Pan-African leaders must be shaking their heads in graves

Wednesday February 8 2017

Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chad's Foreign Affairs Minister, in Algiers, Algeria on July 16, 2014. PHOTO | FAROUK BATICHE | AFP

Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chad's Foreign Affairs Minister, in Algiers, Algeria on July 16, 2014. PHOTO | FAROUK BATICHE | AFP 

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After Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed lost the race to become chairperson of the African Union Commission to Chad’s Moussa Faki last week, there was a lot of mourning about a “divided Africa”.

The main divide this time, was supposedly the one between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. French-speaking Africa is seen to have done in the English-speaking regions, especially after three of them – Chad, Algeria, and Burkina Faso – also snagged three of the top five AU Commission jobs. Egypt took one, and the Anglophone bunch were left with just one, held by Ghana.

There have even been suggestions that there was France’s secret neo-colonial hand in this election. It’s overly simplistic, but whatever the case, those great pan-African leaders of years gone by, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, must be shaking their heads in their graves.

Their Africa was also divided, but along ideological lines (radical-conservative, East-West and so forth), and like today, there were also some big egos around then.

If, indeed, European languages influenced the vote for AU chieftainship, then it would suggest that today, 50 years after the 1960s “independence decade”, Africa is being swayed by colonial forces more than it was in the dying years of colonialism!

Let’s for a minute consider the differences between those times and today. Until the early 1990s, it was not possible to make a direct phone call from one African country to another.

It was worse when it came to air travel. Apart from a few regions like East Africa, there were hardly any direct flights between African cities. You had to hop on a plane to Europe first, then fly back. That is still the case in some places, by the way.


However, despite those obstacles, African leaders, activists, and intellectuals, especially the radical and progressive ones, had an incredibly incestuous relationship that would be remarkable even today in the age of the Internet and globalisation.

Indeed, one of the biggest political gatherings in Africa, inconceivable today, was the All-African People’s Congress (APC) in Accra, in December 1958. All the forward-looking politicians, activists, intellectuals and writers from Africa, the Caribbean, black America, Asia, gathered there in their thousands. From Kenya, politicians like Tom Mboya and his ilk were in the house.

Well into the early 1980s, the chaps at the APC in Accra were to dramatically shape the next two decades. In those technologically primitive times, the networks that developed were so intricate, that we learn that Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta had quite a bit to do with setting Angola’s controversial later-to-be Unita rebel chief Jonas Savimbi on his path. They convinced him to join Holden Roberto’s Union of Peoples of Angola (UPA) in 1961. He became its secretary general a year later.

In a merger, UPA became the National Liberation Front of Angola, which is the one many people interested in liberation movements remember. Savimbi, of course, was to go on to form Unita. The fellows did so many things together that when Nasser thought Nkrumah was “delaying to settle down”, he introduced him to a beautiful revolutionary-loving young Egyptian woman, Fathia Rizk. She went to visit Nkrumah in Accra on New Year’s Eve 1957-1958. Before the clock struck midnight, Osagyefo had married her!


Then something happened. Today, easily the most prestigious gathering on the continent is the World Economic Forum Africa. It is where the coolest people who smell nice flock. You won’t find them at the political fetes.

Or it will be some civil society or non-governmental organisation conference. A lot of these are not organic, funded by donor money of some sort as they are. They arose in the vacuum that followed the deep economic and political crises all over Africa of the 1970s and 1980s.

Unable to run a bigger continental show, there was a retreat into our regional caves. The easiest and most logical organising principle was, well, regional identity, which tended to be colonial. The colonial order defined the political contours of most of Africa’s regions.

This is not to despair. African politics is driven by cycles. Precisely because something on the scale of the APC was possible, technology and the openings of the last 30 years are going to produce a Second Pan-African Coming. Expect to see the fruits from 2018, 60 years after Accra 1958.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher, Africa data visualiser and explainer site

Twitter: @cobbo3