Pan-Africanism refers to the conviction that all Africans and descendants of Africans in the diaspora share a common history, common interests and, ultimately, a common fate which thus entails a collective desire of Africans for solidarity in all different aspects of life. This sense of interconnected pasts and futures is a by-product of slavery and colonialism. The collective resistance of African populations against oppression and their demand for national liberation has provided a sense of commonality that underlies the desire for a united Africa.
Pan-Africanism has mutated depending on time, place and political reality. The concept doesn’t depict a single political ideology, or a philosophical tradition but rather a range of political views, ideas and movements that emerged since the late eighteenth century.
The first signs of Pan-Africanism can be traced back to “the belly of the whale”, inside the slave ships from which Africans were scattered all over the New World. Their attempts to resist oppression and reconnect with Africa was evident in religious practices that blended African deities and beliefs with Christianity, giving rise to Santería in Cuba, Vodun in Haiti. In the United States of America, by the late-1780s, early black churches - like the Free African Society in Philadelphia – held articulate services that signalled the earliest expression of African consciousness. In 1829, African-American abolitionist David Walker wrote: “Appeal...to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” an incendiary pamphlet in which he underlined the moral obligation of blacks of the diaspora to embrace their African traditions and work toward the political and economic liberation of all blacks.
At the turn of the century while the legal slave trade and European colonial expansion were at their peak, a plethora of early Pan African writers emerged and tried to grapple with the racial, ideological, and political implications of slavery, colonialism and imperialism on the black world. These western educated black writers of the diaspora finally linked their suffering to that of Africans of the continent, thereby becoming pioneers of the body of work that today constitutes the history of Pan-Africanism.
This 20th century Pan-African movement was organized around a series of six conferences attended by Africans from all parts of the world. The six gatherings invited a disparate collection of thinkers, writers, activists and movements to strategize on how to attain the inalienable rights of Africans and debated how to end colonial rule.
The London based African Association led by Trinidadian barrister Henry Williams convened the first Pan-African conference in July 1900. During the 3-day conference, the Pan-African Association (PAA) was created to focus on building a coherent Pan-African movement that would lobby governments on behalf of African peoples. W.E.B. Du Bois was among the 30 delegates attending the first conference in London. From there on, he became the torchbearer and main organizer of the subsequent Pan-African conferences held in the diaspora until 1945.
Between the late 1920’s and 1945, the ideology of Pan-Africanism became more radicalized voicing a militant approach to anti-colonialism in Africa. Radicalization was undoubtedly linked to the fallout from the Great Depression, the fascist invasion of Italy, and the influence of the international communist movement. The shift was palpable in the writings of two leading figures of Pan-Africanism, George Padmore and C.L.R. James who had formally joined the communist party. Their writings like those of W.E.B Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah and even Francophone writers like Franz Fanon and Aime Césaire were gradually developing into a movement concerned with the masses of the people and their future liberation from colonial rule. It was this form of Pan-Africanism with a focus on the African continent and National Liberation that came to the fore in 1945.
The 5th edition of the Pan-African Congress (PAC) held in Manchester in October 1945 was a turning point. Although many of the Pan Africanists collaborated with each other, it was in Britain that the network of activists from the Americas and their counterparts from the African continent was consolidated. Trinidadian C.L.R. James, who had published the ground-breaking study of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins, met Ghanaian exiled politician Kwame Nkrumah and introduced him to his friend and countryman George Padmore. Together they invited W.E.B Du Bois to plan the Manchester Congress. The tone of the congress was decidedly leftist and demanded an “immediate” end to colonial rule in Africa. But unlike the previous PAC gatherings, it was no longer the black intellectuals from the Americas that led the movement towards African Liberation.
In 1957 Pan-Africanism witnessed its first victory when Kwame Nkrumah became Ghana’s first President ending formal British colonial rule. Nkrumah invited W.E.B Du Bois and George Padmore to become his government advisors in the newly Independent Ghana. Nkrumah, along with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had also ended British rule a year earlier, played an important role in building a new type of Pan-Africanism, focused on aiding other African liberation movements and building post-colonial Pan-African institutions. Ghana’s President marrying an Egyptian sealed Nasser and Nkrumah’s close personal bond. Together their support for various liberation movements’ saw 17 African countries gain independence in 1960 alone. The dream of African unity seemed attainable and was shared by many fathers of African Independence like Guinea’s Sékou Touré, Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella and by Tanzania Julius Nyerere. To crown their intentions for mutual assistance and continental unity they founded, in 1963, the first Pan African institution: the Organization of African Unity with its headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
The Pan-African movement had developed a clear Anglophone bias and deep schisms began to appear between the Anglophone and Francophone thinkers. The francophone literary movement ‘Négritude’ had grown since its birth in Paris the 1930’s. Its founders Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas and Léopold Senghor focused primarily on “Black” rather than “African” solidarity with its racial and cultural connotations. As far as they were concerned some Africans were not ‘Black’ and thus were not entitled to their solidarity. Whereas, the predominantly Anglophone Pan-African movement made no distinction between Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, and engaged its solidarity with African continent as a whole. The different interpretations of African solidarity later came to a head during the preparation for a Pan African Cultural Festival “FESMAN” held in Dakar in 1966 when the Senegalese hosts insisted to exclude North African participation in the festival.
The schisms within the movement were partly responsible for delaying the sixth Pan-African Congress, the first to be held on the continent. But, the Independence of former Portuguese colonies in 1974 urged Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, to finally convene the Congress known as the Six PAC. It was the new challenges presented by independence and the continued fight to end apartheid in South Africa that led the agenda. The Congress resolutions focused on neo-colonialism as the new threat to African independences and in its closing lines stated that Africans dared “to dream the same dream that has always filled the villages, ghettos, townships and slave quarters with hope”.
After a lull of almost three decades, Thabo Mbeki South Africa's second freely elected president reopened the discussions over the relevance and potential of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century. His speech in 1996 titled “I am an African” introduced his new policy labelled "African Renaissance" which had its roots in the traditional Pan-African discourse. Despite setting up a new economic Pan-African institution (NEPAD) little – other than peacekeeping troops in African conflicts – was achieved by Mbeki’s promise of African Renaissance.
While Afro-pessimists declared Pan-Africanism dead, Colonel Kaddafi - a longtime Pan-Africanist - gathered 40 African heads of states in March 2001 in the Libyan town of Sirte to create the African Union (AU) as a step towards the ‘United States of Africa’ envisaged by Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sekou Touré and others. This most recent Pan-African institution was established to deal with the negative impact of globalization and the increasing marginalization of Africa in international affairs. The AU – unlike its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – has its own Executive Assembly, Parliament and Judiciary. The branches of the AU are drafting a unified defence, foreign and communications policy and hope to lay the infrastructure for closer economic ties between all African countries thus preparing the ground for the Pan-African dream: a united Africa.
References and further readings:
Cabral, Amilcar (1973), Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral. New York-London: Monthly Review Press.
Diop, Cheikh Anta (1954), Nations nègres et culture. Paris: Éditions Africaines.
Nkrumah, Kwame (1963), Africa Must Unite. New York: F.A. Praeger.
Sankara, Thomas (1988), Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983–87. London: Pathfinder Press.
Jihan El-Tahri is an Egyptian director, writer, producer and visual artist. She is a member of The Academy (Oscars) and mentors documentary filmmaking in Europe and Africa. She served on the boards of Pan-African film organisations like The Guild and FEPACI. Her Visual Art exhibitions have travelled worldwide.
Como citarEl-Tahri, Jihan (2019), "Pan-Africanism", Dicionário Alice. Consultado a 31.03.23, em https://alice.ces.uc.pt/dictionary/?id=23838&pag=23918&id_lingua=1&entry=24476. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9