Sunday, March 28, 2010

Will the Real Pan-Africanists Please Stand-Up?

Senegal's president Abdoulaye Wade calls him self a Pan-Africanist. He offered to give land to Haitians who lost their homes in the recent earth quake. In April, he will unveil a new statue dedicated to what he calls the "African Renaissance". However, Wade's policies of neo-liberal privatization, demagoguery against his political opponents and his outrageous attempts to win the favor of foreign investors and Western presidents are the polar opposite of what revolutionary leaders discussed at the 6th Pan-African Congress, when the last wave of African liberation movements were struggling against neo-colonialism. Wade, and the other presidents who share similarly right-wing visions for Africa, are impotent against ramped corruption and extreme ethnic and religious violence happening in Africa today. The major reason why is that their visions of Pan-Africanism or African Renaissance draw their strength from the institutional foundations of neo-colonialism.

During European colonialism, traditional or customary ethnic and religious identities were politically exaggerated by racists to legitimize their own dominance in Africa. Colonizers realized early on that by capitalizing on the cultural and historical Native Authorities of rural Africa they could put a local face on external domination and pit traditional factions against one another. This system of indirect rule thrived in an atmosphere of "divide and conquer" where ruthless competition between identities for a piece of the pie kept colonialism in tact. Even after the European powers, exhausted by World War II, decided to grant political independence to their colonies, many African countries chose to maintain the same colonial-type institutions that politicized ethnic and religious differences.

Today, ethnic and religious groups in rural Africa desperately jostle for political authority or economic gains from mineral riches, fertile lands, and increasingly scarce water resources. Far from the romanticized conceptions of African Renaissance with aborigines beating tom-toms, dancing half-naked, and eating mangos, over half of rural Africa is consumed by ruthless competitions between extremely poor people organizing on essentialist conceptions of their identities. Armed with automatic machine guns, machetes, or voting ballots these groups fight to protect the interests of the friends who worship as they worship or the distant cousins who can their bio-cultural origins to a common ancestor, all while working to eliminate competitors. These remarkably static conceptions of identity are not natural but the result of very specific political cultures that emerged as a result of Western social engineering.

The current un-governability and divisiveness of much of rural Africa plays directly into the hands of Western economic powers who take more than their fair share of Africa's wealth. On the one hand, the historical fragmentation of the post-colonial state along ethnic or religious lines has prevented the emergence of national, broad-based political and social movements that can demand fast-track redistribution of lands and mineral wealth to the countryside. As we have seen in the unfolding "Bolivarian Revolution" in Latin America, the U.S. government believes that the ultimate challenge to domination of its "own backyard" is national democratic and popular alliances organized around distributional rather than nativist political cultures.

More importantly, in keeping with classical liberal economics, imperialists (governments who actively support or practice the act of imperalism) benefit from a central government that is too weak to regulate multinational corporations in remote areas where the raw mineral resources being extracted or to ensure the revenues from the resources are being taxed to fund public services. A central African government that is constantly threatened by ego-tripping rebels scrambling for power or working to satisfy the interests of religious brotherhoods is an enthusiastic customer for military weapons sales or potential dependent on aid.

There were radical nationalists like Julius Nyere, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Samora Machel who explicitly attempted to de-legitimize Native Authority and unite the most oppressed sectors of their countries under national liberation movements for social and economic justice. These leaders originally mobilized heterogeneous movements in solidarity that could dismantle the institutions of colonial rule and isolate traditional African elites who empowered them. Furthermore, they advocated the direct takeover of the commanding heights of the economy including the technologies responsible for the extraction of strategic natural resources and agricultural production---a step taken to ensure as broad a program of poverty eradication as possible. The combination of these two events resulted in direct confrontations with the combined forces of Western military might and economic isolation but also internal opposition from conservative Native Authorities. After the implosion of the Soviet Union and de-radicalization of Communist China these rebellious African regimes lost their main sources of technical and financial assistance.

Despite their eventual defeat, radical nationalists in Africa did leave behind one major victory---national political identity. For example, Tanzania is among the few territorially large African countries that has not seen essentialist identity politics spill-over into extreme violent conflict. Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani has spoken about the nationalist legacy of Julius Nyere in Tanzania pointing out, "the success of Tanzania as a nation that is getting it right the continent is because the nation's erstwhile leader, Julius Nyerere, during his tenure dismantled the customary law, thereby making every one a Tanzanian citizen." Radical nationalism sought to do the very difficult task of changing rural dwellers perceptions about political legitimacy.

The demonization of African leaders who supported "left-wing" political views and policies that emphasized economic sovereignty and sweeping agrarian transformation of society always takes outside of the context of contemporary African politics where genocide and religious fundamentalism exist side-by-side with crippling social injustices. And when discussing genocide and religious fundamentalism, the exact inverse is true. Commentary on violent ethnic or religious factions are taken out of the context of a documented imperialist strategy of neutralizing any political movement that sought to unite citizens under bold agendas for radical social change.

I am involved with the Pan-African Youth Summit 2010 in Dakar that is trying to organize a new coalition of grassroots "left" organizations united in the reconstruction of a legitimate Pan-African movement. The term "left" is necessary in this case to distinguish between Pan-Africanists who believe the driving force of progressive change is the most oppressed and exploited members of society from those who believe traditional elites and politicians can deliver that change. Without the emergence of broad-based popular alliances organized around agrarian reform and a government that can provide widespread social protections, Africa will likely continue to have scenes of discriminate carnage and extreme poverty. I hope that my African friends and allies will answer the challenge. Africa is in need of a revolution, not a renaissance.


1. Mahmood Mamdani. Citizen and Subject- Chapter Eight Conclusion: Linking the Urban and the Rural

2. Sam Moyo and Paris Yoros. The Resurgence of Radical Nationalism in the South Atlantic