Is Pan-Africanism old-fashioned? A Call for a Practical Approach   –


Addis Ababa, July 28, 2023 (Walta) Back in January 2014, the then chairperson of the AUC, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (Ph.D.), read a letter to the foreign ministers of the AUC gathered in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, that may be regarded as one of the most ‘romantic letters’ ever written.

That poetic email text full of flowery statements from ‘the future’ was written and ‘sent’ to one of the most outspoken advocates of Pan-Africanism, particularly from the Casablanca Bloc- a faction of the Pan-African movement that advocated for the speedy formation of a confederated United states of Africa.  The letter from the future was meant for Kwame Nkrumah.

The commissioner in her [most] imaginative email message tells Nkrumah that the Africa he had dreamt of in the 1960s came to reality within a century; an Africa that is confederated and managed to be among the top three largest economies of the world, an Africa with ‘mushrooming’ intra-Africa trade reaching 50%, a speedy Express Rail connecting all the capitals of ‘former states’, and an Africa with ‘integrated planning and execution at its best!’ Sounds heavenly, right?

The commissioner presented it at the ministerial retreat for the AUC assembled in Bahir-Dar to brainstorm on issues in connection to the ‘Africa Agenda 2063’. Discussions on the agenda were underway at the time.

Nine years have passed since the email was written and ‘sent’ to the addressee. However, I am certain of neither the message reached the addressee well, nor his thoughts.  Maybe Dr. Nkosazana isn’t either.

Needless to argue about, the content of the message the then chairperson of the AUC wrote and claimed that she ‘sent’ it sounded endearing and passionate. Even so, they are just imaginations.

Agenda 2063 is indeed one of the continent’s major aspirations after the struggle for decolonization. One of the leading Pan-Africanism advocates of our time, Lumumba (Prof.), has a rather satirical way of presenting it.  He remarks with humor after admitting the necessity to have great dreams, ‘’…The only thing that we must be once we dreamt is to wake up.  The problem is that we dream and don’t wake up. We must wake up and begin to implement.”

Here comes the most critical question. Is pan-Africanism overly idealistic and ambitious? Is it simply an ineffective talking shop?

Pan-Africanism is indeed one of those laudable political movements during the decolonization struggle. It inspired many to demand decolonization from Western powers. The forefathers of Pan-Africanism such as  Du Bois the academician in those early days and leaders in the 1950s like Nkrumah and their fellow African compatriots tried their best to serve the purpose of Pan-Africanism i.e ‘ to unify and uplift’ all people of African descent.

With the belief that Africans including those in the Diaspora ‘share not merely a common history but a common destiny’, Pan-Africanists in the 1950s and 60s did aggressively advocate decolonization. In the movement, many African countries gained momentum in decolonization from the Western powers. Those days were indeed heydays for the movement. This period is referred to as the “golden age of Pan-Africanism.”

Pan-Africanism at its heydays played a key role in nurturing the spirit of solidarity among Africans, served as a powerful rallying point for children of Africa during the national liberation struggle, played a key role in creating and widening political awareness and a sense of deep consciousness among Africans. In that context, Pan-Africanism did really work.

The question is what ultimately happened to it. Have all of the movement’s objectives been met? What has Africa done with it after decolonization? After gaining independence, what was its main agenda? Does that still hold true in the era we are in? Or is it old-fashioned, so we no longer need it? All these questions remain unanswered.

More than half a century has passed since African nations earned their independence from colonization. Two months ago, we celebrated the 60 anniversary of the establishment of the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), the current African Union (AU). The controversial pan-Africanist of our time who was the permanent ambassador of the AUC to the USA, Arikana Chihombori (Ph.D.), questions whether the independence was real. She goes to the extent of calling it ‘fake’ independence. That is attributed to her perspective.

Facts and figures speak not so differently though. The intra-Africa trade stacks at a mere 18%. Border restrictiveness remains among the most ‘restricted’ for individuals and goods belonging to nations of the continent. Most importantly, the issue of being able to be self-reliant remains farfetched.

‘You don’t control your own financial system. So how independent are you?” Ambassador Arikana wonders.

During the heydays of Pan-Africanism, the Casablanca block had advocated for one Africa that is a confederate of states having one military and one currency among others.  In reality, the notion was quickly contested when the perceived threat that their brand of Pan-Africanism posed to the nations’ national sovereignty was taken into account.

Needless to argue, the Africa that Nkrumah and his colleagues from the Casablanca block envisioned has not yet existed. The confederated Africa with a single currency, one monetary policy, single armed forces, and a common language appears to be a fantasy. The Africa we have is a continent with a high visa restrictiveness score (up to 90%), with just 18% of trade taking place within the continent itself, and characterized by xenophobic violence.

Lack of faith in oneself and a deeply ingrained disregard for oneself has continued to be manifested in the behaviors and actions of many children of Africa today.

The ambassador relates a personal story that demonstrates how deep-rooted and worrisome the problem is.

“I get ignored at the airport by a young boy who can easily be my son or grandson when I want help with my luggage. Because he is waiting for British Airways with British travelers coming from London. White people tip better. I’m ignored at the restaurant by one who looks like my own daughter. I have a better chance of getting a contract in Africa if I have a white man as my partner. How insane is that?” Dr Arikana asks? I have no idea, who has the answer for her question.

And yet, among some ‘Pan-Africanists’ of today, there appear to have a tendency of attempting to export the entire blame to the white man? Have Africans done their assignments at home? How about the internal conflicts, the unit democratic administrations at home, the grand corruption   that, in Prof. Lumumba’s words, “killed more than civil wars”? The list goes on and on.

A South African podcast presenter of the ‘Penuel show’ once said, ‘I was pro black and black consciousness; studied all the creeds, read all the books, I set up the ‘buy black movement’ in South Africa. We got a group; together we set up an NPO and somewhere in that journey I think I needed to leave that. I’m no more a Pan-Africanist. I just believe in good human beings regardless of race.’


Ensuring economic prosperity in Africa was one among the goals of Pan-Africanism at the beginning. When the then OAU was succeeded by the African Union (AU) in 2002, the advocacy was to change the lives of ordinary Africans by boosting development, eradicating poverty and encouraging integration. The reality is that the organization itself depends on funding from former colonists in one way or another since it is unable to even afford its operating expenses on its own.

The share ownership at the ‘Pan-Africanist’ African Development Bank’s (AfDB) provides more insight into the ‘economic independence’ issue. Of the bank’s 81 total owners, 27 are “non-regional” nations including the United States, Germany, and Japan. 60% of the bank is owned by the 54 countries that make up the continent as a whole, and 40% is owned by the 27 non-African members. Eight of these non-regional members (the US, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) have the highest rating that can be given to an issuer’s bonds and indicate the issuer’s financial strength, which is “AAA.”

The issue of self sufficiency is another area we should take into account when examining the performance of those nations after they gain their “independence”. The recent Self-Sufficiency Ratio (SSR)- the capacity to meet own population’s demand for food- revealed that  Africa’s  SSR surprisingly witnessed a deterioration from the one in the time of the  decolonization struggle in the 1960s.

The continent is still the poorest after over half a century of ‘independence’. In 2022, GDPs of all the 55 African countries combined (that of 1.4 billion population) was estimated to be 3 trillion only. That is a GDP less than that of a single European country like Germany and equivalent to the GDP of one state in the United States of America. That is the Africa at hand.

Here comes the question. Will the former AUC chairperson’s poetic imagination come true someday? Prof. Lumumba appears to answer it. As long as African leadership maintains its hypocrisy, the ideal, in his words, “will continue to be a far-fetched one.”


How much of a presence does the Pan-Africanism that played a crucial role in decolonization of African nations in the 1960s and 1970s have in the today’s African discourse on development? That sounds a bit debatable depending on the context. But one thing is undeniably evident. The query has undergone a slight modification.

Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), appears to advocate a version of Pan-Africanism that deals with the issue of the current era.  ‘Our Pan-Africanism now is a Pan-Africanism of economies,’   she argues.

The Executive Secretary calls for more attention to economic activities within the continent. ‘’At independence, we were looking for [I would say] social independence. We needed to have a narrative that is African. We needed to make our own decisions. We needed to start creating our own institutions. But I do not think we understood yet the value and power of trade and the power of our economies.’’

Currently, the continent’s 55 countries collectively contribute barely 3% of the world’s GDP. Intra-African trade is remains one of the most significant, but it’s also one of the areas where the continent has continued punching below its weight. In the continent that the forefathers envisioned of using a single currency and adhering to a unified monetary policy, intra- Africa trade remains at a mere 18 %. Many nations in Africa find it easier to import from and export to China and European countries than to trade among themselves. Intra- Asia trade has reached 69% whereas that of the intra-Europe shows 59%. Poor infrastructure coupled with lack of political commitments to make things work take the lion’s share of the blame.

“There has been a shift from a Pan-Africanism which was saying ‘Africa is good, Africa is important’ to an Africa that is saying ‘Africa is important in the global economic community. We have to have this economic might, economic force. This is really a Pan-Africanism, ’’ Vera Songwe asserts.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) is supposed to play a key role in this regard. It was with the aim of increasing intra-Africa trade by promoting free movement of goods and tariff-free trade that the African Continental Free Trade agreement was signed by African heads of state in March 2018.

‘We can’t disconnect from the global economy and we should not. But the over reliance on global supply chains is not good for Africa. The AFCFTA must enable Africa to establish continental supply chain without disconnecting from the global economy, “says Wamkele Mene, Secretary General AfCFTA Secretariat.

Currently, the overall contribution the entire continent to Global output and global trade is not more than 2%, which is a mere one third of the contribution of small nations like Singapore alone.

“There are two ways of being at the dinner table of civilization; as a diner or as a waiter. Choose you now!,” Prof Lumumba tells fellow Africans.

Making a considerable advancement with the new version of Pan-Africanism is hoped from the youth population of the continent, not from those ‘Pan-Africanist’ heads of states who have been in power for decades without bringing about any development to their peoples.

Professor Lumumba reminds young Africans that the problems they face are real and calls on them to start confronting seriously.

 ‘You must do something to change Africa. And you are not going to do it by twitting, No. through Instagram, No. Facebook, No. Not through social media! The last time checked is that you must roll up your sleeves and going to action, suffer, and seat.”

Perhaps it is only when young Africans apply the advice and take action that that romantic letter written and ‘sent’ by AUC Chairperson Dr Nkosazana reaches Nkrumah well and we can be certain of a smiling reaction of Nkrumah and his fellow African compatriots.

By Bewket Abebe

Note: All the quotations sited above are from publicly available interviews and public speeches made by those individuals.


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