Lessons of Discord The Repressive Dimensions of Pan-African Nationalism

As a new generation of activists and politicians promote the legacy of anti-colonial pan-African nationalists, acknowledging the shortcomings and contradictions of such leaders provides a roadmap for emulating their more uplifting legacies.

In late May 2020, as racial and social justice protests erupted in the United States following the killing of George Floyd, the African Union (AU) issued a statement urging the US ‘to intensify’ efforts to end racial discrimination. The statement invoked a similar resolution at the First Assembly Meeting of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), condemning racism in the US in 1964.

In the months following Floyd’s death, energized scholars and activists churned out opinion pieces and essays highlighting and historicizing the heritage and power of black internationalist solidarity. One of the hottest recent academic works on this theme has been Worldmaking After Empire, by Adom Getachew of the University of Chicago. Getachew traces the anti-colonial criticism of select African, Caribbean, and black American anglophone nationalists in the three decades after the end of the Second World War. She argues that their decolonization project ‘sought to create a domination-free and egalitarian international order’ until it became derailed by ‘ideological and institutional transformations’ in the 1970s.

The Under-Discussed Tensions of Pan-Africanism

Certainly, pan-Africanism provided a critical fount of solidarity in a world marked by hostility and discrimination. Pan-Africanist political organization in the 1950s and 1960s played a mutually reinforcing role in driving the advocacy that [roughly] synchronously ended both colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean and legal racial discrimination in the American South.

However, the current think pieces, overwhelmingly celebratory in outlook, tend to ignore the less palatable lessons of discord and authoritarianism that also emerged from this period of pan-African anti-colonial nationalism. During this dynamic time, turmoil accompanied euphoria.

In his prominent 1996 work, Democracy and Development in Africa, the Nigerian academic, Claude Ake, delivered a more critical observation concerning this era’s political legacy:

‘As the prospects for political independence improved, the solidarity of the [nationalist] movement grew weaker and competition between its component units became more intense…so while agitating to overthrow the colonial regime, the constituent elements of the coalition were also trying to block one another from appropriating it. Increasingly their attention turned from the colonial regime to one another, and eventually, the competition among these groups came to dominate political life, while the colonial power, now resigned to the demise of colonialism, became a referee rather than the opponent.’

This deterioration in anti-colonial nationalist solidarity occurred very quickly, primarily within a period of a few years in the early 1960s. The slide accelerated as more African states attained independence, each with their own agendas and objectives that reverberated not just at home, but across the continent as well.

Two of the African leaders most frequently invoked by Getachew are Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. They were among the continent’s most interventionist leaders in the anti-colonial struggle and both were ardent advocates of pan-African political unification. Both are remembered fondly today for their bold rhetoric and policies in the face of Western opposition.

Nkrumah turned Accra into a hub of southern African exiles and relentlessly advocated for a united African state. Nyerere’s Tanzania became a key ‘frontline state’ (the nations at the forefront of the struggle against white settler rule) and the host of the OAU’s Liberation Committee. Nyerere floated the idea of delaying Tanganyika’s independence to ease the way for an independent East African federation.

However, the two were deeply divided as to the strategies to pursue to further pan-African political power. While Nkrumah wanted a grand African state, Nyerere promoted sub-regional alignments. Nkrumah helped to launch a continental-wide All-Africa People’s Congress in Accra. Conversely, Nyerere presided over the establishment the same year (1958) of the more limited Pan African Freedom Movement for Eastern and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Mwanza, Tanganyika.

These conflicting strategies led personal tensions to emerge between the two leaders. At the 1964 OAU summit, Nkrumah castigated the inaction of the Liberation Committee, of which Tanzania was a member, and insinuated that Nyerere was an ‘imperialist agent’. Nyerere responded by attacking Ghana’s lack of support for the committee and deriding Nkrumah as being ‘extremely petty’.

This rift among pan-African giants was not incongruous with the political philosophies of leaders who each presided over de jure one-party states by the mid-1960s. As the Kenyan-American scholar Ali Mazrui mused, how could African territories feasibly unite politically (pan-Africanism’s ultimate goal) if their respective leaders were entrenched as life presidents and/or advocates of one-party rule?

It is often forgotten today that pan-African icons like the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James excoriated Nkrumah for his narcissism and authoritarianism, traits that made Nkrumah’s quest for a United States of Africa come off as a hollow, self-aggrandizing pursuit. In a similar vein, Nyerere himself perceptively warned in 1961 that ‘African nationalism is meaningless, is dangerous, is anachronistic if it is not at the same time pan-Africanism.’

As organization around the nation-state, rather than a united Africa currently prevails, this view deserves further consideration. Nyerere’s own push for East African regional unity subsided as he became more enmeshed in supporting southern African liberation struggles. The Tanzanian leader rapidly drew down PAFMECA activities after the OAU’s creation.

Strong pan-African networks and enhanced African regional integration remain a desirable goal. For precisely this reason, it is necessary to take stock of not only the success of the geopolitical transformation engendered by pan-African nationalism in the 1950s and early 1960s but also the contradictions and tensions that afflicted pan-African nationalists amidst decolonization. By recognizing both of these dimensions, the failure to actually make a more egalitarian world after the demise of empire will be better understood.

 Pan-Africanism and the Double-edged Sword of Success

 From 1900 – 1945, five Pan-African Congresses were held in the West (Europe and the USA). After World War II, however, the impetus of pan-African activity shifted to the continent itself as European empires in Asia and Africa collapsed. A number of scholars, like Michael West, have observed that one of the initial signs of pan-Africanism’s deterioration was when the role of the African diaspora became more marginal as the locus of the movement shifted to the continent and the attainment of state sovereignty.

It was during this comparatively rapid transformation in the post-war era, what the pan-African historian John Henrik Clarke dubbed the ‘Independence Explosion’, that the double-edged sword of pan-African nationalist success became clear. Dunduzu Chisiza, a leading Malawian nationalist and economist, presciently wrote shortly before his untimely death in a car accident in 1962: ‘Pan-Africanism as a strategy for emancipation is unquestionably effective. But as a unifying agent for regional co-operation it is far too superficial…’ Notably, Malawi only became independent in 1964.

Chisiza’s pamphlet, entitled, ‘Africa: What Lies Ahead’ foresaw the domestic governance challenges that would emerge as newly empowered nationalist leaders took over the reins of the state. He encouraged leading nationalists to be generous in ‘the sharing of gratitude and prestige.’ He expressed concern that ‘leaders of opposition parties who may have fought for independence just as valiantly as anyone else [may] find themselves the recipients of practically nothing.’ Mazrui put forward the dilemma more analytically in a more expansive international framework. He noted that while the pan-African program of ‘liberation’ generally achieved rapid success, the deeper goal of pan-African ‘integration’, which became relevant as soon as independence was achieved, proved more illusory and divisive.

The black American sociologist and pan-African thinker, St. Clair Drake, described the All-African People’s Congress (AAPC) of December 1958, convened in Ghana by Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore, as the ‘high point of influence of the Pan African group.’ The AAPC convened several hundred delegates from some two dozen African territories, including prominent nationalists like Kenneth Kaunda, Tom Mboya, and Patrice Lumumba (Drake was also present).

In the aftermath of the AAPC, the independence trajectory reveals that the politics of pan-African liberation was indeed approaching its zenith. Delegates at the conference resolved to push for independence by 1960. They achieved what was probably a degree of success beyond their expectations. 1960 became known as the ‘Year of Africa’ when 17 African territories became independent, transforming the balance of power at the United Nations.

Soon thereafter, pan-African tensions became palpable. Even before the creation of the OAU, rival blocs in Africa emerged. The Casablanca and Monrovia Groups, which coalesced in 1961, held conflicting visions for Africa’s foreign and economic policy. In early 1963, also before the formation of the OAU, a bloody coup in Togo, the first in post-colonial Africa, resulted in the death of President Sylvanus Olympio. Contemporaneous scholars of Ghanaian foreign policy, like W. Scott Thompson, blamed Olympio’s overthrow on intrigue emanating from Nkrumah’s Ghana.

Nyerere was not Nkrumah’s only African contemporary weary of the Ghanaian ‘father of African nationalism’. Only half of Africa’s 36 heads of OAU member states attended the body’s 1965 conference in Accra. Seven nations (including Togo) boycotted participation altogether, citing Nkrumah’s support for dissident elements opposed to their governments.

While the seven abstaining delegations hailed from Francophone states known for the maintenance of neo-colonial ties, the deterioration of pan-Africanism in this era was widespread. Beyond Nkrumah and Nyerere, it encompassed others who were active in more confrontational anti-colonial nationalist struggles. At the founding summit of the OAU in 1963, a contentious debate on the composition of the OAU Liberation Committee further stoked divisions. The debate consumed nearly half the session, according to the scholars William Foltz and Jennifer Widner.

A brief review of the divergence of the delegations from Southern Rhodesia (colonial Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (colonial Malawi) following the 1958 AAPC, Drake’s highwater mark of anti-colonial pan-Africanism, further illustrates the disruptive aspects of pan-African nationalism during this era.

Pan-Africanism and Nationalist Division: Examples from Southern Africa

Southern Rhodesia was represented at the AAPC by Joshua Nkomo (‘Father Zimbabwe’) and his lieutenant, Paul Mushonga. Nyasaland’s two delegates were Hastings Kamuzu Banda (the ‘Ngwazi’) and his deputy, Kanyama Chiume. By 1964, the exhortations of unity at Accra which the quartet jointly imbibed had receded firmly into the past. The constituent members of each delegation became sworn enemies, as did Nkomo and Banda.

In mid-1961, nearly two decades before Zimbabwe’s independence, Mushonga split from Nkomo, after the latter initially accepted modest Rhodesian political reforms that did not provide for universal suffrage. Mushonga became the Vice-President and prime mover behind a splinter nationalist group, the Zimbabwe National Party (ZNP). Nkomo’s National Democratic Party, the main wing of the nationalist movement, violently suppressed the ZNP, to the extent that its executive was forcibly prevented from entering the venue of its launch event.

This split marked the debilitating rise of intra-nationalist violence in Southern Rhodesia, a trend that accelerated with the formation of another breakaway party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zimbabwe’s current ruling party) in 1963. That same year, the first anti-colonial activist was killed in intra-nationalist fighting in Southern Rhodesia. The current spate of abductions, beatings, and harassment in Zimbabwe traces back to this colonial lineage.

Chiume and Banda’s solidarity lasted slightly longer. However, in 1964, just months after Malawi’s independence, most of Banda’s cabinet rebelled, citing his retrogressive foreign policy, which was marked by ties with imperial Portugal, apartheid South Africa, and segregationist Rhodesia. Banda retained control and the leading dissidents, like Chiume, were either killed or fled into exile.

Banda was declared Life President in 1971 and Chiume spent three decades outside of Malawi, unable to serve his country as a legitimate opposition politician. Unlike Zimbabwe, Malawi has had several political transitions since Banda finally lost power in 1994. However, they have often been fraught affairs, with the latest only coming as a result of a historic judicial decision which overturned an undemocratic election.

Ironically, while Nkomo and Banda became entangled in conflict, both also turned against Nyerere. Each saw Nyerere as a meddlesome figure, a characteristic more commonly attributed to Nkrumah by his peers. In his autobiography, Nkomo charged that ‘Nyerere lacked confidence in the ability of Africans to govern themselves’ and called him a ‘saboteur.’ Meanwhile, at the 1965 OAU summit, Banda accused Nyerere of harbouring dissidents who sought to overthrow his government.

Elsewhere in the region, the Northern Rhodesian (colonial Zambia) delegation at the 1958 AAPC was already split. Months before the conference, a renegade Kenneth Kaunda formed his own splinter party in opposition to a body under the leadership of Harry Nkumbula, the second AAPC delegate from Northern Rhodesia. Kaunda wrested control of Zambia at independence and like many of his peers became an autocrat. He declared Zambia a one-party state in 1972 and harassed and jailed former colleagues like Simon Kapwepwe, the country’s inaugural Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The AAPC provided a great initial boom to African nationalism, but as Ake and others diagnosed more broadly, this specific impetus, one of the most prominent of the decolonisation moment, soon lost its way as well. Nkrumah progressively disengaged from the AAPC as his personal control of the movement frayed. Ghana played a limited role in the next two meetings of the AAPC, in Tunis and Cairo, in 1960 and 1961, respectively. Instead, Nkrumah chose to prioritize anti-colonial and pan-African activities at home through his Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute and other domestic conferences in which his patronage was more evident.

Lessons of Discord

 Analyses of African politics (generally by Westerners) are rife with perplexed commentaries about anti-colonial nationalists becoming repressive tyrants and astonishingly betraying the core purpose of their liberation struggles. This genre of discourse experienced a resurgence following the passing of the former Zimbabwean leader, Robert Mugabe.

Explanations for this behaviour are multi-dimensional. Nonetheless, analysts would be well placed to foreground one dynamic that is intrinsically overlooked—the restrictive and contentious contours of the liberation struggle at the apex of its success—well before the consolidation of the post-colonial state gathered momentum.

The impressive success of pan-African nationalism in the 1950s and early 1960s remains worthy of laudatory commemoration. Nevertheless, the overriding principle animating its adherents was absolute unity, not democratic governance. As the Swedish-Malawian economist and London School of Economics lecturer Thandika Mkandawire noted, anti-colonial nationalism was a drive for ‘…collective self-determination. There was no logical or political reason why, upon attainment of [it], the nationalist should respect individual freedom.’

Pan-Africanism’s dedication to conformity provided first-generation post-colonial African states with a rationale to subvert or legislate against political pluralism. It also provided liberation movements with the means to attack the fundamental legitimacy of competing groups. Both inheritances had crippling consequences.

Ironically, the domestic outcome of the glorification of the nationalist movement which achieved state power was to stifle unity or promote a superficial version of it. It also reinforced the primacy of the borders of the colonial state as a means of organization. Meanwhile, in continental diplomacy, the rigidity of pan-Africanism made it difficult for Africa’s new leaders to accept differences with their counterparts. Yet, as strong as the pan-African allure of the era was, the emphasis on unanimity could not genuinely eliminate dissent.

In light of Africa’s recurring and lingering challenges with long-serving leaders, gerontocratic cliques who refuse to make way for younger voices in established ruling parties, and military intervention, it is necessary to consider the less salubrious aspects of pan-African nationalism alongside its more celebratory ones.

It is critical to note in this regard that the repressive dimensions of pan-Africanism were often stoked by neo-colonial intervention and Cold War intrigue. In particular, the complicity of Western actors in the assassination of the deposed Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in early 1961, played a notable role in making expressions of pan-Africanism more dogmatic.

As with pop culture celebrities, African ‘faves’ like Nkrumah and Nyerere, while more resolute in their principles than most, had flaws. As a new generation of activists and politicians promote the legacy of anti-colonial nationalists and seek to implement the more uplifting, admirable aspects of their rhetoric, acknowledging their shortcomings and contradictions provides a roadmap for how to do so more effectively

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