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July 2000, it was exactly 100 years since the first ever Pan African Conference was held, at the Westminster Central Hall, in the city of London, United Kingdom. A West Indian lawyer, from Trinidad, Henry Sylvester William convened the conference. About 30 people, mostly West Indians of African origin, a few African Americans and even fewer Africans directly from the African continent were present at the meeting. Nevertheless, what they did not have in numbers they made for in high ideals and passionate advocacy for an idea that sounded so far fetched and utopian then: African Unity. As they say 'great ideas have very humble beginnings'.

What Williams and his colleagues started became a powerful mobilising ideology less than four decades later, in 1945 when, the fifth Pan African Congress was held again in England but this time in Manchester. In between 1900 and 1945 a series of four other Congresses, convened and presided over by the African-American Scholar and political activist, Dr W.E.B. Du Bois (regarded as father of modern Pan Africanism) were held.

The abiding ideas of dignity of the African that inspired Williams inspired Du Bois in all his efforts. The 5th Congress is better remembered because unlike previous Congresses dominated by Africans in the Diaspora Manchester had representations of Africans from the continent: students, war veterans, migrants and trade unionists. In previous Congresses appeals were made to colonising powers and liberal opinion in the West to accept and treat Africans as equals, to consider self-government for African countries and apply the same standard of dignity and human rights to Africans as bestowed on Europeans.

By 1945 the strategy and focus had changed. No more pious appeals but a militant demand for Africa to be governed by Africans: Freedom by whatever means possible. The major document of the Congress, Declaration to the Colonial and subject peoples of the World' authored Kwame Nkrumah (founding President of Ghana, voted African of the Millennium by BBC world Service listeners) asserted the right to self determination by declaring: 'We believe in the rights of all peoples to govern themselves. WE affirm the rights of all colonial peoples to control their own destiny. All colonies must be free from foreign imperialist control, whether political or economic. The peoples of the colonies must have the right to elect their own government, a government without restrictions from a foreign power. We say to the peoples of the colonies that they must strive for these ends by all means at their disposal'. It concluded by stating that ' … there is only one road to effective action-the organisation of the masses'. Organised they did. Within a decade of this declaration the colonial map of Africa and the world began to shrink as the anti colonial struggles in Asia and Africa gathered momentum and colonial powers retreated in different directions. First India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in Asia and Ghana blazed the trail in Africa by gaining its independence in 1956. After that many of the countries became independent in the 1960s with the exemption of racist settler regimes in Southern Africa and former Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique which had to wage armed struggles before gaining political independence.

What happened to the great hopes about African Unity after the initial success of the nationalist movements? The decade of the 1960s was the high point of African desire for freedom and equality with other peoples of the world. Soon after independence educational opportunities opened up, infrastructures improved and in the first decade most of the countries witnessed rapid growth in their economies. But the development was not sustainable in the long run. The powerful alliance of the elite and the masses that brought UHURU (freedom) collapsed as the new elite became self-serving allied to metropolitan interests of former colonial powers. As it distanced itself from the people it resorted to naked oppression and exploitation to retain power. Politics of exclusion became the order of the day as the elite to capture and retain power exploited religious and regional differences. The interests of the masses became secondary to the desires of the newly bourgeoisified African elite. One party dictatorship, life presidency and military coups became the order of the day.

Two external reasons also contributed greatly to the collapse of the dreams. One, is the cold war between the West led by the USA in NATO and the East led by the USSR and the WARSAW pact countries. Africa again lost its own self-determination as countries and governments became allies of either powers not because of what they did or did not do for their peoples but their allegiance to extra African powers. Objectionable regimes like that of Mobutu in former Zaire, KANU in Kenya, Bokassa in Central Africa, Idi Amin in Uganda became 'moderate pro western ' allies while killer regimes like Mengistu Haile Meriam in Ethiopia or Late Siad Barre in Somalia were 'socialist' allies of Moscow. Some of them like Barre even changed sides by whims. The other external factor concerns the nature of the economy inherited by the postcolonial regimes. The economy was built by colonial powers to serve colonial interests. Often they were based on the production of primary raw materials for the colonial countries. It was an economy that encouraged the production of what the countries did not consume and the consumption of what they did not produce. And the industrialised countries determined the prices of both. Worsening terms of International Trade in commodities and a rising cost of imported consumables meant that most of the countries were caught in balance of payment crises. They used soft loans from the West and East to shore up the difference. By the 1970s Africa entered the decade economists refer to as 'the lost decade' during which the foundations for the unpayable debt burden of today was laid. Corruption, graft and authoritarianism became the dominant character of the state.

The phenomenon of neocolonialism (i.e. Political independence without economic independence) is what this system is called. Western multi national corporations dominated the resources and exploited them with the active collaboration of Africa's political and military elite and their cronies.

With the cold war thawing in the late 80s Africa was not in any position to reap the so-called peace dividend expected from the end of the war. The English say: ' When two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers'. The opposite is also true: 'if two elephants play or make love the grass still suffers'. That is why recolonisation threatens Africa today. There are two basic aspects to this process. One, the state and key economic and financial decisions are firmly controlled by the IMF/WB while the civil society are being reconstituted by rich and powerful Western NGOs who have become the major source of development Aid and Humanitarian assistance to Africa. As if this is not bad enough it has now become fashionable to hear Western journalists, humanitarian 'experts' or even so called 'frank' Africans and Africanists advocating a return to some kind of colonialism (probably under UN mandate) as a remedy for Africa. The arrogant ignorance exposed by this suggestion is the fact that colonialism never really left Africa. Like the deadly AIDS virus it merely mutated.


Is there away out?

It may sound esoteric or incorrigibly optimistic in many quarters to suggest that there is hope for Africa. The well respected dining bible of thinking liberals and business people, The Economist, of London recently joined the growing ranks of Afro Pessimists in a cover story, Hopeless Africa. Hope is not what somebody else bestows on another person or group of persons. It is what you give to yourself. Considering that at the beginning of this century most of Africa, (with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia and Egypt) were colonial territories, it was not surprising that the first Pan African conference did not get much mention in the press of those days. Little did the pundits of those days realise the historical significance of the small number of 'disgruntled colonialists' gathered at the Westminister Central hall?

Similarly the deluge of bad news from Africa that dominates perception of Africa today will not allow many people to see some of the significant changes that are taking place amidst all the chaos so gleefully reported. There is resurgence in Pan Africanism in a number of ways and among different forces for a variety of reasons.

One, if Pan Africanism did not exist before we would have had to create it now. It is no longer a debate whether Pan Africanism is desirable but how it could be achieved. At the state level the neo colonial project has collapsed in many of the states. The long life that most of the unviable African states enjoyed due to the artificial life support of the cold war has now come to an end. A Majority of our states is no longer important. The response has been at state level to seek relevance through regional and sub-regional cooperation. Thus there has been a renewed interest and attention in regional institutions. For example the East Africa Community that collapsed largely out of political differences between Tanzania and Uganda has been revamped in recent years culminating in the signing of the East African Cooperation treaty in December 1999. It makes East Africa one economic community and has set up institutions for managing monetary and fiscal policies. There is an East African passport and also standardization and harmonisation of professional and training qualifications. More importantly unlike in the failed past civil society forces and other stake holders across the region were consulted and involved in the treaty negotiations before the heads of state sign them into law. The treaty envisages eventual political union but for now sets up regional parliament elected from the parliament of the cooperating countries instead of being appointed by the various governments as in the past. There is also provision for a regional judiciary though civil society groups criticised it as not having enough powers but it opens up new opportunities through which citizens can have a recourse to the law outside of their countries.

The Southern Africa Development and Co-operation Council has received positive boost from post apartheid South Africa. Its technical and financial institutions are probably more developed and integrated than other regional institutions due to the fact that the level of industrialization and maturity of capital is much higher than in other regions in Africa.

There is also the Maghreb union of North African Countries. As predominantly Arabic speaking and predominantly Muslim countries in addition to political and economic linkages they have compelling cultural linkages that facilitate freedom of movement, goods and services.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that celebrated its 25-year of existence this year has achieved limited successes in the area of freedom of goods and services and freedom of movement for peoples.

However the renewed interest in regional integration is constrained by a number of factors. One, political rivalries and relative losers and winners in any attempt at a common economic community. For example southern African countries feel at a disadvantage in relation to the hegemony of a relative new comer to SADCC, South Africa. Leaders like Mugabe dispute the leadership conferred on post apartheid South Africa largely because of the size of the economy. There is caution about South Africa's leadership in the region and across Africa in general because although it is ruled politically by a Black elite but effectively still under apartheid economic relations.

In West Africa historical rivalries between former British and French colonies have made regional integration difficult. However since France acceded to full European monetary union through the Euro the historical link between France and its former colonies through the common currency of CFA backed by the French Central Bank has been broken. France could not take them into Europe and these countries and their worthless currencies are now discovering that they are African countries after all. In East Africa, in spite of all optimism political tension is still a hindrance to expanding the EAC to include Rwanda, Burundi and even the DRC.

Even the seeming cultural linkage of the Maghreb countries has not made them immune to these political rivalries.

Two, with wars between and within some of the cooperating countries regional military alliances and regime security arrangements have taken precedence over wider human security. Consequently ECOWAS is better known in recent years for military intervention through the ECOMOG, in Liberia and Sierra-Leone whereas some SADCC countries are militarily involved in the DRC.

Third, these regional organisations tend to focus more on narrow economic integration. Like the British in Europe, they want closer economic cooperation but are not prepared to bear the political consequences of that effort. They want freedom of movement for goods and services but are not prepared for Labour and people to be free.

Four, there is also the real danger that regionalism may become an obstacle to the full integration and unity of Africa which is the maximum agenda of all Pan Africanists. Regionalism may not be the half way house towards Pan Africanism but a hospice to unity. The potential for regional rivalries are immense especially along the lines of still latent, Francophone, Anglophone, Lusophone, Arab phone and all other phony phones that divide Africa. For instance smaller countries reject the assumed leadership of bigger countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, or the pretensions of relatively better resource countries like Libya. Others are distrustful of the ambitions of some of the so-called 'new leaders' from Kampala through Kigali to Asmara and Addis Ababa .


Pan African responses
In addition to the sub-regional imperatives of the unity agenda there are also important developments at the continental level. The much-maligned Organisation of African Unity is not standing still. There are important reforms taking place in it to make it more relevant.

Its major weakness has to do with the fact that though it grew out of a popular desire for unity and the direct result of mass activism in the pre independence period, it became state-led and exclusive leaders' forum. As the initial alliance between the leaders and the masses fell apart the OAU became the most powerful trade union on the African continent: A trade union of oppressors armed to their teeth. However as the nature of African governments, under tremendous internal and external pressures began to change in the last few years, those changes are having effect on the OAU too.

A time was when the organisation was dominated by generals but it is no longer the case. Indeed to the pleasant surprise of many Africans the 36rth Summit of heads of state and government in Algiers, July 1999, for the first time in the history of the OAU passed a unanimous resolution banning the admission of any leader who had overthrown a democratic government from future summits. As if to test its new resolve, the military overthrew the elected government of Cote d'Ivoire on Christmas eve, 1999. The OAU has since refused to admit the junta into OAU meetings. With this precedence a new standard is being set not only for joining the organisation but also for retaining membership.

Since the Cairo summit of 1994 it has become customary not to allow states that have not paid their dues to the OAU to participate in the summits. This has renewed active commitment to the OAU and help in alleviating some of its perennial lack of resources.

The OAU continues to provide diplomatic and political framework for peaceful settlement of some of the violent conflicts on the continent. It may not have succeeded in bringing peace in all of them but whenever final peace is negotiated OAU frameworks are often the basic documents around which previously belligerent forces agree.

By far the most important development in the OAU in recent times is the extra ordinary summit in Sirte, Libya, in September 1999. The Sirte declaration called for an immediate union of Africa and efforts to be made to accelerate the process. In a sense it is not a new initiative rather it seeks to activate many of the key elements of African unity that have been agreed many years before but gathering dust on the shelves. They include agreement on an African Parliament, Economic community, freedom of movement, goods and services, common citizenship, end to violent conflicts, etc. The Libyan initiative, given the enormous financial resources available to it and its current Pan Africanist focus would give the unity project a much-needed boost. It has to be said that Libya does have both economic ands diplomatic clout in Africa to energize the situation. It is also true that Africa has provided enormous diplomatic and political leverage to Libya in its most difficult Lockerbie-inspired international pariah status period. Therefore it is not a one way or one off matter.

Some of the internal structural changes in the OAU will also help it to renew itself. It is opening up to civil society and NGOs. Already in the African Commission on Human and Peoples rights, human rights groups and pro democracy organisations have shown the kind of qualitative value addition that such openness can bring to the organisation. It is largely under their collective patient work and dynamic cooperation that an African court on human rights has been agreed. It is an indication of the changing atmosphere that all African states have now signed up to the charter of the Commission.


Pan Africanism from below

The most fundamental change taking place in Africa today is not so much the real politic alignments among states and leaders but the resurgence, resilience and new confidence of civil society, NGOs and new democratic forces across the continent raising new issues, claiming new spaces and deepening the democratic debate. All these are impacting on the historical agenda of African Unity. In the past most of these groups regarded the OAU as a toothless bulldog but in recent years some of them are demanding and making entry points into the OAU and sub-regional organisations. They are securing full observer status in OAU agencies. For instance the Pan African Movement, Inter Africa group and a number of African women and professional organisations attend OAU summits and participate in many of its agencies' activities. The challenge is to increase the effective participation of such groups. As part of the OAU reforms civil society organisations must push for people's forums at the OAU and use them to advance an inclusive African unity agenda as opposed to the historical leaders' forum. It does not make sense that African NGOs and civil society groups lobby the UN, EU, and even the IMF and World Bank but are reluctant to or unwilling to do the same with African regional and sub-regional organisations. Issues of citizenship, freedom of movement for African peoples in Africa, human rights, human rights court, Parliament, Peace and human security are stake holder issues that civil society can and must enrich and secure. The states are obsessed with trade and commerce; it is the civil society that can put the social contract in the programme.

The future

Were Sylvester Williams and his colleagues to wake up from their graves they would have been saddened by the current state of Africa. The self determination they called for, which was achieved by the 1960s formally freed Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, Algeria, South Africa, Angola and many more but it ensnared Africa. As we forced ourselves to create Beninois, Togolese, Tunisian, Camerounian. Or the Mozambican, the African disappeared. The arbitrary colonial borders imposed by foreign companies and imperialists, who cared less for our culture, tradition and history, have become prisons for our souls, creativity and freedom and fetters to our collective progress and aspirations as peoples.

But they can take comfort from the fact that the African Unity agenda is not dead. It remains the only basis upon which the Africans can reclaim their dignity and become equal partners with the rest of humanity. The conflict in the DRC and the suicidal war between Ethiopia and Eritrea to mention only two of the many unjust wars in contemporary Africa is not the evidence for failure of Pan Africanism but rather tragic demonstration of its necessity. If Ethiopia and Eritrea remained part of the same economic community (as agreed after Eritrea's independence in 1993 and it continued till 1997) borders would not have become a source of armed conflict. If the Pan Africanist alliance that inspired the unprecedented Pan African military alliance that led to Mobutu's exit in the former Zaire had been complimented by a Pan Africanist programme that connects the peoples of the region instead of just the leaders the current mess could have been avoided.

Were African countries need to negotiate with the rest of the world especially with the IMF and World Bank as a collective instead of disparate cacophonous voices of largely unviable states, they would then have better leverage and greater influence. The choice facing Africa therefore is not between chaos and recolonisation as propounded by many wishy- washy- do-gooders and recently strutted out by RW Johnson, appropriately in the London Telegraph (22 May 2000) but a choice between Pan Africanism and Recolonisation. And our recent discussion on the BBC world Service on whether Africa needs to be recolonised or not would have saved the British tax payers a few pounds from yet another unnecessary programme from the British information nanny.

Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem
General-Secretary, Pan African Movement

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