HomeOpinion & AnalysisWhy Pan-African Parliament is burning

Why Pan-African Parliament is burning

By Ismail Lagardien

The Pan-African Parliament (Pap) is burning. Turn down the heat, or get the objectives, policies and sequencing of pan-Africanism right before building a Parliament.

The Pap has seen no small amount of disgraceful misbehaviour among some of its members over the past several days. Much of it has provoked schadenfreude, and mischievous giggles, with the customary Afro-pessimism. The main line is the old canard that “Africans can’t govern themselves”.

The apparent malfunctions of the Pap are caused by several problems; ideational, cultural, power, size, sequencing and policy. The latter two belong together.

The ideational — the founding concepts — of the Pap is problematic. For what may seem politically the right idea, Pan-Africanism is based at the outset on race. It was based on the idea that “black,” “coloured” and “native” African people — from the Tuareg and Berbers, to the Xhosa and Khoisan, necessarily shared some kind of harmony of interests. This is evident in the work of one of the outstanding thinkers and earliest protagonists of pan-Africanism, WEB Du Bois (1868-1963), from Boston, US, who is often considered to be “the father of pan-Africanism” and who made a crucial argument (one of many), regarding “the Negro”.

Universalising US particularities

While Du Bois was no doubt a fine thinker, it’s fair to say that he took the particular conditions of African Americans, and universalised them across the world, specifically to the African continent. For instance, he explained that having emerged in “this American world,” the “Negro” had entered a world “which yielded him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world… this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. From this, Du Bois wrote, emerged “two unreconciled strivings”, the most prominent of which is a “history of this strife, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self”. With this as a starting point, it was assumed that if only the “African”, “black”, “coloured” or “native” were unified they would attain “self-conscious manhood” and emerge “a better, truer self”.

Closer to home and to the present time, the late Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere is remembered as the most progressive pan-Africanist. Nyerere, too, based his pan-Africanism on the ideal that if Africans united nationally and continentally, they would find their place in the world and tackle all the problems of life. A particular curiosity was his belief in Kiswahili as a transnational linguistic vehicle that would secure unity and solidarity for all Africans. Although it cannot be thoroughly expressed here, there is sufficient evidence to support the idea that the ideational basis of pan-Africanism was race.

Cultural divergence, big time

Much like India, Africa is one of the most diverse places in the world. This tends to be glossed over. One point that has to be raised is that during the final phase of its colonisation, India had a single (British) colonial power, which left India with a single fairly uniform bureaucracy and administration. We can set aside the horrors of Partition for now. It is no small matter!

Nonetheless, during the last phases of African colonisation there were French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and descendants of (Dutch and French) Huguenots, as well as British colonists. There were, also, strong elements of Arabian influence, especially along the eastern parts of the continent. Each left behind its own bureaucratic customs, practices, repertoires, and religious beliefs. Besides the hundreds of indigenous language groups (and religious beliefs, customs and traditions), Africans also speak a range of European languages.

And so, Nyerere’s belief that transnational linguistic unity is necessary for pan-Africanism is weak, and lacking in a sense of history. People of the same language groups have fought and killed one another sometimes in horrific ways. And others who speak different languages (as in Switzerland) have lived in perfect harmony for many years. Language is a terribly weak vehicle to achieve unity, but it can help prevent ethnolinguistic fractionalisation — once you get past the agreement of which language should be the national or transnational language.

The issue of which language or culture should prevail as a unifying force is a cornerstone of Chinua Achebe’s understanding of Africa’s complexity.

“I don’t think anybody can suggest to another person, ‘Please drop your culture; let’s use mine.’ That’s the height of arrogance and the boast of imperialism. I think cultures know how to fight their battles…. It is up to owners of any particular culture to ensure it survives.”

Nyerere’s idea of a transnational unifying language is problematic. Whether one agrees with it or not, many people have tied their very identity to their language. Nyerere, remains, nonetheless, the (African) father of Pan-Africanism. South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma once described him in the following way: “Mwalimu, the teacher who taught the African continent about peace, democracy and unity — Mwalimu, the freedom fighter who became one of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity, he laid the foundation for the African continent to start its long and arduous road towards peace and unity.”

The Pan-African Parliament (Pap) is burning. Turn down the heat, or get the objectives, policies and sequencing of pan-Africanism right before building a Parliament.

The Pap has seen no small amount of disgraceful misbehaviour among some of its members over the past several days. Much of it has provoked schadenfreude, and mischievous giggles, with the customary Afro-pessimism. The main line is the old canard that “Africans can’t govern themselves”.

The apparent malfunctions of the Pap are caused by several problems; ideational, cultural, power, size, sequencing and policy. The latter two belong together.

The ideational — the founding concepts — of the Pap is problematic. For what may seem politically the right idea, Pan-Africanism is based at the outset on race. It was based on the idea that “black,” “coloured” and “native” African people — from the Tuareg and Berbers, to the Xhosa and Khoisan, necessarily shared some kind of harmony of interests. This is evident in the work of one of the outstanding thinkers and earliest protagonists of pan-Africanism, WEB Du Bois (1868-1963), from Boston, US, who is often considered to be “the father of pan-Africanism” and who made a crucial argument (one of many), regarding “the Negro”.

Universalising US particularities

While Du Bois was no doubt a fine thinker, it’s fair to say that he took the particular conditions of African Americans, and universalised them across the world, specifically to the African continent. For instance, he explained that having emerged in “this American world,” the “Negro” had entered a world “which yielded him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world… this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. From this, Du Bois wrote, emerged “two unreconciled strivings”, the most prominent of which is a “history of this strife, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self”. With this as a starting point, it was assumed that if only the “African”, “black”, “coloured” or “native” were unified they would attain “self-conscious manhood” and emerge “a better, truer self”.

Closer to home and to the present time, the late Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere is remembered as the most progressive pan-Africanist. Nyerere, too, based his pan-Africanism on the ideal that if Africans united nationally and continentally, they would find their place in the world and tackle all the problems of life. A particular curiosity was his belief in Kiswahili as a transnational linguistic vehicle that would secure unity and solidarity for all Africans. Although it cannot be thoroughly expressed here, there is sufficient evidence to support the idea that the ideational basis of pan-Africanism was race.

Cultural divergence, big time

Much like India, Africa is one of the most diverse places in the world. This tends to be glossed over. One point that has to be raised is that during the final phase of its colonisation, India had a single (British) colonial power, which left India with a single fairly uniform bureaucracy and administration. We can set aside the horrors of Partition for now. It is no small matter!

Nonetheless, during the last phases of African colonisation there were French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and descendants of (Dutch and French) Huguenots, as well as British colonists. There were, also, strong elements of Arabian influence, especially along the eastern parts of the continent. Each left behind its own bureaucratic customs, practices, repertoires, and religious beliefs. Besides the hundreds of indigenous language groups (and religious beliefs, customs and traditions), Africans also speak a range of European languages.

And so, Nyerere’s belief that transnational linguistic unity is necessary for pan-Africanism is weak, and lacking in a sense of history. People of the same language groups have fought and killed one another sometimes in horrific ways. And others who speak different languages (as in Switzerland) have lived in perfect harmony for many years. Language is a terribly weak vehicle to achieve unity, but it can help prevent ethnolinguistic fractionalisation — once you get past the agreement of which language should be the national or transnational language.

The issue of which language or culture should prevail as a unifying force is a cornerstone of Chinua Achebe’s understanding of Africa’s complexity.

“I don’t think anybody can suggest to another person, ‘Please drop your culture; let’s use mine.’ That’s the height of arrogance and the boast of imperialism. I think cultures know how to fight their battles…. It is up to owners of any particular culture to ensure it survives.”

Nyerere’s idea of a transnational unifying language is problematic. Whether one agrees with it or not, many people have tied their very identity to their language. Nyerere, remains, nonetheless, the (African) father of Pan-Africanism. South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma once described him in the following way: “Mwalimu, the teacher who taught the African continent about peace, democracy and unity — Mwalimu, the freedom fighter who became one of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity, he laid the foundation for the African continent to start its long and arduous road towards peace and unity.”

Nyerere was sufficiently honest to admit that African unity would be difficult to achieve. At the University of Zambia on July 13 1966, he spoke about the possible conflict between African nationalisms and Pan-Africanism:

“Indeed I believe that a real dilemma faces the pan-Africanist. On the one hand is the fact that Pan-Africanism demands an African consciousness and an African loyalty; on the other hand is the fact that each Pan-Africanist must also concern himself with the freedom and development of one of the nations of Africa. These things can conflict. Let us be honest and admit that they have already conflicted.”

There are faint echoes of Nyerere’s statement in Achebe’s reminder that: “Africa’s post-colonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our ‘colonial masters’.”

What sets pan-Africanism apart from successful examples?

If one ignores all of the above and focuses only on getting pan-Africanism right, we may want to look at the overriding objective, get the sequencing of policies right and take the better examples of the European Union (EU) and Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). In both cases, more especially in Europe, the main objective was to prevent Europe from returning to the conflicts of 1914-1945. And they started small. In some ways the Benelux (Belgium, Luxembourg and Netherlands) customs union of 1948 was the precursor to the formation of the EU. The key was the free movement of goods, services and people, and the creation of institutions.

Asean was created (with the Bangkok Declaration of 1967) with the specific objective of amity among Southeast Asian countries.

In both cases, and with varying degrees of success, both regions have avoided mass-scale war, opened political-economic relations and created institutions to support these relations. In the simplest of terms, there was regionalisation (people started co-operating) before official regionalism, as a specific policy. In other words there were, putatively, increased cross-border flows of goods, capital and people within a specific geographical area, before there were political policies to create a formal arrangement.

Pan-Africanism’s fault-lines may be found in its insistence on race or ethnicity, and the assumption that Berbers and Xhosas share a harmony of interests, and are prepared to shed aspects of their sovereignty for the greater good. Africa is probably too big and overwhelmingly diverse, with intense sensitivities about racial, ethnic or cultural identities. The main problem, with the Pap, as far as I can tell, is that it placed the cart before the horse. It’s like applying that trope, “Build it and they will come.” In simpler terms, there is barely enough intra-Africa movement of goods, services and people (the basics of regionalisation), to speak of regionalism — but there is already a Parliament.

Let me end this (really brief) discussion by paraphrasing the Italian pioneer of unification, Massimo d’Azeglio (1798-1866): We have built a pan-African Parliament, now let’s build Africans (who agree with one another, and share the same vision). What he actually said, in 1861, was “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.” Sadly, he also had a very low opinion of the people of Italy, whom he described as “20 percent stupid rascally and bold, 80 percent stupid, honest and timid, and such a people has the government it deserves”.

I will, of course, say no such thing about us, Africans, but if we elect politicians who threaten to kill their foreign counterparts in Parliament, we do, actually, deserve them.

  • This article first appeared in Daily Maverick
  • Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs.

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