Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

The Contemporary Pan-African Ideal: Historical Roots, Future Prospects


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For the 2008 session of the Campus, the theme that has been selected is: The Contemporary Pan-African Ideal: Historical Roots, Future Prospects. This is a theme which speaks to the on-going debates across Africa and the African Diaspora on the contemporary challenges of unifying, integrating and developing the countries of the continent in an age of accelerated globalisation. In deciding to focus the 2008 Campus on pan-Africanism, CODESRIA seeks to bring a historical context, critical dimension and futures perspective to bear on the debates that are taking place. These debates are mostly being conducted as though the issues under discussion have no historical antecedents worth reflecting upon; they are also being carried out as though only very limited choices are open to Africans with regard to their unity and integration. Researchers selected to participate in the 2008 Campus will be invited to challenge these spoken and unspoken assumptions on the basis of which the future of Africa is being debated. They will also be encouraged to rise above the ahistoricism that characterises much of the contemporary debate on the pan-African ideal and provide a better-grounded exploration of the opportunities, prospects and challenges of advancing the frontiers of pan-Africanism for the 21st century.

The theme of pan-Africanism has been a recurrent one in the history of the peoples of Africa and of African descent. Over the period since the pioneering efforts of Henry Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B. Du Bois, succeeding generations of African leaders and thinkers have grappled with the question of African unity, identity and renaissance, doing so in the framework of changing contexts and circumstances within and outside the continent that have, themselves, provoked regular re-engagements by Africans with their own history as a people. In contemporary times, the challenges of African unity and economic integration have, once again, come to occupy the front burner in continental political debates. The immediate trigger for this renewed interest was the post-Apartheid context of the 1990s in Africa and the collective reflection that ensued on how the project of pan-African unity might be advanced further in the wake of the complete liberation of the continent from colonial rule, settler and non-settler. If the post-Apartheid environment of pan-African politics concentrated minds about the future of the continent, the context of accelerated globalisation and the threat of fragmentation which it posed added a sense of urgency to the quest for a collective investment of effort into the construction of a shared political community for the peoples of the continent. The reflection that took place was to express itself in many different ways, including the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (AU) in 2001.

Both in its structure and mission, the AU was designed to represent a new, even qualitatively different stage in the quest for a contemporary pan-African unity around which all the peoples of the continent and the African Diaspora could be mobilised. However, soon after the formal inauguration of the Union, it was clear that not every actor had a commonly shared understanding of its place in the project and processes of unification and integration. It was also evident that the degree of sovereignty which individual member-states of the AU needed to cede in order to advance the frontiers of continental integration and unity had probably not been adequately thought through by all the parties concerned. Furthermore, the ambition of ensuring that contemporary pan-Africanism is driven more by the peoples of the continent and managed less as an exclusive affair of heads of states and governments required a wholesale re-thinking of strategy than may have been anticipated. The differences in understanding and approach that have affected the functioning of the AU as both instrument and site of unification and integration, and the accompanying sense of frustration that soon emerged, culminated in the so-called Grand Debate that took place at the mid-2007 Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Accra, Ghana, at which the 50th anniversary of the independence of the country was also formally celebrated by the continent. But neither the symbolism of Ghana at 50 nor the choice of Accra as the venue for the Grand Debate sufficiently motivated the summiteers to develop and agree upon a “roadmap” for the unification and integration of the continent.

The Accra Grand Debate on African unity pitched two opposing perspectives against each other. The first perspective argued the case for the speedy, even immediate establishment of a union government for Africa as a further step towards the realisation of the dream of a United States of Africa. The second perspective, whilst not disagreeing with the desirability of the ultimate goal of building African unity, argued the case for a much more gradualist approach that might begin with more concerted regional economic cooperation and integration efforts. Both positions echoed similar competing visions that have been integral to the history of pan-Africanism from the very beginning. In this connection, it is worth recalling the differences in approach between Garvey and Du Bois, Nkrumah and Nyerere and the Casablanca and Monrovia blocs. At issue at different points in the history of pan-Africanism are not just concerns about content but also questions about timing, phasing and sequencing. Yet, the Accra Debate was conducted as though it was occurring in a historical vacuum and without due attention to the possible lessons which the history of the quest for unity and integration could teach. Participants in the 2008 Campus will be encouraged to redress this deficit of historical anchorage in the contemporary debates on the pan-African ideal. In doing so, they will be called upon to explore the various elements of continuity and change in the articulation of the contemporary pan-African ideal. Of particular importance in this connection is the question of what it means, philosophically, to be pan-African today. For, without a full exploration of pan-Africanism as a state of being and the forging of a common understanding around that state of being, the quest for a “roadmap” towards unity and integration will simply continue to be conducted in the blind or on the basis of symbolic gestures. Pan-Africanism conceptualised as a state of being also carries meaning for the politics of contemporary pan-Africanism that will examined alongside the historical and contemporary imperatives for unity and identity. Furthermore, the perennial contradiction of constructing pan-Africanism on a foundation of a system of nation-statism that is permanently being reproduced and reinforced will be assessed. So too will the tensions between the ideal of a people-driven union and unification processes and structures dominated by states.

December 28 2009