22. For the Joy of Reading: The Pan-African Pantheon

Reviewer: David Kenvyn
Review Publisher: For the Joy of Reading Blogpost
Author: Adekeye Adebajo (eds.)
Date: 16 June 2021
Image courtesy of: Marcus Winkler via Unsplash.com

I have to be honest and say that I have found this book somewhat problematic. That is because the definition as varied from generation to generation and from continent to continent over the two hundred or so years since the idea was first formulated. There are also disagreements about the meaning of the term, which can make it difficult to get to grips with the arguments being put forward.   There is also an assumption, that is illustrated by some of these essays, that African culture is homogenous.   It is not. Coptic Christian Ethiopia is very different from the Hausa Moslem Emirates of Nigeria and again they are different from the Arabic speaking countries of the Mediterranean. These differences are not necessarily taken into account by Pan-African theory.

The book is a collection of 38 essays about people that the author and the editors deem to be Pan-Africanists.   The widest possible definition has been taken.   Pan-Africanists include anyone born in Africa and in the African Diaspora. The African Union (AU) has only just included the Diaspora as one of the regions within its remit. The inclusion of Ruth First in these essays brings its own problems.   The inclusion of these words in the 1955 Freedom Charter “South Africa belongs to all wo live in it, black and white” led to a breakaway group from the African National Congress (ANC) forming the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC). Calling ANC members like Thabo Mbeki Pan-Africanists should be qualified by a recognition of this specific difference in meaning for South Africans, in comparison with the rest of the continent. In the case of Ruth First, some of er own countrymen and women did not recognize her as properly African because she was white. They were of course wrong, but it was still part of the argument. There is also the question of whether or not the north African littoral is properly African in the same way as sub-Saharan Africa, and this extends to people of Arabic descent. There was a famous disagreement between Wole Soyinka and Ali Mazrui, both of whom are the subject of essays in this book.

Quite rightly, the editor starts the book with an explanation of the origins of Pan-Africanism which was not in Africa itself but in the Americas in the mid-nineteenth century.   It began pre-American Civil War with a desire by emancipated slaves, escapees and freeborn black people to return to their ancestral home.   This idea had the support of the American Government because it was seen as a way of solving a problem. It was decided to plant a settlement in what is now Liberia. Unfortunately, no-one consulted the people who lived there. The establishment of a colony was resisted by the locals who objected to their land being seized. This led to forced removals.   The justification for this was that the locals were ignorant and needed to be educated before they could be assimilated into the colony.   The colonists’ power was only broken at the beginning of this century in what became a long, bloody and protracted civil war. It was not the most auspicious of starts.

The Back to Africa movement was then taken up by W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, but their attitude was thoroughly anti-colonialist.   Garvey in particular led a campaign against Mussolini’s invasion of what was then called Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), switching the emphasis from “Back to Africa” to “Africa for the Africans”. It was under the influence of Du Bois and Garvey that the Pan African Congresses were set up, the first being in London and the most influential being in Manchester in 1945.   It was in Manchester that Kwame Nkrumah took a leading role and the centre of Pan-Africanism moved to the continent itself, with the emphasis on independence. Nkrumah’s Gold Coast become the first independent colony as Ghana in 1957. Nkrumah famously said “Seek you first the political kingdom” meaning that economic and cultural liberation would follow from that.

That has been the driving force of Pan-Africanism. The argument is that political freedom has been won, but for that you to be correct you have to discount the Western Sahara, which I don’t. The argument, however, is that the struggle is now for an economic and cultural transformation.

It can also be argued that Nkrumah was wrong. It is said that what we have now is a comprador class benefitting from Western capitalism, but withholding the benefits from their fellow citizens who have been impoverished.   This is contentious because it ignores the impact of structural adjustment programmes that have been foisted on African governments. It also ignores the failure of the ex-colonial powers to meet their obligations and the continuing and illegal exploitation of African resources by major international companies. I refer you to the ACTSA report “The Money Drain” to be found at www.actsa.org.   Even the World Bank and the IMF now acknowledge that “trickle down” economics does not work, because not enough money trickles down.   This is what Pan-Africanism has to deal with today.  It is certainly the case that through the African Union, Thabo Mbeki tried to create Africa-wide institutions, such as NEPAD, to be the driving forces of his “African Renaissance”. These however lost traction following his departure from office.   The size of the continent is one of the difficulties that African leaders have to deal with, and this can make collective organisation very difficult.

One of the ways of illustrating this is to look at the debate about African-ness between Wole Soyinka and Ali Mazrui.   Soyinka is Nigerian and Mazrui is Kenyan. The distance between Abuja and Nairobi is greater than the distance between Moscow and Madrid. Nigeria was subject to some 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade, draining away the population and disrupting the economy as was the whole of the West African littoral, and this was followed up by a British colonial invasion towards the end of the C19th. Kenya, on the other hand, was not subject to the transatlantic slave trade unless, as CLR James as suggested, its tentacles reached deeply into the continent. Kenya was subject to the much loner lasting Islamic Slave Trade, with slaves being taken from the___14 area as far back as the Abbasid Caliphs.   But as Ronald Segal has shown in is book “Islam’s Black Slaves” this trade was nowhere near as corrosive and destructive as the transatlantic trade.   Communal life in the villages in bot countries probably had a lot in common.   It is however Soyinka’s suggestion that Mazrui was not a proper African because he was descended from Arabs that tells you everything you need to know about African differences, especially in relation to the diaspora.

It has been suggested that there are three African cultures: African and Christian, African and Islamic and African and indigenous religions.   Even this division does not go far enough.   The African Cristian culture of Ethiopia and the Nile Valley is Coptic and 2,000 years old.  I do not know enough about African Islamic culture but I would not be surprised to find bot Sunni and Shia communities on the continent. As for the indigenous religions, the gods are different depending on where you are in the continent. Africa’s culture is a lot more complex and diverse than many outsiders like to imagine.

Wat have I learned from this book?   Pan-Africanism is a complicated and not necessarily coherent philosophy. Different people at different times and on different continents have interpreted it differently.  In this respect it is rather like that other great political philosophy that emerged in C19th – Marxism.   This book illustrates that complexity through its concentration on individuals who contributed in some way to the development of Pan-African thought.   It also gives specialists an overview, but can be dipped into by anyone who wants to find out something about each of the individuals it covers. There are three glaring omissions: Nelson Mandela, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Robert Sobukwe. Mandela can be excused because there are so many commentaries on his life and achievements, and it would be difficult to encompass them in an essay. Toussaint L’Ouverture, it could be argued did not contribute to Pan-Africanism although he established the first colony that gained its independence, and that through a slave revolt which was the only successful such revolt in history.   Robert Sobukwe, who established the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania in South Africa, is an extraordinary lack as he was an important thinker in this subject.

This however is a well-researched and well-informed book.   It is worth the effort of reading.

David Kenvyn, Former librarian and convenor of the Scottish Libraries Reader Development Network.