Populist Trends or Revolutionary Pan-Africanism?

By Kinuthia Ndungu & Nicholas Mwangi


A fierce class struggle has been raging in Africa. The evidence is all around us. In essence, it is, as in the rest of the world, a struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.”

Kwame Nkrumah

We are indeed living in interesting times, witnessing a resurgence of Pan-Africanism that is both reinvigorating and complex. The African continent is witnessing the dynamic movement of leaders who deliver passionate speeches, captivating the youth and the diaspora. However, beneath this energetic facade lies a challenge – the rise of pseudo-populist Pan-Africanism that regurgitates empty rhetoric. This practice has also extended among African presidents who are now becoming overnight celebrities around the world with short YouTube videos going viral.  

We’ve also seen the emergence of ‘public intellectuals’ who give lectures on Pan Africanism and dress in beautiful African prints, and African universities that offer tailor made marketable courses on Pan Africanism. Most disguise themselves through our Pan African revolutionary martyrs’ quotes but are not engaged politically in fighting against internal and external oppression. They ignore the understanding that Pan Africanism is a political project and to be a pan Africanist is to intensify the struggle from below, emphasizing grassroots movements and collective action in bringing transformative change. 

At a certain point in history, Pan Africanism was hijacked by African autocrats like Mobutu Sese Seko, Paul Biya, Nguema and others who used Pan Africanism as an excuse to not only mortgage their countries to foreign interests, but also evade accountability for human rights violations and grand corruption. They identified as Pan Africans and at the same time abducted, tortured, killed, exploited and imposed stringent visa travel restrictions on fellow Africans.  

Today, majority African leaders like President Museveni and Ruto, are portrayed as Pan Africanists, yet advance imperial interests across Africa and beyond. We have been forced to witness in great displeasure and frustrations Ruto allowing Kenya to be further entrenched into the imperialist activities of the United States. Kenya with support of the United States will send a contingent of police officers who will be used as black faces to brutalize Haiti. This is the latest in a long and tragic history of imperialist intervention in Haiti.  

In today’s world, where Pan-Africanism faces populist dilution and superficial rhetoric, the call for a rejuvenated Revolutionary Pan-Africanism becomes more urgent than ever. This movement’s potency lies in its unyielding stance against imperialism and capitalism, upholding scientific socialism’s rigorous analysis. The African youth must be empowered with historical insights and analytical tools to be able to differentiate between empty populist appeals and genuine revolutionary ideologies. 

Revolutionary Pan-Africanism, in its essence, stands as an ideological tower against imperialism and capitalism. Contrary to critics who label the reflection of history as mere nostalgia, the heart of Revolutionary Pan-Africanism is found within the principles of scientific socialism and its history.  The emergence of Pan-Africanism can be traced back to the devastating impact of transatlantic slave trade and colonialism on Africa and its people. These twin forces, driven by European capitalism and imperialism, had a profound and lasting impact on the continent. As Kwame Ture aptly stated, Africa’s evolutionary process was interrupted by European capitalism/imperialism, which came in two forms: slavery and colonialism.” This interruption left Africa plundered and its social fabric torn. 

Emergence of Pan Africanism

Some of the early Pan-Africanists, like Martin Robinson Delany and Robert Campbell, ventured to Africa and were embraced, despite the geographical and historical disconnect caused by the slave trade. These interactions with the African continent fuelled a growing recognition of the need for unity and a longing for repatriation to Africa. Martin R. Delany, for instance, held the belief that blacks could not prosper alongside whites, advocating for a separation from America. Delany’s views were reflective of the prevailing sentiment among early Pan-Africanists, who saw Africa as a place of refuge and opportunity for people of African descent. Returning to the continent would enable them to rebuild their lives and culture, free from the shackles of racial inequality. 

Other early Pan-Africanists, such as Alexander Crummell and Edward Wilmot Blyden, proposed a different approach. They envisioned Africans returning to the continent not only to reclaim their heritage but also to civilize and convert its inhabitants, much like the missionaries of the time. This approach emphasized the importance of Africa’s role in shaping the destiny of the African diaspora. Nevertheless, As Pan-Africanism evolved, it transcended these narrow approaches and embraced a more inclusive and comprehensive ideology. It recognized that the struggle for justice and equality was not limited to a geographical return to Africa but encompassed the broader goal of unity, solidarity, and self-determination for all people of African descent, regardless of their location.  

Haiti Revolution

The Haitian Revolution, that began in 1791, was an important struggle for independence. The enslaved people of St. Domingue, predominantly of African descent, rose up against the oppressive French colonial regime, sparking a violent and protracted conflict that ultimately led to the establishment of Haiti as a sovereign nation in 1804. This momentous achievement marked the first time in history that enslaved Africans successfully overthrew their oppressors and formed an independent black republic. The most profound consequences of the Haitian Revolution was the creation of a safe haven for Africans escaping the brutality of slavery. Haiti became a beacon of hope to the oppressed seeking freedom and refuge from the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. It offered a glimpse of what was possible when oppressed people united in their quest for self-determination, inspiring similar movements throughout the African diaspora. 

Haiti’s commitment to the cause of freedom extended beyond its own borders. The Haitian leaders, particularly Jean-Jacques Dessalines, offered crucial support to Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary leader. However, this support came with a condition: Bolivar had to agree to free the slaves in the countries he liberated. Haiti’s willingness to back Bolivar’s efforts demonstrated the connection of freedom struggles across the African diaspora and the importance of solidarity among oppressed peoples. CLR James, a Trinidadian historian, and political activist, recognized the significance of the Haitian Revolution and its impact on Pan Africanism. In his groundbreaking work, “The Black Jacobins,” James chronicled the heroic struggle of the people of Haiti against powerful European colonial powers. The title of the book itself draws a connection between the Haitian revolutionaries and the Jacobins, who led the French Revolution. The book was written with the intention of making people of African descent the active subjects of their own history.  By doing so, James recognized the Haitian Revolution’s broader significance in the context of the Pan Africanist movement. He acknowledged that Haiti’s struggle for freedom was not an isolated event but part of a larger global struggle for African liberation from colonial oppression. 

Pan African Congress and Internationalism

The Pan African movement would find its organizational form in the late 1900. When Henry Sylvester Williams, then residing in the United Kingdom, organized the First Pan-African Conference in London. One of the prominent figures at this conference was W.E.B. Du Bois, an African American sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist. In this Conference, Du Bois played an important role as he chaired the committee responsible for drafting the “Address to the Nations of the World.” This address was a clarion call to the colonial powers, demanding an end to the discrimination faced by people of African descent worldwide. Du Bois and his fellow Pan-Africanists identified the color line as the defining problem of the 20th century, emphasizing the urgent need to confront racism and colonialism. The racist treatment of people of African descent in various parts of the world, including the African diaspora, served as a unifying force for the Pan-African movement. 

Du Bois further, provided a new impetus to Pan African movement in his 1915 essay titled “The Negro.” In this essay, he advocated for a socialist orientation for the movement, emphasizing the importance of unity among working-class individuals and people of color. Du Bois called for “Unity of the working classes everywhere, a unity of the colored races, a new unity of men.” His ideas expanded the horizons of Pan-Africanism, connecting it not only to the struggle for racial equality but also to broader socio-economic and political movements. 

The revolutionary fervor of the early 20th century, exemplified by events like the Russian Revolution of 1917, had a profound impact on the Pan-African movement. The Communist International (Comintern), led by the Bolsheviks, adopted a revolutionary Pan-Africanist approach. This approach openly opposed colonialism and imperialism. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, presented a draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Question at the second congress of the Communist International. This document demanded that communist parties worldwide provide direct aid to anti-colonial movements in the colonies. The Comintern’s support for Pan-Africanism added an international dimension to the struggle for African independence and equality. In an interview with Selim Nadi, Hakim Adi sheds light on Comintern’s role in shaping the ideology of Pan-Africanism. Prompted by black communists, Comintern adopted various aspects of Pan-Africanism. One of the key elements they embraced was the idea that Africans shared common forms of oppression and were engaged in a common struggle. This perspective was instrumental in uniting Africans and African descendants in their quest for liberation. 

Du Bois revived the march towards uniting the African diaspora and establishing black internationalism. In 1919, he organized the first Pan African Congress in Paris, marking a significant turning point in the Pan-African movement. Recognizing the limitations of isolated conferences, Du Bois aimed to ensure the continuity of the Pan-African struggle through the Congress. The timing of the first Pan African Congress was significant, coming just after the end of World War I, with Germany’s defeat. The gathering in Paris had a clear purpose: to make demands and present them to the peace negotiators convened in Versailles, France, for the negotiation and signing of a peace treaty. The Congress demanded that the victorious allies administer the former German territories in Africa on behalf of the African populations living there. 

In stark contrast to Du Bois’ intellectual approach, Marcus Garvey was a black nationalist who advocated for the Back-to-Africa movement. Garvey’s impact on the Pan-African movement was felt through his charismatic leadership and mass mobilization efforts. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which attracted over 4 million members. Garvey’s message of black pride and self-determination resonated with people of African descent, dispelling false consciousness and fostering a sense of unity and purpose within the black community. 

Du Bois would organize a series of Pan African congresses in 1921,1923 and 1927. The most important of the congresses organized by Dubois was the Fifth Pan African Congress held in Manchester in July 1945, that included African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah. Unlike previous congresses, it placed a strong focus on the African continent and its demand for independence. The leaders and intellectuals gathered at this event aimed to dismantle colonial structures and pave the way for self-determination in Africa. 

Liberation in Africa

When Nkrumah took power in Ghana in 1957, Pan Africanism arrived home from the diaspora as a nation building project, to finally answer the national question. The independent nation leaders began grappling with the question of how to build a post-colonial society, one ravaged for a long time by colonialism and slavery.  How they would move away from a colonially structured society to a new one that honored, humanized and dignified the African people. 

Socialism became a necessity when considering the restoration of Africa. However, there was inconsistency regarding the meaning and policies of African Socialism, leading to a general confusion among African leaders who denied the existence of classes in Africa.  Some African intellectuals like Nkrumah, Nyerere and Amilcar Cabral made genuine attempts to imagine the political and social life in Africa rooted in African Culture. They fought against the ignorance of Africa’s rich cultural heritage. 

Nkrumah proposed “Consciencism,” a philosophical framework rooted in Western Christianity, Islam, and traditional African communalism. These elements were reflective of various facets of African reality and identity. On February 5, 1967, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, a committed anti-imperialist, introduced the Arusha Declaration, which espoused the concept of Ujamaa deeply embedded in African traditional culture. His nation became a haven for radical scholars like Walter Rodney and revolutionary movements dedicated to Africa’s liberation.

In his 1964 work, “Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea,” Amilcar Cabral emphasized the necessity of a rigorous historical approach when analyzing the evolution of underdeveloped countries towards socialism. He argued:

“We believe that when imperialism arrived in Guinea, it severed our connection with our own history. While acknowledging that our country’s history is shaped by class struggles, imperialism and colonialism disrupted our historical narrative. Our entire population is now in a struggle against the ruling class of imperialist countries, fundamentally altering our country’s historical trajectory.”

Furthermore, during his address at the inaugural Tricontinental Conference in 1966, Cabral acknowledged the existence of social classes but opposed reducing historical materialism to merely a theory of class struggle. Instead, he proposed an alternative perspective, framing historical materialism as a theory of mode of production. He stated:

“As we have observed, classes themselves, class struggle, and their subsequent definition are outcomes of the development of productive forces in conjunction with the ownership patterns of the means of production. Therefore, it seems appropriate to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determinant of the content and form of class struggle, is the true and enduring driving force of history.”

However, Nyerere held a different view, asserting that social classes did not exist in Tanzania. Hence, he found it illogical to adopt a theory that emphasized the role of class struggle in effecting social transformation. Walter Rodney, in his assessment of Ujamaa, critiqued Nyerere’s perspective on African socialism, deeming it non-scientific socialism.

Nkrumah, too, initially rejected the notion of class struggle in Ghana until his overthrow in 1966. In 1970, he published “Class Struggle in Africa,” where he offered a comprehensive class analysis and self-critique. He wrote,

“The myth of African Socialism is used to deny the class struggle and obscure genuine socialist commitment.”

He emphasized that, “Intellectuals and the intelligentsia, if they are to contribute to the African Revolution, must become aware of the class struggle in Africa and align themselves with the oppressed masses.”

Senghor of Senegal stressed the need to accommodate so-called ‘positive’ contributions from colonialism, such as economic and technical infrastructure and the educational system. While, In Kenya, Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1963 on African Socialism blurred fundamental socialist principles, effectively establishing Kenya as a neo-colonial capitalist state under the guise of socialism. This era also witnessed the emergence of factions in the conception of the new African society, notably the Monrovia and Casablanca blocks. The former advocated for a unified Africa, while the latter opposed this idea. Nkrumah strongly advocated for immediate African unity. Today, the situation in Niger, among others, recalls the ideological divisions of the 1960s between the Casablanca and Monrovia groups. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), viewed by some as an imperialist tool, imposed economic sanctions and mobilized troops in an attempt to overturn a people-backed coup d’état challenging French imperialism in Niger.

Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania was part of the Monrovia group, which held the position against immediate African unity. Instead, Nyerere advocated for the establishment of regional economic communities as a gradual step towards continental unity. Ultimately, Nyerere and his Monrovia faction prevailed in the debate, marking a setback for Pan-Africanism as the underlying ideology for African unity. On May 23, 1963, African leaders did form the Organization of African Unity (OAU), albeit with limited strength and effectiveness. In hindsight, unlike many in the Monrovia block, Nyerere was candid in his argument. He later came to acknowledge that Nkrumah’s analysis was correct and ahead of its time. He realized that Africa should have pursued continental unity directly, without the intermediary step of regional economic communities.

Neocolonialism

With the end of colonialism, the era of neocolonialism loomed on the horizon. Neocolonialism launched an offensive against national projects and prominent Pan-African figures. In the Congo, the first democratically elected Prime Minister was assassinated in 1961 with assistance from Belgium and the United States. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X, a revolutionary figure in the Black liberation movement of the 1960s, was killed in Harlem, New York. Three days later, Pio Gama Pinto, a key figure in the Socialist movement in Kenya, was assassinated in Nairobi. Nkrumah was overthrown by the CIA in 1966, just four months after the publication of his work ‘Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism’ (1965). Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial leader from Bissau-Guinea and Cape Verde, was assassinated in 1973 by members of his own movement influenced by Portuguese intelligence. In 1980, the revolutionary socialist and pan-African activist Walter Rodney was killed in a car bomb attack. Thomas Sankara also faced assassination in 1987 with the involvement of France and the CIA.

By the 1980s, neocolonialism had firmly entrenched itself, paving the way for the emergence of the neoliberal era. This period signaled a return to the liberal capitalism reminiscent of the 18th century. It was characterized by the restructuring of international capitalism based on principles of individualism, a free market, and limited state intervention in economic affairs. Simultaneously, the ascent of neoliberalism sparked the rise of various social movements.

In response to the diminishing role of the state and the adverse effects of neoliberalism, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were introduced. Operating under the banner of human rights and freedom, these organizations played a role in diffusing political discontent and blunting the sharp edges of resistance. Their primary focus lay in charitable activities and initiatives aimed at alleviating various symptoms of the capitalist crisis. Consequently, they redirected the attention of movements away from seizing power and establishing a new societal framework to addressing these symptoms.

However, this shift also had its downsides. It led to a discouragement of ideological and theoretical clarity within these movements. A dichotomy emerged between those with the courage to take action but lacking an understanding of the laws governing social development and the necessary steps for effecting a significant leap in their struggle. This disconnect gave rise to adventurism and celebrity activism, ultimately isolating the movement from the broader populace.

This trend has undermined the essence of Pan-Africanism. The contemporary state of Pan-Africanism is characterized by its widespread presence on social media and its resurgence as a response to global crises. However, this newfound popularity and visibility has come at the expense of ideological clarity. While the appeal of Pan-Africanism is understandable given the challenges posed by capitalism and imperialism, a Pan-Africanism that does not explicitly confront these systems will struggle to realize its ultimate objective of unity and liberation for African people.

In conclusion, populist Pan-Africanism dilutes and depoliticizes genuine grassroots political movements, making them susceptible to vague slogans, superficial speeches, and reactionary leaders. By distinguishing between the superficial and the substantive, the African youth can pave the way for a promising future. This future would be one where the flames of true Pan-Africanism burn brightly, guided by an understanding of scientific socialism as the ultimate goal of Pan-African unity.