Pan-Africanism: Challenges, Concerns and Constraints

To be an African is to be a member of a unique fraternity with members in all parts of the global manor – all of whom are connected and bonded by the deleterious and criminal acts of post-1450 Europe: slavery and colonialism. These are two of the gravest issues that have harshly impacted Africans. At home and abroad, these factors continue to be part of the African life. And indeed, slavery and colonialism have left a trail of venom, fatality, and mental anguish. The residual effects of these harmful enterprise are difficult, if not impossible, to ignore. Nonetheless, enough time has passed for continental and Diaspora-Africans to correct most of the economic, social, and political imbalances borne of European calamity and criminality. Qansy Salako speaks of “personal responsibility” on the part of Africans. I agree: continually playing victim is irresponsible and cowardly.

One of the several ways continental and Diaspora-Africans has tried to dull the impact of slavery and colonialism is through the spatial, physical and mental bonding of Africans the world over. Pan-Africanism, then, is an effort to unite Blacks in order to (1) confront Western domination and exploitation of the continent and its resources; (2) give global Africans the voice, the courage, and the wherewithal to improve their economic, social, and political lot; (3) to enrich and empower global Africans to take their rightful place in the global system; and (4) to achieve one of the central tenets of the major religions: that all men are created equal, and are not to be exploited, subjugated and dismissed.

Michael W. Williams, and others, have posited that Pan-Africanism is “based on the belief that African people share common bonds and objectives and that advocates unity to achieve these objectives…a cooperative movement among peoples of African origin to unite their efforts in the struggle to liberate Africa and its scattered and suffering people.” Before the 19th century, Pan-Africanism was already forming in the minds of continental Africans, but externally, the “concept of Pan-Africanism developed outside of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” In other words, “the origin of the movement has its root in Africa during slavery with people who have lost family, clan, and ethnic members…African descendants in the western hemisphere also responded to the injustices of slavery by seeking to return to Africa or fighting for self-determination in the Diaspora.”

How far has Pan-Africanism come since its early years? Well, in spite of its early triumphs, the jury is still out, however, there are certain observable phenomenons: (1) the rise of subnationalism or ethnonationalism within Africa and beyond seems to be rendering Pan-Africanism irrelevant; (2) the fragmentating and failing nature of African States also calls into question the raison d’entre of Pan-Africanism; (3) fifty or so years after “flag independence,” African-Americans, along with their Afro-Asians and Afro-Latino brethren have not shown encouraging and measurable interest in the affairs of the continent and its people. What we have is indifference and sly ennui on their part; (4) because Africans themselves have, for the most part, validated the thinking of Europeans about the continent, global Africans neither have the joy, nor see the need, to fully embrace the continent and its peoples; and (5) when aggregated, Blacks in other parts of the world are only slightly better off than Blacks in the continent. Unable to significantly better their role and place in their own societies, Diaspora-Blacks have shown marginal interest in what happens to Africa.

Africa was supposed to be the Mecca for the Black race, but somehow, it has turned out to be a killing and chaotic field. And so, Pan-Africanism, at least for now and into the foreseeable future, is a dud, a fiasco whose time has not come (or have come and gone without noticeable impact). In its early years (outside of the continent), there were Pan-Africanists like Cinque, Daaga, Edward W. Byden, Henry M. Turner, Paul Cuffe, Robert Campbell, Martin Delaney, and Henry H. Garnet. In later years there were icons like W.E.B Dubois and Marcus Garvey. Furthermore, there were several organizations in pursuit of the Pan-Africanism idea and ideals i.e. the American Colonization Society, the West Indian Church Association, and the African Civilizing Society.

Outside of the African continent, several meetings took place, for instance, the Chicago Conference on Africa, 1895; the Atlanta Congress on Africa, 1895; the Pan-African Conference, 1900; the First Universal Race Conference, London, 1911; the Pan-African Congress by W.E.B Dubois, 1919 through 1927; and then there were the Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association conventions, between 1920 and 1925. Most of these and other conferences and congresses were fruitful and well-noted. In the years since, especially in the last fifty-five years, one would be hard pressed to point to such grand ideas and magnificent enterprise being organized by continental and overseas-Africans. The problems of the continent seem to have overwhelmed most.

Besides the ideological differences, economic competition and military rivalry between the East and the West, along with old and new problems vis-à-vis terrorism, immigration, environmental problems, and global health concerns that pulls and tugs and diverts global attention, the West is busy looking for ways to keep dominating and exploiting those in the margin. The unity and prosperity of Africans and their scattered brethrens is not of immediate concern. And Africans have no ways of attracting the attention and genuine interest of the West. So, what does it mean to be an African? And for that matter, what does it mean to be Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Asian or Africa-American in today’s world? Not much! In jest, or perhaps not, not a few have said that the world will not miss Africa should Africa disappear from the face of the globe.

Considering the challenges, concerns and constraints that face global Africans, it is time — a time long overdue — for them to reevaluate their relationship with the world. Yes, they cannot operate in a vacuum; they cannot operate as an island as the world is much too interconnected and interrelated for that. But they must device ways to go about their collective-lives without being beggars, harlots, child-like, and suggestible puppets. Continental Africans themselves should mould and direct their own destiny. But, they cannot be masters of their own fortune when they themselves have no regards for life and for decency; when they allow their leaders to steal and cheat and violate all laws known to man and to the heavens. In a continent with 54 or so countries, it is increasing getting harder and harder to point to political leaders with conscience, with visions and stellar character. What’s a country without a true leader?

The goal of Pan-Africanism was simple: to help liberate Africans, wherever they may be, from oppression and exploitation as designed by the Europeans. In today’s world, who is going to liberate the common African from the predatory and exploitative policies of their own governments and elites? Who is coming to the aid of the average man on the streets of Accra, Johannesburg, Lagos, Conakry, Nouakchott, and Kampala where they are being beaten and abused? Who shields the African woman from the oppression of their political leaders, and from a culture that is sometimes just too unbearably to bear? The unity and solidarity of the Black race is too lofty and expensive and rubbery a goal to pursue. Unity and solidarity means nothing to the empty stomach, the illiterate mind, and the scorching heat of poverty and oppression brought about by their own leaders and systems. The African saddle is too heavy to shoulder.

Indeed, the African saddle is too heavy to shoulder: what Africans, at home and broad, need to pursue are many. Here and now, there is a lot to be said for strong institutions, leaders of conscience, respect for life and human decency, for human rights and for the fundamentals of development; and for social, political and intellectual maturity of the continent and its peoples. Pan-Africanism does not mean a thing, and will not amount to anything, more so in a Black world where there is pervasive poverty and perversion of humanity and conscience. Where does Pan-Africanism fit in in all of these? I wonder.

Written by
Sabella Ogbobode Abidde
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