113. Commemorating the 1900 Pan-African Conference

Author: Adeoye O. Akinola
Date: 30 July 2020
Publication: Premium Times (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Chris Lawton via Unsplash

On July 23, Africa, its diaspora and other pro-black races in the global community commemorated the 120-year anniversary of the first Pan-African Conference in London. This was to honour the selfless commitment of all Pan-Africanists who had sacrificed their time, energy and lives for the emancipation of Africans and the black race from the shackles of enslavement, imperialism, colonialism and, by extension, contemporary socio-economic slavery. From Chicago to London, from Mombasa to Empangeni, and from Lagos to Kumasi, the suppressed voices of black people reverberated through the 1900s to the superficial elimination of the iron-locks of colonialism across Africa in the 1960s, and the demolition of apartheid in South Africa by 1994.

Trinidadian writer and lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams, organised the inaugural Conference in London’s Westminster Hall in 1900. Delegates were drawn from Africa, Britain, the United States (US), and the Caribbean. The invitation card read: “This conference is organized by the Committee of the African Association for the Discussion of the ‘Native Races’ Question, and will be attended and addressed by those of African descent from all parts of the British Empire, the United States of America, Abyssinia, Liberia, Hayti [Haiti], etc.”

Pan-Africanism connotes the efforts to promote the socio-cultural, economic, and political unity and self-reliance of Africa and its diaspora. It represents a global advocacy; it is a movement and belief system that aims to stimulate, galvanise, and strengthen the bond of inclusiveness of the black race, its shared identity, and the solidarity between every indigenous population in Africa and of African descent. It locates and aggregates those whose origins are linked to Africa – living or dead – at a centre, irrespective of ethnic or national affiliations. Pan-Africanism thus became an instrument for the decoloniality of Africa.

After Germany’s emergence as a European imperial power, its chancellor, Otto von Bismarck hosted the infamous Berlin Conference (1884–1885) at which Africa was effectively partitioned. The African diaspora reacted to this development through hosting the Chicago Congress on Africa in 1893, which laid the foundation for black political, social, and artistic movements in the 20th century. Four years later, Henry Sylvester Williams established the Association of Africa in London to confront colonialism and the partitioning of Africa. The association became the platform for launching the first Pan-African Conference in 1900.

While the enslavement and subjugation of Africa preceded the 19th century, the Pan-African movement was the first global attempt to expose the debilitating effects of enslavement through the Atlantic, the debasement of African values, and the compelling imperativeness of liberating Africa from colonial dominance. The conference offered a platform to coordinate the struggles of emerging, educated African elites, African diaspora activists, and pro-African activists to confront socio-political oppressions in the US and elsewhere.

The meeting further laid the foundation for the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945; the civil rights movement against black dehumanisation in the US led by figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis; the political independence of most African states; the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, and its transmutation into the African Union; the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa; the triumph of Barack Obama as the first black President of the US; and the “Black Lives Matters” movement. Pan-Africanism’s ethos and values have evolved over the years, but its focus on the organic unity of Africa and the black race remains sacrosanct.

At the top of the agenda of the 1945 congress was the dislodgement of European colonial overlords from Africa. Manchester provided the platform for Pan-Africanist patriarchs, like Kwame Nkrumah, to resurrect the spirit of the political, socio-economic, intellectual, and philosophical movement birthed in 1900. By 1957, Nkrumah had become independent Ghana’s first president, famously proclaiming: “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total independence of the African continent.” This was a call to black consciousness and black brotherhood, and a representation of Ubuntu (a principle of African humanism). History records the vehement efforts of Nigeria to support the quest to attain independence from foreign dominations in South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola. Thus, South Africa should not sleep when Somalia is hungry, and Africa is not liberated when African-Americans are subjected to extra-judicial killings in the US.

Marcus Garvey championed Pan-Africanism in the US in the 1920s, and WEB Du Bois used his intellectual leadership to push for five Pan-African congresses between 1919 and 1945. While Nkrumah led Ghana to independence in 1957, Africanists such as Nigerian titans, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo, were on the battlefront to secure their country’s independence; and Nelson Mandela was on the frontline for majority rule in South Africa, which eventually landed him in prison for 27 years. This was a collective dedication to the African question, which resonates with those of the black race.

Today, greed, nepotism, and extreme nationalism have replaced this collective dedication. Where is Africa heading? Why are the enviable African humanist principles – such as Ubuntu of South Africa, Ujamaa of Tanzania, and Omoluabi of Nigeria – no longer a guarantee for peaceful co-existence? Indeed, the anniversary reveals how far Africans have deviated and embraced the extreme form of political liberalism (Western democracy) and economic liberalism (capitalism), which promote individual interests and sovereignty, instead of the communal solidarity that reinforces collective or societal good.

The continued reinforcement of state borders, ethnic hostility and genocide, subtle and violent xenophobia, extreme nationalism, structural violence, acute economic protectionism, identity politics, and protracted bloodlettings in many African countries, would make Pan-Africanists like Henry Sylvester Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Nnamdi Azikwe, and Nelson Mandela, turn in their graves. The optimism that occasioned the 1900 and 1945 Pan-African meetings is fast eroding. Africa should use this 120th anniversary to affirm the resurgence of Pan-Africanism and the attainment of the “United States of Africa.”

Dr Adeoye O. Akinola is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa