Pan-Africanism needs rescuing from the failures of the post-liberation era

Monday May 13 2019


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 I was recently a beneficiary of and participant at a discussion on Pan-Africanism and its relevancy today.

The discussion, which came up as part of reflecting on quarter a century after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and the defeat of apartheid in South Africa took place at the Arrupe Jesuit University in Zimbabwe.

Explaining the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, Ibbo Mandaza, a veteran of the Zimbabwe liberation struggle and an academic, highlighted the role of Pan-Africanism and unanimity of Africa.

A renowned pan-Africanist who was the head of the civil service in the immediate post-colonial Zimbabwe before former president Robert Mugabe “retired” him at the “tender” age of 42 due to his “outspokenness,” Dr Mandaza regaled us with the contributions of leaders like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and others in the liberation of Southern Africa and the continent broadly.

For Dr Mandaza, Pan-Africanism remains a positive force to guide the continent away from cycles of violence, misrule and economic decay. However, some argued that Pan-Africanism is incapable of offering solutions to the current crisis in Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent since it’s based on a utopian view of “African unity” that doesn’t exist empirically.

Holders of this view also argued that despite Pan-Africanism’s role in the liberation of South Africa and many other countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, the ideology doesn’t have an economic agenda to sustain and add to the fruits of liberation in these countries; a factor which explains economic decay in these countries.


In response, Dr Mandaza argued that the problem isn’t pan-Africanism as an ideology or movement but post-colonial African leaders who act as compradors and engage in primitive accumulation instead of emancipating their people.

He posited that unlike leaders like Nyerere of Tanzania who generously put the resources of their nations at the service of freedom fighters, most Africa’s leaders are “thieves” who steal from their own countries and only masquerade as Pan-Africanists. To his credit, Dr Mandaza sees the solution to the perennial crisis as located in reforming the post-colonial state; particularly in decentralising power away from the all-powerful presidency and returning the military to the barracks.

In my view however, Pan-Africanism which broadly means solidarity and the importance of unity among Africans on the continent and those of African descent in the diaspora, has four flaws that make it incapable of providing solutions to the continent’s current problems.

The first flaw is that while it assumes natural unity among Africans everywhere and has been good at articulating the importance of unity among African states at the continental level, it has been poor at offering practical solutions to the prevalent disunity within states on the continent.

Pan-Africanism doesn’t problematise power and what power does to human beings regardless of race, tribe or geographic location. For instance, while Pan-Africanism rightly saw colonialism and imperialism as cancers that should be uprooted if Africans are to be liberated, it assumed that once this was done, Africa would be free.

Yet as experience has shown, dictatorships don’t have a race, colour or a geographical location; they can germinate anywhere power isn’t checked. In that sense, Pan-Africanism was wrong to assume that “native” power or power held by nationals was naturally good.

But where Pan-Africanism failed miserably and where it really needs “rescuing” is its failure to articulate an economic, social and political agenda at the national level beyond assuming, solidarity, unity and “sameness” of Africans.

It doesn’t, for example, expound what economic, social and political policies liberators would or should adopt in the aftermath of liberation. Even at the continent level, Pan-Africanism doesn’t really say which economic system would emancipate Africans beyond faith in the belief that political unity would advance economic and social wellbeing of Africans.

Finally, while Pan-Africanism saw tribe and ethnicity as foreign and a concoction of the coloniser to divide and rule, it assumed that these would be uprooted once colonialists were defeated.

In that sense, it failed to see that due to the nature of power and what it does to the minds of men and women, tribe and ethnicity can be advanced as a means to gain and retain power just as race and native were used to sustain colonial power.

To that extent therefore, while as an idea and a movement, Pan-Africanism has been critical at different stages for uniting Africans in the fight against colonial rule and imperialism, it has been poor at expounding specifically what to do in the aftermath of defeating colonialists.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, E-mail: ckayumba@; twitter account: @Ckayumba