The history of Pan-Africanism


Pan-Africanism has a rich history which dates back at least to the eighteenth century. It came originally from the New World rather than from Africa itself. Crushed by the brutality of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, people of African origin naturally yearned for their ancestral homeland and the dignity and freedom it represented - even those who had been born in captivity. Prince Hall, a black cleric in Boston, campaigned unsuccessfully in 1787 for help from the State Assembly in returning poor blacks to Africa. Another black Bostonian, Quaker shipbuilder Paul Cuffe, took matters into his own hands in 1815 by setting sail in one of his ships with 40 other black Americans and founding a settlement in Sierra Leone, which the British had established as a refuge for freed and runaway slaves in 1787.

The issue of 'repatriation' was contentious, though, particularly among free black Americans in the northern US of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, for example, argued that the idea was a conspiracy to avoid giving American black people their rights. Nevertheless the efforts of the American Colonization Society (largely white liberals) resulted in the establishment of another slave refuge: Liberia. Former slaves also returned to Africa from the Caribbean and Brazil.

Pan-African resistance took other forms, too. The racist idea of white superiority and African backwardness was challenged, for example, by the publication in 1829 of David Walker's Appeal, which drew attention to Africa's glorious history, including that of ancient Egypt. By the mid-nineteenth century these notions were being actively promoted within Africa, too, by James 'Africanus' Beale Horton and James 'Holy' Johnson from Sierra Leone and by the Liberian Edward Blyden, who campaigned tirelessly against racism and British imperialism. Yet all of these early Pan-Africanists were pro-Western: they wanted to create autonomous African nation-states that would develop both economically and educationally along orthodox Western lines.

In 1884 the major European powers convened the Congress of Berlin at which they agreed how Africa would be carved up between them. This naked scramble for Africa gave new urgency to the Pan-African response. In 1886 George Charles, president of the African Emigration Association, declared to the US Congress that his organization planned to establish a United States of Africa. Pan-Africanists convened their own Congress on Africa in Chicago in 1893, at which they denounced the partition of the continent and discussed the French threats to the independence of Liberia and Abyssinia in particular. This new organized solidarity bore fruit in the launch of the African Association in 1897. Its key figure was Henry Sylvester Williams. Williams might be called the grandfather of Pan-Africanism. Born in Trinidad, he studied law in London and it was there that he convened the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Like all the early Pan-African meetings, the participants at the first Pan-African Conference were drawn almost entirely from the Caribbean, American or European diaspora rather than from Africa itself. The delegates talked of creating a movement campaigning for African people's rights - and sent a petition to Queen Victoria denouncing Britain's treatment of people in its African colonies.

The twin giants of the Pan-African Movement in the first half of the twentieth century were both based in the US: Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois.

Marcus Garvey lived his early life in Jamaica but his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) failed to achieve lift-off until he moved to New York in 1916. In Harlem, however, his ideas about black pride struck a chord almost immediately. By 1920 he was being talked of as the 'Black Moses': he held an international convention with delegates from 25 countries and led a 50,000-strong parade through the streets of Harlem. His most popular slogans were 'Back to Africa' and 'Africa for the Africans', sentiments which ironically suited the racist Ku Klux Klan. In 1925 Garvey's dream fell apart when he was imprisoned for mail fraud connected with his Black Star shipping line: after two years in jail he was deported to England and never regained his influence. But Garveyism remained the most popular form of Pan-Africanism in the Caribbean and resurfaced long after his death in the reggae scene of the 1970s.

WEB Du Bois was an altogether different figure from Garvey, rooted in rigorous academic research into the social condition of African-Americans. Co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he edited its newspaper The Crisis from 1910 to 1934. Du Bois saw the problems of Black Americans and Africans in an internationalist way, as part of a general struggle for justice. He organized another Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1919 to coincide with the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War, hoping in vain to persuade world leaders that US President Wilson's lofty principle of self-determination should be applied to Africans, too.

Du Bois organized three further Pan-African conferences in the 1920s. But by the 1930s the main impetus of Pan-Africanism in the Americas was cultural, deriving from the Harlem Renaissance in which a generation of black writers and artists looked to Africa for their inspiration and identity, including Zora Neal Hurston, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson.

Another important strand of Pan-Africanism was négritude. This was a term identified with nationalists and intellectuals from France's Caribbean and African colonies, such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor, who propounded it in Paris in 1933. The key idea was that all Africans, whether in exile or at home, shared an 'African personality'. In practice the movement became an argument for African nationalism that was peculiar to the French colonial context; when its leaders eventually took power in an independent state, as Senghor did in Senegal in 1960, they held power on behalf of a Westernized, pro-French élite (and 40 years on, Senghor's party has only just lost power in Senegal, for the first time). Most prominent among the critics of négritude was the writer Frantz Fanon, a doctor from Martinique who put his own Pan-Africanism on the line by joining the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria.

The fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945 had Du Bois, now 73, as its honorary chair and Amy Ashwood, Marcus Garvey's first wife, presiding over its first session, but the torch had in reality passed to a new generation of Pan-Africanists from the continent itself, including Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta.

Nkrumah soon became the voice and organizing force of Pan-Africanism. In the late 1940s and 1950s he promoted the idea of an independent West African Federation, seen as the first step towards a United States of Africa. When, in March 1957, he became leader of the newly independent state of Ghana, one of his first thoughts was to use his new position to help other Africans transcend the old colonial boundaries and work towards uniting the continent. He convened a Conference of Independent States in 1958, though at that stage there were only eight independent countries in Africa. He also went immediately to the aid of independent Guinea when France victimized it for rejecting membership of the post-colonial African franc zone. Nkrumah and the Guinean leader Sekou Touré agreed on a union of their two countries which they hoped would prefigure wider African unity.

This was the key moment of decision for Africa: should it pursue Nkrumah's goal of Pan-African unity or that of national independence? In general the former French colonies were much less keen on the idea of unity, preferring to retain their ties with Paris; as a result they boycotted the second Conference of Independent States in 1960. The crisis in the former Belgian Congo helped to bring this division to a head. The first prime minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was an enthusiastic supporter of Nkrumah's Pan-African vision. Backed by a mining transnational and by Belgian troops, soldiers from Katanga province took up arms aiming to secede and soon had Lumumba in captivity (eventually murdering him four years later); the United Nations (with the US looming large) sent peacekeepers seen as favouring anti-Lumumba forces. A group of francophone independent states held a conference in Brazzaville which praised the Belgian/UN action in Congo; the other independent states held a separate meeting in Casablanca which denounced it.

The political divide was important. The Brazzaville group believed Pan-African socialism would frighten the West away and rob Africa of the aid and investment it needed for development. The Casablanca group argued that Western economic exploitation meant it was more important to develop an African common market and institutions than to go cap in hand for aid. Another conference in Monrovia in 1961 involving both sides failed to bridge the gap.

[image, unknown] In effect the nationalists won the day. There were still idealistic attempts to move unity along - notably the proposed East African Union in which Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika and Milton Obote of Uganda agreed to merge their countries with Kenya under that country's leader, Jomo Kenyatta. But even this initiative foundered on the rocks. It was too easy to run with the model of the independent nation-state favoured by the West, which preferred the stability of handing over power to an indigenous élite within the old colonial boundaries. Besides, it was a time full of optimism that the new nations of the Third World, now finding their voice in the United Nations, would be able to compete on the world stage.

Instead of the United States of Africa dreamed of by Nkrumah, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) came into being in 1963 with a headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The OAU has since been a fairly ineffective collection of nation-states, much like any other regional grouping. Though it does retain in its constitution the ideal of Pan-African union, in practice this remained a moribund, forgotten project for decades. It was only as the end of the twentieth century loomed - as the unsustainability of the African status quo and the inexorable progress of globalization became ever more evident - that the Pan-African vision came back into sharp focus.