Where Is Pan-Africanism Today? The Gains, Challenges and Prospects of Nkrumah’s United Africa

Kwame Nkrumah foresaw a period when Africa would be unified and coined the term ‘pan-Africanism’ in the 1960s. He thought that African unification was essential for the continent’s economic, social, and political growth.

Pan-Africanism is a movement as well as a political philosophy that advocates for the liberation of African people, their society, and of African descendants in diaspora. It encompasses groups that advocated for the empowerment of Africans, those who fought against the degrading shackles of slavery and those who advocated for the advancement of African individuality and culture. Pan-Africanists stood against intellectual colonialism as well as political control and agitated for nationalism and the devolution of authority to Africans. The development and spread of African nationalism in the early twentieth century, as well as the resulting decolonization of Africa and the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, were important successes of the pan-African movement.

The founding of the African Union (AU) is another pan-African success story, which cannot be fully understood without an understanding of the movement’s African roots. Ultimately, Africa’s integration needs to be leveraged primarily by Africans in order to achieve regional prosperity and progress.


Pan-Africanism is a socio-political and cultural movement that views Africans and African descendants in the diaspora as a single entity. It aims to renew and unite Africa, and to foster a sense of unity among the people of the African continent. The term is used connotatively to symbolize the ideal embodiment of both the African personality and the progress of Africans and their descendants towards their manifest destiny.

Kwame Nkrumah, who became Ghana’s first post-independence president in 1957, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who became Senegal’s first post-independence president in 1960, were two pan-Africanists who were inspired by Jamaican scholar and activist, Marcus Garvey. Senghor was also one of the fathers of ‘négritude’, a literary movement that aimed to dispel degrading stereotypes about Black people, celebrate Africa and Black identity, and denounce colonization. Other pan-Africanist leaders included Julius Nyerere, the first president of an independent Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of an independent Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president and anti-apartheid icon, was also influenced by Garvey.

Nkrumah foresaw a period when Africa would be unified and coined the term ‘pan-Africanism’ in the 1960s. He thought that African unification was essential for the continent’s economic, social, and political growth. He envisioned pan-Africanism as a means of uniting and uplifting Africans across Africa and the diaspora but was ousted in 1966 before achieving his aim. Most newly independent African governments opposed and rejected pan-Africanism because of the perceived threat it represented to their national sovereignty, and Nkrumah’s goal was dashed.

The gap left by Nkrumah’s death was difficult to ignore. It was a scathing indication of Africa’s lack of political leadership, revealing African leaders’ failure to prioritize the continent’s interests. In September 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi took power in Libya in a bloodless coup. No one could have predicted that Gaddafi would grow to fulfil Nkrumah’s ambition. Gaddafi hinted that he was also a visionary leader soon after gaining power. He began by outlining a pan-Arab, anti-imperialist worldview infused with Islamic elements.

Despite charges that he was a tyrant, Gaddafi’s goal of a unified Africa led to the formation of the African Union in 2002. In several African political circles, he was immortalized as a result of this feat. Gaddafi may have wanted to be the first president of an envisioned Unified States of Africa, but his fundamental desire was to see Africa united. Even his detractors have acknowledged his importance. As Dr. Adekeye Adebajo argues:

More positively, Gaddafi established a $5bn fund that invested in hotels, mobile phone companies, mosques and mining companies across Africa.  He also did more than any other leader to ensure the creation of the AU in 2002, hosting several meetings, and forcing Nigeria and South Africa to react to his frantic drive towards creating a federal body.

Gaddafi repeated his views on the prospect of a unified Africa during a 2010 AU summit in Kampala, Uganda. He confirmed; ‘I am satisfied that Africa is going along its historic and right road….one day it will become similar to the United States of America’.

Gaddafi’s vision was captured by scholar, Peter Koenig, following Gaddafi’s death in 2011. According to Koenig:

Gaddafi was certainly not killed for humanitarian reasons. He wanted to empower Africa. He had a plan to create a new African Union, based on a new African economic system.  He wanted to introduce the Gold Dinar to back African currencies, so they could become free from the dollar. He wanted to protect Africa’s vast natural resources from Western looting.  The imperialists eliminated him.

In more recent times, the pan-Africanism maxim has evolved to include entrenching values to encourage and strengthen solidarity among all people of African descent, based on the belief that unity is essential to economic, social, and political progress. This is an emotionally sensitive and politically fraught concept that resonates with African governments and civil society. It covers a wide variety of problems such as development, education, and health. However, all of these concerns are grouped by the AU under the umbrella of peace and security.


In 2002, the AU replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the concept of ‘African solutions to African issues’ was quickly adopted. This idea is intended to instil in all Africans, a sense of self-reliance, responsibility, pride, and ownership. The AU’s creation might be viewed as a step toward the establishment of a more united Africa. Without question, the organization has succeeded in establishing continent-wide economic and political coordinating structures and activities. To some degree, it reflects a shift away from a limited understanding of sovereignty and inviolability, as well as from the misuse of the principle of non-interference in member nations’ internal affairs.

The African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), which includes the African Standby Force, allows the AU the authority to handle, in conjunction with regional economic communities (RECs), security crises at national and regional levels. AU nations have sent soldiers to preserve peace and security during crises and conflict in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. In 2011, as Uganda’s turbulent political situation worsened, the AU created a regional cooperation program to track down the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. This highlighted Africans’ desire to work together to resolve African issues rather than relying on the West to do so on their behalf.

Five of the eight sub-regional bodies that make up Africa’s RECs—the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)—cover each of Africa’s five regions. And so with the AU, they offer Africa an ideal three-tier governance system—national, regional, and continental. This was initiated to make it easier to unite national and regional interests throughout the continent, as well as to facilitate discussions and consensus building across nations of varying sizes, capacities, and resources.

However, this three-tier system could not be institutionally anchored until the member states’ sovereignty was pooled via a binding legal acknowledgement of regional-level power. Peace, security, development, and economic integration are among the RECs’ responsibilities. The lack of supranational accountability and sanctions to guarantee member state compliance limits their capacity to carry out such a mission. In the context of conflicting geostrategic interests, they are further hampered by the larger issue of global governance and multilateralism. The RECs’ capacity to act is further limited by a lack of material and human resources, as well as a lack of technical infrastructure. In the end, the RECs’ ability to fulfil their obligations will be determined by member states’ and the international community’s willingness to give funding, mandates, and room to manoeuvre. Ironically, this goes against the spirit of AU reform, which calls for improved internal governance, accountability, organizational efficiency, and financial independence from outside sources.

As a result of these disparities, the African continent struggles to mount a powerful response to African problems. When political unrest began in Mali in 2011, Africa struggled to respond quickly and forcefully because it lacked consensus on the appropriate response mechanism. Similarly, post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 was not adequately addressed because the AU and ECOWAS had opposing viewpoints on how to manage the problem. As it was unclear who was in command, the violence raged unabated.

The capacity and quality of African troops is another problem. If the military forces of troop-contributing countries are insufficiently trained and resourced, their value as defenders is called into doubt. In 2013, South Africa’s reputation as a country with a powerful military was undermined when it intervened in the Central African Republic and lost 13 troops, while 27 others were injured. Furthermore, 200 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) battled for nine hours to resist an estimated 1,000 rebels. The fact that so many professional troops were killed by rebel forces rather than a professional army raises concerns.


The spirit of pan-Africanism has yet to completely express itself in terms of unrestricted movement inside the continent. In 2013, 78 per cent of Africans needed a visa to go to another African country on average. This was far higher than the global average of 65 per cent recorded for bilateral visa requirements, indicating that African countries restricted the movement of people more than non-African ones. In the 2010s West Africa became the most accessible region for African migration, owing to—at least officially—unrestricted travel and migration between ECOWAS member nations. Southern Africa became more accessible as a result of the collapse of the apartheid system, which placed a strong focus on limiting migration from other African countries.

North Africa’s visa restrictions for other African people have risen dramatically over time, from a low of 69 per cent in 1973 to 89 per cent in 2013. This could be a result of the informal externalization of European border controls, placing political pressure on Europe’s neighbouring countries to act as its border guards. East Africa had shockingly high ratings on the visa restrictiveness index for African citizens, ranging from 80 to 90 per cent. Furthermore, following an initial openness in the 1970s, Central African visa regulations became more restrictive. Free and legal movement of Africans within the continent remains an issue to tackle, and considering the need for Africa to leverage its integration for development, fewer visa restrictions would be a desirable goal to achieve.

The AU announced the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) in 2018, which mandates member nations to eliminate tariffs on 90 per cent of goods in order to encourage free trade throughout the continent. The elimination of all intra-tariff barriers and the reduction of non-tariff barriers will have a long-term positive impact on welfare; however, there are concerns that tensions between and within countries will rise as a result of these reforms, which necessitate national policy reforms—entailing politically difficult choices. Winners and losers will emerge. Improved access to foreign markets will help countries with relatively open markets the most. Meanwhile, due to increased import competition, strongly protected economies may experience a greater reallocation of output across sectors.

The transaction costs of exporting and importing are quite high across Africa. Greater economic integration is expected to benefit the continent’s most diverse economies, as well as nations with larger industrial bases and better established transportation infrastructure. This initiative of free trade is very much welcome on the continent, however, more effort must be geared towards ensuring a balance in trade agreements between African countries, if pan-Africanism is to reflect the modern day realities of the twenty-first century.


Pan-Africanists who support the concept of ‘African solutions to African issues’ have to also be realistic. Internal divisions and obvious competitiveness between African countries need to be reduced or even eliminated for this idea to hold credence. Regional and national concerns should take a back seat to continental objectives. Deals with members of the international community should no longer be kept secret. The major focus should be on capacity building in all areas, and foreign help should not be the initial step in addressing African concerns. Before foreign players are asked for help, intra-Africa contacts should be exhausted. These approaches would not only establish continental self-reliance but would also strengthen intra-Africa relations and consolidate the continent’s position on the global stage.

The majority of Africa’s wars are sparked by leaders who refuse to relinquish power. Before the global community intervenes, the AU should not only discuss but act against such leaders. When disputes arise, Africans must intervene early to prevent them from exploding into conflict. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the 2010-2011 post-election conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, the case of Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza exploited a technicality to stay in power, and the devastation of Libya by NATO forces should serve as reminders to Africans that they must not only talk about solutions but also take action.

While there is much to be proud of in terms of Africa’s achievements over the last 50 years, including the fights for political independence, sovereignty, and autonomy, there is another tale that raises questions about the transition and durability of an economically stable and united ‘Africa’. Although there have been several improvements, the potential for unsustainability and, therefore, regress looms large. In Africa, positive improvements are occurring in tandem with rising inequality and the continent’s ongoing marginalization within the global political economy.

Economic growth must be accompanied with economic development, social fairness, and social inclusion. Africans must be aware of the opportunities and challenges that exist both inside and outside its borders. To promote the pan-African agenda, we need to grasp how the modern world works—how it includes and excludes others, how it provides possibilities while also threatening to recolonize the African continent. To achieve this understanding, Africa needs critical and imaginative leadership throughout society, including premier universities, leaders, governments, and dynamic social movements. To recover pan-Africanism and Africa, all of this must be intentionally organized into a strong pan-African network that includes the African diaspora

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