the AU’s isolation from the African public.

A Promising Future?

African Union’s soldier patrols area in Somalia on September 8, 2014 | Photo Credit: (Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP)

Although the AU and OAU have often received criticism from academics and politicians for inaction and disunity, both organisations were vital in enabling regional integration.

AU aimed to promote the social, political and economic integration of Africa. Recently, the AU played a pivotal role in establishing the world’s largest free trade zone, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), the first Pan-African trade deal that would come to embody a combined GDP of USD 2.5 trillion. The World Bank predicts that AfCFTA could help usher in the kinds of deep reforms necessary to enhancing long-term growth in African countries through trade facilitation measures and simplified customs procedures.

The establishment of regional organisations helped enhance economic productivity and instigate political integration, pan-African thought had morphed from a humble search for identity into a permanent “quest for democracy and good governance.”

For example, Egypt, a dedicated advocate for pan-Africanism ever since the rule of late president Gamal Abd El-Nasser, has been extremely supportive of African unity and solidarity.

Under the ambassadorship of Mohamed Kadah, Egypt has been supporting ‘the implementation of the Revitalised Peace Agreement in South Sudan, as it sent military aid to the newly independent country’. These efforts highlight Egypt’s role in bolstering self-determination and pan-Africanism thought across the continent.

This type of camaraderie helps solidify African states commitments to political and humanitarian integration. The AU has also been vital in strengthening regional stability, and providing important humanitarian assistance. In Somalia, the 2007 AU peacekeeping mission is regarded as a vital contributing factor that helped steer the country towards stability. As a result of this intervention, Somalia has a formal government and elections were held in 2012, the first elections since 1967.

These modern iterations of pan-Africanism have seen rapid support across the continent. In the 21st century, the embrace of Africanism has been an enabling and empowering force for African leaders and citizens.

However, it is important to note that Africa has also borne witness to the ill-natured distortion of unifying public beliefs, conflict and debt which has so often plagued integration efforts.

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