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date: 19 January 2021

The Prospects and Challenges of Pan-Africanismfree

  • Toyin FalolaToyin FalolaDepartment of History, The University of Texas at Austin
  •  and Chukwuemeka AgboChukwuemeka AgboDepartment of History, The University of Texas at Austin


In line with Thomas Hodgkin’s assertion, the search for Africa’s struggle for liberation, equality, self-determination and the dignity of the African is traceable to the result of the centuries of relationship between Africa and Europe dating at least since the 15th century. That association left Africa at the lowest ebb of the racial pyramid which Europeans had formed. As Africans at home and diaspora began to gain Western education, they began to question the racial and discriminatory ideas of whites against black people. They initiated the campaign for African equality with other races drawing inspiration from Africa’s culture and history to argue that Africa had contributed to world development just like any other race. At home in Africa, this new class of elites launched the struggle for the end of colonial domination in the continent. This movement to lift Africa out of the pit of subordination became known as Pan-Africanism. The movement has recorded tremendous successes, an outstanding example being the decolonization of the continent and the improved position of Africans in diaspora. Scholars have done a great deal of work on these movements and successes. Nevertheless, there is urgent need for a critical appraisal of 21st-century Pan-Africanism.


A meaningful dialogue on any aspect of Pan-Africanism should first deal with an introductory analysis of the events that led to the Pan-African struggle. Pan-Africanism, viewed either as an ideology or as a movement, was a response to the outcome of centuries of intercontinental contacts which resulted in diverse manifestations of political, intellectual, economic, and sociocultural relationships between Africans and their European partners. These relationships occurred both on the African continent and outside. They were shaped by the political, social, and economic exigencies of the times in which they occurred. Africans and their European partners also responded to each other according to the demands of that period. These relationships had merits for both parties as well as demerits. Several scholars have argued for or against one party, but this is not the focus of this article. From the beginning, therefore, it is important to understand (albeit in a very condensed form) the events that pushed Africa into a struggle to lift itself out of the dungeon of inferiority where the white supremacists had confined it to the place of liberty, equality, and pride in being African.

The literature on the nature of the relationships that existed between Africans and the Europeans, both on the African continent and outside, is impressive. The diversity of themes covered is also commendable. For instance, Kenneth Dike’s study of trade in the Niger Delta examines the economic and political relationship that existed between African middlemen along the coast of West Africa and their European visitors interested in the international trade of the area, especially African slaves (see Dike, 1956). The quest among European countries for the expansion of their political and economic influences amidst their struggle for supremacy triggered a series of explorations beyond the then known world, bringing the peoples of Europe in contact with peoples of diverse racial, cultural, religious, political, and economic backgrounds in locations lying far beyond the shores of Europe. It was during these events that Europeans moved to the Americas, called the “New World.” It was also this quests that led to European contacts with Africa dating as far back as the 15th century.

As Thomas Hodgkin rightly observed, “the explanation of a major political event in a given African territory must be sought outside, as well as within the territory” (Hodgkin, 1957, p. 12). Events leading to the expansion of European interests to Africa have their roots in the expansion to the New World and the need to exploit its resources. British colonialists in the Americas did not find the labors of the American Indians and white indentured servants adequate and profitable for their economic interests in the plantation economy of the era. This led to a turn to Africa as the principal supplier of the highly needed labor of the New World plantation economy (see, for instance, Brands, Breen, Gross, & Williams, 2008). What followed was a period of more than three centuries of trade in human beings sourced from different parts of Africa and sold to the Europeans along the Coast for onward shipment to the New World. This era of forceful emigration of peoples of African descent to different parts of the world gave rise to the creation of African diasporic communities around the world. The period of the Atlantic slave trade, as the traffic in human beings came to be known, was marked with unequal relationship between white European masters and their African slaves. Race and skin color were a fundamental basis of the relationship between Europeans and Africans. Because Europeans were the inventors of racial stratification, they naturally put themselves at the apex of the pyramid while every other race came below according to skin pigmentation. Africa was placed at the lowest ebb of the ladder. Everything black or African was looked upon as bad or, at best, not good enough. It was the racial discrimination which started during this period that continued into the post-abolition era (for more on stereotypes against Africa, see Keim, 1999).

On the African continent, Afro-European relations were also developing along the same lines. The nature of the relationship that existed between Africa and Europe before the dawn of the 20th century was characterized by trade and exchange. Beginning from 1900, however, the nature of that relationship experienced a dramatic shift from a seemingly equal relationship to that of domination, control, and imperialism (Falola & Agbo, 2018a, p. 81). This new type of relationship made way for colonial control of the continent. Thus, in Africa as well as outside, the experiences of black people were similar in many ways. Slavery had reduced the black person to the level of a property which could be bought and sold at will. Even after the abolition, white Europeans refused to recognize Africans as their equals. The abolitionists might have succeeded in their campaign against the trade, but the institution of slavery had left an enduring legacy (regrettably a negative one), which blacks all over the world would have to grapple with for many years to come. It is against the background of this unfortunate legacy of slavery and colonialism that Pan-Africanism was developed to fight for the dignity and liberty of the black man and to assert his humanity.

This article is not about rewriting the history of Pan-Africanism; many scholars, some of whom are referenced herein, have done so much on this already (for a few examples, see Langley, 1973; M’buyinga, 1975). Our concern here is to appraise the idea and movement that is now known and referred to as Pan-Africanism and to suggest, based on the outcome of the operation, what future likely awaits it. As the title suggests, the major crux of this article is to critically examine the challenges facing Pan-Africanism and the prospects for a brighter or gloomier (as the case may be) future for the movement. To better appraise Pan-Africanism, this article will highlight the various conceptualizations of Pan-Africanism and how they have played out in Africa’s history.

Also, the article examines the challenges of Pan-Africanism in light of the current political, social, and economic realities in Africa. By juxtaposing current experience in Africa against the goals of the founding fathers of Pan-Africanism, the reader would be better able to answer the following question: judging from the trajectory of developments in Africa’s sociopolitical and economic arena, can it be said that the state of Africa today is in conformity with the goal of the Pan-African agenda? A critical reflection on the future of Pan-Africanism shows that the best approach to understanding its prospects requires asking questions drawn from careful study of the development of Pan-Africanism. The questions are meant, in some cases, to challenge the negative trends in African history which now pose serious threats to the Pan-African agenda and, in other cases, to open up new themes calling for scholarly research and to stimulate intellectual dialogues and debates on such subjects.

Understanding the Concept of Pan-Africanism

Scholars have proffered various definitions for Pan-Africanism. From the early days of the movement, pioneer Pan-Africanists such as W. E. B. DuBois have linked Pan-Africanism to the intellectual campaign for “the industrial and spiritual emancipation of the Negro people” (DuBois, 1933, p. 345). To better appreciate the different operationalizations of Pan-Africanism, it is important to first take a brief look at its evolution. Adekunle Ajala identifies three phases in the evolution of Pan-Africanism. First is the coming together of the African diaspora to fight a common enemy—white racism and superiority ideas. The second is the nationalization of Pan-Africanism during which time focus on political agitation began to shift to individual territories in Africa. This was followed by the formation of territorial nationalist movements. The third phase corresponds to the ending of colonial rule completely in Africa and the unification of Africa. Ajala connects the beginning of Pan-Africanism to the injustices suffered by people of African descent in America (as well as in other parts of the world where they were scattered including their own homeland, Africa, where they suffered the oppressions of colonialism and the imperial government). As a result, racially discriminatory measures led to the idea of unity and solidarity among them (Ajala, 1974, p. 102).

In his foreword to Pan-Africanism: Exploring the Contradictions (Ackah, 1999), Barry Munslow suggests that Pan-Africanism is a struggle for equality between Africa and the developed world. Biko Agozino, the series editor, in his preface writes that “the view of Pan-Africanism as something that goes beyond skin color or place of birth is close to the history of the struggle of Africans to survive white supremacist aggression” (Agozino, in Ackah, 1999, p. xiii). For Agozino, the Pan-African ideology and movement “is not about hating white people or about black identity but about struggle for African self-determination” (in Ackah, 1999, p. xv). For William Ackah himself, Pan-Africanism is a struggle by black people both in continental Africa and the diaspora to define one’s identity and recover one’s being (Ackah, 1999, pp. 1–3). It is “a movement by Africans for Africans in response to European ideas of superiority and acts of imperialism” (Ackah, 1999, p. 12). The so-called European ideas of superiority took different forms: racial, cultural, political, ideological, economic, social, and religious.

Ackah outlines four major thematic approaches to studying Pan-Africanism. The first is Pan-Africanism as a universal expression of black pride and achievement. This approach defends black culture and projects, ideas of distinct black contributions to humanity and civilization. An important example here is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Advocates of this approach include Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Leopold Senghor, Cesaire, Marcus Garvey, and Malcom X. It was in line with this thought pattern that E. W. Blyden and Kwame Nkrumah propagated the idea of African personality while the likes of Steve Biko advanced the black consciousness movement in South Africa in the 1970s. Molefi Asante, who was also among the proponents of this idea, based his Afrocentric agitation and movement on this approach.

The second approach that Ackah identifies for the study of Pan-Africanism is the back-to-Africa movement. This approach was mostly associated with Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Union which he founded in 1914 in Jamaica. Other 19th-century advocates of the back-to-Africa movement were Martin Delaney and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. In the 20th century, DuBois, Stokely Carmichael, and Maya Angelou pushed the idea of a return to Africa further. Ackah links the idea of return to Africa to the persistence of black cultural identity in the diaspora and the undying desire of the African diaspora to maintain an unbroken connection with their homeland, Africa (see Ackah, 1999, p. 15; Holloway, 2005).

The third approach for studying Pan-Africanism is to see Pan-Africanism as a harbinger of liberation. Slavery, racism, and colonialism often present Africans and black people in diaspora in the imaginations of Eurocentrists as second-class and inferior, as property to be bought, sold, and trashed whenever the owner felt like it. Africans realized that although they had many differentiating characteristics, they all shared similar experiences especially in their relationship with white Eurocentrists. Prominent Africans thus began a series of campaigns for the liberation of Africa especially from the shackles of colonialism. For example, Frantz Fanon undertook the campaign to end colonialism in Algeria after World War II. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was followed by intense resistance from black people around the world. Movements toward liberation in one place led to the eruption of similar approaches for the attainment of liberation in others. For example, when Ghana (the former Gold Coast) became independent in 1957, Nkrumah took the opportunity his independence speech offered to challenge every independent African state to support those yet to gain independence in their struggle for liberty. In his speech, he states as follows: “I have never regarded the struggle for the independence of the Gold Coast as an isolated objective but always as part of a general world historical pattern. The African in every territory of this vast continent has been awakened and the struggle for freedom will go on. It is our duty as the vanguard force to offer what assistance we can to those now engaged in the battles that we ourselves have fought and won. Our task is not done and our own safety is not assured until the last vestiges of colonialism have been swept from Africa” (Nkrumah, 1973, p. 290).

Thus, Ghana became a model of freedom and an inspiration to other African nations still under colonial rule. The result of this was the massive attainment of independence by many African countries in the 1960s. In 1960 alone, just three years after Ghana’s independence in 1957, 17 African countries became independent too. These countries are Cameroon, January 1; Togo, April 27; Madagascar, June 26; Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 30; Somalia, July 1; Benin, August 1; Niger, August 3; Burkina Faso, August 5; Ivory Coast, August 7; Chad, August 11; Central African Republic, August 13; The Republic of the Congo, August 15; Gabon, August 17; Senegal, August 20; Mali, September 22; Nigeria, October 1; and Mauritania, November 28 (for more details on this occurrence, see France 24, 2010).

The fourth approach for studying Pan-Africanism identified by Ackah is to see Pan-Africanism as a movement for the political (it is equally important to add economic) integration and unification of Africa. This idea became prominent in 1945, after the end of World War II. Nkrumah was its major advocate, pushing for a United States of Africa, an ideology which proposed that the only way to effectively conquer colonial imperialism was through the formation of a unitary radical socialist government across Africa. Other supporters of integration in Africa included C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, and Walter Rodney. However, it was Nkrumah who pushed the idea beyond the limits, but the philosophy would not be actualized because Nkrumah’s contemporaries in many other African states refused to adopt his notion of unity. They chose instead to concern themselves first with ending colonialism in their states. Had they all become independent when Nkrumah was vibrantly pushing for the unification of Africa, the proposal would still not have been adopted. The leaders were of the opinion that political and economic integration among African states would be a gradual process. While Nkrumah favored a strong unitary state, his counterparts supported loose cooperation among African states. The result of the compromise, arrived at after a series of meetings, was the formation in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity, OAU (now African Union, AU). Other regional integration schemes also began to emerge. Examples include the East African Community (EAC), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It was hoped that the regional-level integrations would serve as the bedrock for the complete unification of the continent.

The introduction to the Charter of the Organization of African Unity and the purpose of forming the organization suggest that Pan-African ideologies dominated the vision behind the OAU’s formation. For instance, the introduction states as follows: “convinced that it is the inalienable right of all people to control their own destiny, conscious of the fact that freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples, conscious of our responsibility to harness the natural and human resources of our continent for the total advancement of our peoples in all spheres of human endeavor, inspired by a common determination to promote understanding among our peoples and cooperation among our states in response to the aspirations of our peoples for brother-hood and solidarity, in a larger unity transcending ethnic and national differences” (see Charter of the Organization of African Unity). Also, the charter states that the purpose of establishing the organization includes the promotion of unity and solidarity of the African states; to coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa; to defend their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence; and to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa (see Article II of the OAU Charter).

The Constitutive Act of the African Union which replaced the OAU sets the Pan-Africanist agenda of the continental organization more clearly. The Act reads: “inspired by the noble ideals which guided the founding fathers of our Continental Organization and generations of Pan Africanists in their determination to promote unity, solidarity, cohesion and cooperation among the peoples of Africa and African States” (see the introduction to the Constitutive Act of the African Union). There is need for scholars to study the role of the OAU/AU in advancing Pan-Africanism in Africa. It is clear, however, that the organization did significantly well in its goal to free Africa from all forms of imperial domination and its success in ensuring a united Africa through its many peacekeeping missions is not in doubt. The East African Commission succeeded in forming an economic partnership with the Southern Africa Development Commission, leading to the formation of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

Looking at current political and economic occurrences in Africa, some questions must necessarily be answered if any idea of Pan-Africanism would make sense in the 21st century. With the brain drain which continues to deplete the African skilled and unskilled labor force, who will unite to build Africa? Given the level of ethnic and religious differences prevalent among Africans, is a united Africa possible? Even more troubling is the breed of leaders who have emerged and still exist in many African societies. The last two years have seen the collapse of two dictatorial regimes in Gambia and Zimbabwe. Yet, dictatorship, gross abuse of political power, and human rights violations prevail in many African nations. The dignity and sanctity of human life are degraded on a daily basis. Many children of school age are out of school due mainly to economic hardship. Many African women are still victims of inequality in relation to men. Access to formal education for the girl child in many African states is still below average, pregnant women lack access to quality healthcare, while young girls continue to fall victims of underage marriages. The implication of these and other negative trends is that the future of Africa is bleak. Lack of access to quality education robs these children of the opportunity to fully develop their mental capacity. If this trend continues, Africa will continue to lose out on its human capital. Unemployment, caused mainly by the failure of leadership to effectively manage the economy and constant abuse of official privileges, continues to increase. The crime rate is therefore bound to rise, and all forms of social vices are bound to continue. Lack of effective political structure for the selection of leaders has been worsened by political thuggery and massive rigging of the electoral process, leaving Africa with self-serving leaders whose time in office (not to forget that some have sworn never to relinquish power when their time is up) is spent looting public funds and witch-hunting perceived and imaginary political opponents. With all these challenges staring Africa in the face, Africanists are left to wonder if the realization of the principles of unity, self-determination, and equality, among others, underpinning Pan-Africanism is possible.

At the pinnacle of the Pan-African agitation is the quest for African unity. However, given the many dividing lines that exist between diverse African groups, a careful observer cannot help but ask if a truly united Africa is achievable. Taking the example of Nigeria alone, divisions based on ethnic and religious affiliations have been rife in the country’s history. Ethnicity lies at the center of the issues that led to the gruesome civil war which was fought between 1967 and 1970. Millions of lives were lost and several properties amounting to millions of dollars were equally lost, not to mention the emotional trauma and health risks that human beings (especially women and children) were exposed to during and after the war (for a detailed account of the plight of women and children during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, see Uchendu, 2007). Since the end of the war, Nigerian unity has remained fragile and ethnic and religious tensions often result in the killings and loss of human and other resources of the state. Currently, many political observers and commentators believe that Nigeria is violent and unstable. The government in power since 2015 has shown a total disconnection from the realities on the ground. Given its nonchalant behavior toward the killings of people across the country, the government has been accused by its critics of insensitivity to people’s lives while also institutionalizing nepotism and corruption which it claims to be fighting. Mass burials witnessed in Nigeria under the current administration have not been recorded anywhere in the country since the civil war. As another period of elections approaches in 2019, tensions in the political space threaten, more than ever, peace, security, and human rights in the country. Political assassinations have returned to the society, and contempt of court orders (see Mbachu & Ibukun, 2018, for an analysis of the presidential contempt of court orders in Nigeria) and constitutional provisions are common with the government in power. In a recent statement by the Nigerian president, he displayed his total disregard for the rule of law by telling the judiciary at its 2018 conference that he would place national security over and above the rule of law. Even though he has been criticized for this statement, the actions by his administration confirm his position, thereby constantly creating tension in the country. Nigeria is only one example among many others in Africa, some of which will still be highlighted in this article. Can a continent faced with these challenges claim to be moving toward unity? William Ackah is, therefore, correct when he referred to Africa as “a continent in turmoil” (Ackah, 1999, p. 18). Violent attacks on innocent citizens have also been witnessed and left unchecked in Cameroon under Paul Biya.

P. Olisanwuche Esedebe begins his discussion of Pan-Africanism by stating that scholars have yet to arrive at a generally accepted definition of Pan-Africanism. This is mainly due to three factors. First is “the tendency to overplay one aspect of the phenomenon at the expense of the other. Second, is the heavy reliance on the records of the European colonial administrations, all of which were hostile to the movement and did their utmost to suppress or even destroy it. Lastly, is the failure to distinguish between what is Pan-African and what is not” (Esedebe, 1982, pp. 4–5). For Esedebe, however, certain elements generally characterize every Pan-African agitation. These include: “Africa as the homeland of Africans and persons of African origin, solidarity among men of African descent, belief in a distinct African personality, rehabilitation of Africa’s past, pride in African culture, Africa for Africans in church and state, the hope for a united and glorious future Africa” (Esedebe, 1982, p. 3). These elements or a combination of them, he observes, “form the principal aims of twentieth century Pan-African associations; they pervade the resolutions of Pan-African meetings held outside and inside the continent since 1900; they permeate the utterances and publications of men like W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Stokeley Carmichael” (Esedebe, 1982, p. 3). In his submission for what he calls a simplified definition of Pan-Africanism, Esedebe defines Pan-Africanism as “a political and cultural phenomenon which regards Africa, Africans and African descendants abroad as a unit. It seeks to regenerate and unify Africa and promote a feeling of oneness among the people of the African world. It glorifies the African past and inculcates pride in African values” (p. 3). Tracing its origin, Esedebe notes that Pan-African thinking originally began in the so-called New World becoming articulate during the century starting from the declaration of American independence (1776). It represents a reaction against the oppression of the black man and the racial doctrines that marked the era of abolitionism. It also found expression in the independent church movement in the New World and Africa as well as in resistance to European colonial ambitions in Africa (Esedebe, 1982, p. 7).

Beside these select references, many other scholars interested in the study of Pan-Africanism have given their own views on the subject. In this article, Pan-Africanism is defined as a political, economic, and cultural philosophy and movement developed by Africans to challenge white supremacist ideas about Africa and Africans, to assert the dignity of the African person, to free the continent and its people from external control, to lead its people toward unity and cooperation, and to promote pride in African culture. Whatever the perspective of any scholar on Pan-Africanism, the concept must be seen as both an ideology and a movement. As an ideology, it refers to the formulation of thoughts aimed at challenging the superiorist imaginations of whites against blacks and their domination of black people in their own homeland as well as in the diaspora. As a movement, it is the study of the totality of the activities of black people and men sympathetic to the plight of black people and the injustices they have faced all over the world in their struggle to obtain freedom from oppression and equality with white people. The discussion on Pan-Africanism also shows that the idea and movement are responses by black people to the unfortunate legacies of slavery and the slave trade and colonialism which manifests mostly in racial discrimination.

There is also a connection between Pan-Africanism and nationalism in Africa. Thomas Hodgkin offers an interesting analysis of the politics among European powers which led to contact with Africa, and after many years of a relationship, nationalist ideas pushed Africans, under the cover of the Pan-African movement, to resist white domination while also fighting for their freedom. In his exposition on the colonial problem, he observes that the subject could be broken up into three categories. First, the early 20th century witnessed the competition for colonial possessions as a factor tending to promote or intensify conflict between the major European powers. During the interwar years (1918–1939) the second category of the colonial problem shifted to the problem of the social ends to be sought and the administrative methods to be used by the colonial powers in the territories they controlled. The third shift occurred by the mid-20th century, focusing on the problem of the relationship between Europe and its outpost communities in Africa, on the one hand, and the indigenous African societies on the other hand. Put crudely, it means what adjustments, compromises, surrenders, must the European colonial powers and their settlers make in the face of the claims of African nationalism (Hodgkin, 1957, pp. 9–10)? This article will mostly consider this subject in light of the third conceptualization of the colonial problem.

Agitation against colonialism in Africa began to lose steam on the international scene in the late 1950s. Within Africa, however, anticolonial ideas and movements gained momentum. Experiences during World War II had taught Africans that white people were not any different from them. They fought with whites under the same war conditions and saw that the whites were as vulnerable as they (the Africans) were. The return of Western-educated African elites who came back to Africa with liberation ideologies was also an important factor that undermined the influence of the colonialists in Africa. In a recent study of the role of the new elites in colonial Africa, Falola and Agbo have shown that they replaced the indigenous elites headed by chiefs and challenged the continued colonial domination of Africa (see Falola & Agbo, 2018b). The advantage of having received a Western education meant that the new elites understood both African and white cultures. Thus, the advantage of being at home in both worlds enhanced their bargaining power with the colonialists. The collapse of colonialism in other parts of the world, particularly Asia, and political developments within Africa itself also helped to undermine the influence of colonialism on the continent. Improved communication made it possible to reach many people within a very short time and through a well-organized channel. The advent of radio communication and newspapers like the West African Pilot in Nigeria and the Afrique Noire in French West Africa provided mass education for the people instead of limiting the reach of information to only a few elites (Hodgkin, 1957, pp. 11–14). Hodgkin considers Pan-Africanism to be a type of nationalism. Thus, he opines that nationalism is a “consciousness by individuals or groups to forward the strength, liberty, or prosperity of a nation” (Hodgkin, 1957, p. 20). There are, according to Hodgkin, five levels of nationalism and Pan-Africanism represents the highest level. The five levels are nationalism at the level of the language group, a particular colonial territory, a former colonial territory, a wider trans-territorial region, and Pan-Africanism (Hodgkin, 1957, p. 21).

Pan-Africanism: Confronting Its Challenges and Mapping a New African Future

Since its inception, Pan-Africanism has been confronted with many challenges. Some it was able to conquer; others are still very much present in contemporary Africa. We have established that Pan-Africanism is both an ideology as well as a movement. What best represents the conceptualization of Pan-Africanism as a movement in the early 21st century is the AU (formerly the OAU) and the 54 countries that make up Africa. To examine the challenges of Pan-Africanism, this section will highlight the state of Africa’s political and economic affairs over the last few years, drawing evidence from different countries in Africa. This section is important as it helps us to appreciate the future of Pan-Africanism and the African continent in light of these challenges and what adjustments must be made for a new and prosperous Africa to emerge.

The challenges of Pan-Africanism up to the 1960s have received some attention. While some of these pre-1960s challenges are still present and may be highlighted, this section will focus on the major issues confronting Pan-Africanism since the 1960s especially in the 21st century. The 1960s in African history is famous for the accelerated pace at which many African countries became independent. Independence came with high expectations for a better and prosperous Africa. But as political events began to unfold, the feelings of excitement and optimism were replaced with hopelessness, hardship, corruption, and poverty. In Nigeria, for instance, economic historian Onwuka Njoku, while analyzing the disappointments of the failure of the postcolonial state, observes as follows: “On October 1, 1960, Nigerians regained control of their destiny, including abundant human and natural resources. Expectations of a new era of prosperity and abundance ran high, and the economic prospects, buoyed by the discovery of crude oil, were most inviting, if not tantalizing. But the political leaders hastily blighted the prospects through lack of planning, prodigal financial indiscretion, and unbridled corruption. In the process, the leaders—military and civilian alike—immiserated the populace into a state of abject penury, amidst plenty. Colonial exploitation had given way to indigenous exploitation in which a tiny minority has all but privatized the common wealth” (Njoku, 2014, p. xii).

The hope of a prosperous future for Africa was truncated by massive leadership failures. As the issues examined here will show, the greatest challenge of Pan-Africanism is lack of ideology. It is evident that Pan-Africanism in the 21st century lacks a clear sense of focus and direction. The quality of leaders that the continent has for so many years produced is a clear indication of a continent that is yet to chart a course for itself. Post-independence Africa has yet to formulate a workable and realistic policy and ideological goals for itself. Year after year, government after government, Africa has continuously failed to uplift itself from the backwaters where racism and colonialism confined it. Unlike pre-independence African and nationalists, contemporary African leaders have yet to formulate a 21st-century agenda for Africa. Colonial subjugation and racism presented pre-independence African elites with a common enemy. With this in mind, these elites saw a common goal for Africa and focused all strategies toward the attainment of that goal: freedom, equality, black consciousness, and the dignity of the African person. Although these leaders had differing views on important issues, they shared in the belief that Africa needed to be free. Twenty-first-century African leaders lack the ideological direction that propelled the successes of these pre-independence leaders.

Among the many setbacks to Pan-Africanism is the absence of unity on the continent. One of the key foundations of Pan-Africanism is African unity. In reality, however, Africa is far from being united. The peoples of Africa are divided oftentimes along many lines, religion and ethnic affiliation are among the most common causes of disunity in Africa. In a public lecture presented at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, in 2015, Toyin Falola dissected the challenges of ethnicity in Nigeria (Falola, 2015). Moreover, Falola’s observations are equally true for many African countries. What follows are insights and excerpts from that lecture and how a culture of ethnicity serves as a stumbling block to the progress of Pan-Africanism and of Africa itself.

Falola posits that ethnicity is a major cankerworm militating against Africa’s development and modernization. Diversity is a source of strength. This diversity could be converted into the definition and management of politics. Indirect rule was grounded in a belief that people were fundamentally different, and it manipulated this diversity to manufacture the principles of governance. Diversity can be drawn from cleavages organized around languages and religions, race and ethnicities, gender and class. But the major source of diversity in Nigeria has been that of multiple ethnicities, some of which are even of recent historical origins in their composition but presented as both ancient and organic to the land. Irrespective of its historical origins and the use to which ethnicity is put, these multiple ethnicities give us limitless sources to draw knowledge and wisdom from. The country is beautiful because of its various peoples, cultures, and traditions. The limitless creativity is connected with the multiplicity of our groups, traditions, and religions. We enjoy this creative diversity in music, from that of Dennis Osadebey to that of Sunny Ade. We see it in the literature, the differences between the works of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe as each taps into his people’s world view. We enjoy it in poetry, in such works as that of Usman Dan Fodio and the Osidi Saga of the Ijo.

Development has spread to many places as cities and private and public jobs have expanded in all parts of the country. Entrepreneurs are able to operate in many places, with occasional constraints of mobility and conflicts. Yoruba traders flourish in Kano, Hausa traders flourish at Ibadan, Igbo merchants are all over the country. Yams from Benue State reach everywhere, with onions and tomatoes from the north to make the sauce and omelet to consume it. The base to develop tourism is expansive, from the Obudu Cattle Ranch in the southeast to Arugungu in the northwest. Not all is well with ethnicities in the realm of politics and building a united nation. Of the fundamental problems that beset Nigeria as a nation, ethnicity and the politics of ethnic divisions, the deficit of leadership, and underdevelopment rank as the highest. The three issues are also connected: ethnicity diminishes the ability to construct enduring civic institutions that are capable of focusing on merit when it is most needed, and to organize resistance for positive ends. Ethnicity affects the quality of leadership as it changes the criteria of choice away from meritocracy. Ethnicity promotes prebendal politics—the use of public resources to build political loyalty, reward allies, and punish so-called enemies, defined not just as individuals but also as an entire group or subgroup. It can be used to organize protest between one group and another, and between one group and those in power.

Ethnic politics requires a great deal of management, the construction of a pluralistic politicized system, such as federalism, to make it work and to prevent the constant destabilization of the nation-state. For, as many now live in what is called a state, an ethnic nation has all the criteria to convert itself into a “state” with its own name and identity. If carelessly or badly mismanaged, a big country can fragment into so many states organized on the basis of existing ethnic groups. Thus, some segments of the Yoruba, in the 1990s, called for an Oduduwa Republic. One that we are currently familiar with and experiencing as a country is the agitation for the Sovereign State of Biafra in the eastern part of the country. This current movement was largely responsible for the bloody civil war that ravaged Nigeria between 1967 and 1970.

Ethnic and linguistic agitations, such as those of the Oodua in the 1990s and Biafra, can easily acquire a nationalistic identity that calls for independence to form a new nation. This and similar agitation can become labeled as movements for liberation, as it is easier for an ethnic group to transform itself into a “nationalistic” force. The most potent way to organize against ineffective and corrupt centralized bureaucracy or authoritarian government is to mobilize members of an ethnic group using the rhetoric of a common ancestry, the language of shared suffering, the message of persecution, and the promise of a better future.

The management of the politics of ethnicities comes at a huge cost. Each group has to be satisfied as one sees in state creations which has led to massive expansion of bureaucracies, a high number of senators and members of the House of Representatives, a high number of state legislatures, and more. Wages and emoluments consume a lot and draw from the resources needed to lay the foundation of development. Politicians have to fight for certain rights and privileges. It is very difficult to separate politicians from the desire for personal enrichment. We talk more about personal enrichment but there are ethnic enrichments as well, as each wants development in his area. Everybody wants more of the same. To allocate public goods, politicians have to engage in compromises and horse-trading. If one area has a federal university, the other, too, must have one, otherwise, its people would complain of marginalization. Where there are duplications and lack of coordination, ethnicity becomes a burden to the overall development of the entire country. And we have yet to calculate the cost of running similar and parallel institutions in different parts of the country, the cost of maintaining peace, and the price of satisfying the politicians from all parts of the country. The political management of ethnicities via the instrumentality of democracy is expensive. The institutions of democracy itself can be connected with the messiness of cultures.

Ethnicity is further connected to other cultures which we have imbibed as a people. Like ethnicity, they have not helped in building up the African continent and advancing the course of Pan-Africanism. Linked to ethnic problems is the culture of nepotism. This has grossly affected how the scarce resources of many African countries are managed. Who gets what in Nigeria, for instance, is mostly always determined by where one comes from (the so-called federal character) instead of more important considerations such as need, skill, expertise, merit, and so on. Africans have turned their backs on these important values and promote a culture of mediocrity. There is always a fight going on between groups (for instance, we see the Hausa-Fulani, represented by the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, giving the Igbo in the North an eviction notice from that part of the country), each trying to dominate the other and to obtain major economic and political advantages (Falola, 2015, p. 14).

Another major source of diversity in Africa is religion. Religions of all varieties and traditions remain one of the most significant components of African cultures. Whether defined by their contents, symbols, culture encounters, sources of power, or authority, religion affects most aspects of African life and society. So strong is the impact of religion in shaping perceptions and values that it ultimately engenders conflict, since everybody cannot think alike or respond to issues in the same way. Beside the indigenous African religions, the continent is host to two of the world’s major religions—Christianity and Islam. The religious culture (especially with regard to Christianity and Islam) of placing one’s religion above another’s has been a source of continuous tensions. Older religions have struggled to revitalize themselves, and traditional religions have been sustained in the modern world by neotraditionalists who insist that the indigenous traditions of the past remain the best and most useful for moving Africa forward. These cultures have continued to clash.

To the assimilated elites, African indigenous religions and many aspects of its culture are inferior to Western-derived ones. Success has been defined in Western terms, along the lines of career and social mobility by the avoidance of a so-called primitive African milieu, and the condemnation of villages and rural cultures. Diversity of religious affiliations has been allowed to tear the continent apart. But this ought not to be so. There is need to build a culture that respects people’s religious inclinations and that is willing to skillfully blend elements of the old and new for development. Many of Africa’s institutions reveal inequalities on the basis of gender, including the exploitation of women and children and their marginalization in many political and economic sectors. Where these exist, society should rise against it and provide all its members with equal opportunities to maximize their full potential.

The example of Nigeria presented in this article is typical of the realities in most of Africa. Africans have failed to harness the gains of their diversity. Instead, they have focused more on its disadvantages. This failure manifested itself in xenophobic attacks in South Africa and conflicts between English-speaking and French-speaking Cameroonians, and targeted religious killings in Northern and Central Nigeria, to mention just a few. These violent attacks and killings contravene the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the African Union’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (see the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights).

Another major challenge of Pan-Africanism is the pervasive culture of corruption. The management of Africa’s economy, in spite of limited resources, increasing population, and exploitation by external forces, is affected by large-scale corruption. Corruption prevails in many of Africa’s political and economic institutions. The fact is, institutional corruption has its root in the colonial era. However, Africa has since independence not only continued with that culture but established and reinforced it in very unthinkable ways. This is largely responsible for keeping the continent perpetually behind in development in terms of both science and technology and political and economic power.

With the departure of the colonial powers, the state became the best source for those in power to accumulate wealth, not only at a fast pace but at minimal risk. In addition, since there are few individuals with sufficient wealth and savings to create businesses, the state again became the best source to generate new industries and a host of enterprises. By controlling the funds for development projects, the state became the best banking “source” for those interested in money. The control of state projects is of prime importance in acquiring access to wealth. These conditions breed corruption. Indeed, the nature of political system itself is corrupt. The political system manifests corruption.

Authoritarianism and a one-party system serve as agencies of corruption, with political leaders using the police and the army to destroy those who expose their bad habits and oppose their government and the unsatisfactory policies they produce. The cases of Uganda under Jameh and Zimbabwe under Mugabe are but a few among many instances. Power is used primarily to plunder; public money is used to acquire and consolidate power; and the distribution of public money in private hands is the strategy used to control people (Boone, 1990, pp. 425–449). Thus, government jobs can be expanded, even if the people have little or nothing to do, all in order to maintain the political system. Six people can do the job of one person, and not necessarily any more efficiently. Thus, we have a situation in which the government creates monopolies in a variety of businesses or in the supply of water and electricity, without any of them performing very well. The Nigerian Electricity Authority (now Power Holding Company of Nigeria) became, to the public, Never Expect Power Always. The Nigerian Airline, with an elephant as its logo, simply became an elephant that could not fly. State banks collapse, not because they lack customers but because they give loans that powerful people never pay back.

Political power has become a tool for witch-hunting perceived enemies. Many African leaders have now taken to making themselves presidents for life in their countries, often against the will of the people while also engaging the security apparatus of the state to threaten and intimidate every opposing voice. Dictatorships are fast reemerging in countries supposed to be democratic. For example, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe held on to power in his country between 1987 and 2017 when he was, with the help of the armed forces, forced to resign at the age of 93. Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola was in power from 1979 to 2017. Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the president of his country since 2001. In Cameroon, Paul Biya, its president, has been in power since 1982. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea has been president since 1979.

These dictators have all used force and violence to intimidate their citizens when they try to speak out against such unconstitutional conduct. They have engaged in flagrant disregard of the fundamental human rights of their peoples. They have also disregarded the directives of constitutionally instituted authorities. Writing about the constant disregard for judicial orders by the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, Dulue Mbachu, and Yinka Ibukun observe: When a Nigerian high court ruled this month that a former National Security Adviser should be freed on bail, it was the sixth such judgment since his detention in 2015. Authorities haven’t obeyed a single one. Critics of President Muhammadu Buhari say he’s picking and choosing which judgments to comply with, a stance that stirs uncomfortable echoes of his days as a military ruler in the 1980s. His government defends his actions as necessary to combat graft in the oil-rich West African country of almost 200 million people, a pledge that was key to Buhari’s victory in a 2015 vote and now to his hopes of re-election next year. “There is no constitutional basis whatsoever for disobeying a court order,” said Ernest Ojukwu, a professor of human rights and criminal law. “This is about impunity” (see Mbachu & Ibukun, 2018).

If corruption is limited to members of the political class, perhaps an anticorruption culture would condemn them and put them to shame. This has not been the case in many countries where corruption is becoming a way of life (Meredith, 2005, p. 173). There are cases where the police demand a protection fee, the postal clerk opens parcels, and university lecturers sell handouts, award grades for money, and abuse their students sexually. The private sector is not left out. Efforts to live above the effects of public sector corruption and the unhealthy policies of corrupt governments result in the indulgence in the private sector in corrupt practices as their strategy for keeping afloat (for an example of private sector corruption, see Uchendu & Agbo, 2015). The widespread nature of corruption results from leadership failure, worsening economic conditions, and survival strategies.

The fact is, there is a certain level of corruption in every country, but in the case of Africa, the quest to hide stolen money in foreign banks complicates the situation. Corruption enables the transfer of wealth abroad. Although foreign banks and Western governments are aware of the practice, they do little to stop it since they are benefiting from money deposited in their countries. Thus, the failure to use the money to generate local investments adds to the problems created by corruption. When corruption is pervasive, as in many African countries, it becomes part of the culture of development. Corruption slows down the pace of development, enriches a few people at the expense of the general populace, and discourages investment, since money can be made without much work. Political leaders have deliberately turned public treasuries into private ones. Cases of African leaders keeping stolen money in foreign accounts are well known, even when their countries are heavily in debt. In 2018, 20 years after the death of Nigeria’s former military dictator and head of state, General Sani Abacha, the country is yet to fully recover all its funds that the deceased dictator deposited in foreign accounts. Corruption damages the efficiency of the bureaucracy, even if it occasionally provides the opportunity for civil servants to make extra money and do their paperwork to satisfy their benefactors. Corruption is one of the major cultures that discredits merit and promotes mediocrity, thereby hindering development.

When African leaders should spend their times thinking of how to move the continent and its peoples forward, they are consumed by selfish interests. Instead of working to strengthen democratic institutions in their countries, they focus on ways to keep themselves in power. This contravenes the provisions of the African Charter on Democracy, Election, and Governance. While corruption may not present limitations to the possibilities of interstate relations and integration, it does in fact weaken Pan-Africanism at the grass-roots level where it should get its major boost. When state resources are diverted and used to enrich political leaders and their cronies, fight opponents, and build personal empires, it is not only the state that bears the burden, Pan-Africanism also suffers. Member states of the AU begin to default in their financial obligations to the AU because the funds have been channeled to the self-serving agenda of corrupt leaders.

When people do not feel free and safe to speak and express themselves in their own countries, when the damages of corruption cost them their jobs (i.e., if they are fortunate enough to secure one), when basic needs are scarcely met, the most likely thing for victims of corruption to do is to look outside for a better life. The result in contemporary Africa is the continuously increasing numbers of African emigrants. Many lose their lives in the process while those who manage to get to their destinations alive resort to menial jobs for survival. Whenever emigration occurs, brain drain is experienced, benefiting the West while Pan-Africanism bears the burden. African leaders at the level of the AU have failed to live up to their responsibilities by enforcing the African Charter on Democracy, Election, and Governance. This document could be best described as dead on arrival or at best, a toothless bulldog. Elections in African countries continue to be hijacked and massively rigged. Constitutional provisions are flouted as leaders refuse to relinquish power when their tenures expire, court orders are not obeyed, yet, the leadership of the AU has not seen the need to invoke the charter.

In recent time, whenever the elite are disappointed with the performance of African leaders and they see abject poverty around them, they do not hesitate to criticize the leaders, (see, for instance, Achebe, 1983, and Davidson, 1992) and some even regard the colonial era as the golden age of Africa during the 20th century. A few analysts, certainly depressed by the African conditions, have even called for the recolonization of Africa. Today, we cannot criticize European imperialism in Africa without also criticizing the African elite who managed the postcolonial world. Many African elites now distance themselves from military generals and their members in the formal political system. If we are now characterizing the current problems of Africa as, in part, a failure of the intellectuals (in particular, those attached to state power) and their imagination for a variety of reasons (inadequate recognition of the pitfalls of nationalism, neocolonialism, corruption, development, and the various obstacles to Pan-Africanism), scholarly attention should also make more visible the non-elite voices, histories, and movements, without relegating non-Western alternatives and traditions to static categories.

Efforts and intellectual dialogues toward the creation of a blueprint for Africa’s development and modernity have resulted in four different ideas. The first is the radical (Marxist) school, which calls for an intense and committed nationalism which will restore African identity and development by liberating its politics and economy from the control of imperialism. The school opines that the dismantling of neocolonial institutions and structures is the first step toward creating any meaningful African identity. The radical nationalists urge a cultural revolution, involving political reeducation to overcome alienation and develop new values of liberation and independence.

The second school, the cultural nationalism school, calls for the purity of African culture and points to the concrete achievements of the past (the building of the great kingdoms) and to the evidence that Africa has a long and proud history. The third school, the alienation school, rooted in the belief in the positive merit of alienation (withdrawing or separation as estrangement from traditional cultures by accepting new alien ideas and institutions), argues that there is a need to accept and assimilate Western culture. Abiola Irele, one of the leading apostles of this school, observes: “It is of no practical significance now to us to be told that our forebears constructed the pyramids, if today we can’t build and maintain by ourselves the roads and bridges we require to facilitate communication between ourselves, if we still have to depend on the alien to provide for us the necessities of modern civilization, if we can’t bring the required level of efficiency and imagination to the management of our environment” (Irele, 1983, p. 3).

Finally, the fourth school suggests an aggregation of African cultures as a tool for identity construction and development. Members of this school believe that a profile of African cultures can be established and a common culture can emerge between nations. They search for “the commonly shared ways of life” that the entire continent can identify with. These include political institutions, the “prestige and acquisitive culture patterns,” and the role of unilineal descent groups and language. V. C. Uchendu (1988) offers a profile:

“Black Africa exhibits four important notions which conveys its conception of the destiny of the African. First, the African world view is life affirming. We do not subscribe to a philosophy of world denial of a compelling desire to abandon the now for there and thereafter. Second, African world view lays more emphasis on duty than on rights. In Black Africa, rights are not asserted in the abstract; they reflect rewards inherent from one’s performance of duties. Children who deny their parents good burial, which they can afford, cannot lay claim to their parents’ wealth by appealing to the abstract “rights of man.” Third, African world view emphasizes the necessity for a countervailing power. New gods may be acquired if the existing gods fail to match their rivals’ power. Fourth, African world view is essentially a tolerant world view. African value systems are shaped by their world view. The basic values found in Africa include respect for elders which derives from the postulate of life affirmation; emphases on lineal continuity; mutual dependency; transparent living; and maintaining cosmological balance. These basic values are supported by other values: the definition of achievement in social rather in personal terms; intense religiosity; caring and sharing within kinship groups; and equality of access to opportunity without guaranteeing absolute equality”.

(Uchendu, 1988, pp. 21–22)

Whatever development options are adopted for Pan-Africanism, one important and non-negotiable factor in the quest for development and modernity must be to secure the good of the people. We must draw lessons from our precolonial past. In our very long precolonial history, the most important constituents of African identity were cultural in spite of the multiplicity of ethnic groups. To be sure, there was no single African culture, but there were cultures that shared many similar assumptions. Neither was there a single African nation but a variety of nations that shared certain similar characteristics. The starting point in a discussion like this must be the framework of society. The unifying feature in most of precolonial Africa was the concept of community (the people). The importance of the people cannot be denied. Social cohesion and intimate relations between individuals were the key to living in a society.

Conclusion: Securing a Promising African Future

In international and intercontinental relations, Africa cannot be isolated from the rest of the world. Neither can it refuse to draw lessons and ideas from other peoples, cultures, and civilizations. Borrowing should, however, be adaptive, creative, and discriminating. The continent should be in a position to reflect on its own destiny, its identity, rather than existing as a dumping ground for discarded ideas from other parts of the world, an imitator, and a second-rate place. Against the background of the spread of Western and Asian cultures and of increasing globalization, there is a strong need to consider the following issues: the correction of negative images about Africa, as in many radio and television stereotypes in the West and the emphasis on the negative such as warfare and famine; the need to identify and promote what is African; the determination of aspects of the past that are still relevant; the reconciliation of many different cultural choices and their consequences for economy and politics; and the integration of cultures drawn from different historical experiences and formations into a coherent policy to change the future. Pan-Africanism must begin to focus on developing indigenous solutions for African problems. To do this, all the vices that feed brain drain must be checked and stopped. As long as Africa continues to depend on external bodies to solve its problems, Pan-Africanism will continue to suffer serious setbacks. International politics is a game of interests. History has shown that every actor in international diplomacy is primarily concerned with what it can gain. Pan-Africanist leaders should, therefore, not expect that solutions for the continent’s challenges will come from outside Africa.

Africa has to confront the wreckage of the slave trade and colonialism. It has to seek the means to achieve “cultural autonomy,” but without isolating itself from the rest of the world. The similarities in culture represent a huge asset that has to be promoted and used for identity and development. A number of practical solutions may be offered here. African countries have to take deliberate measures to remove the obstacles that make communication and travel difficult within the continent. Members of the nations that have been divided should be encouraged to interact and promote their culture and identity. National sovereignty is important, but it should not be promoted at the high cost of dividing people who want to come together and share relations. More has to be done to make successful the integrationist projects like the Economic Community of West African States and the Central African Economic and Customs Union. The success of the integration unions will minimize the divisive influence of colonial boundaries, integrate economies and peoples, and foster greater interaction. Frontier tensions that divide countries must be removed. The African Union and the countries involved should pay attention to the role of boundary crises and their impact on unity and identity. Boundaries should be decolonized, not by new divisions but by a mental attitude, and demilitarized to reduce tension to the minimum. Regional and continental integration should serve development needs, such as the expansion of the market, greater mobility of goods and people, and a reduction in dependence on the West. Some countries and regions are in a position to play leadership roles in the integration effort: South Africa and Nigeria can provide economic leadership; East Africa can promote the use of Kiswahili; and Egypt can lead in the task of continental political integration (see, for instance, Mazrui, 1996, pp. 14–15).


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