African Unity: the problem and its dimensions

African Unity: the problem and its dimensions

One of the core objectives of Pan-Africanism, since 1958, has been African unity.

The three key questions about unity are: unity for what? Unity of whom? And what type of unity? Let’s consider them, one by one.

Unity for what?

All too often one gets the impression that Pan-Africanists are obsessed with unity for unity’s sake. But as Chancellor Williams pointed out, “Not ‘unity just for unity’ but unity for great achievements.”-[The Destruction of Black Civilization, p.343] We therefore need to spell out the paramount objective to be achieved by any unity we are talking of. I would say that we need just enough unity to achieve the Black Power we need to guarantee our security and survival. Anything less is inadequate; anything more is superfluous. Black power is the only desirable objective of African Unity.


Unity of Whom?

There is no agreement as yet on the constituency for the much desired unity. Some, like Nkrumah, Padmore and Diop, have advocated a unity of the entire continent of Africa, a unity that would include the Black Africans and the Arabs in the African continent. Some like Azikiwe and Museveni have advocated a unity of all who now reside on the African continent—Blacks and whites, including the Arab and European colonial settlers. Yet others want the unity to be between the Black Africans and their Diaspora in the Americas; and still others want the unity, whatever its form or forms, to be between the Black Africans in Africa and the Blacks world-wide, excluding the European and Asian settlers on the continent. These differences need to be thoroughly debated and a consensus reached on this vital question.

What type of unity?

On this there are divergent proposals, even though some claim that consensus has been reached, and that differences exist only over the means of implementing it.

According to Prof. Opoku Agyeman,

“Africa’s predicament has not been in regard to determining the nature and character of the needed unity, but rather in respect to the implementation of it.”

–Opoku Agyeman, (2001)in Africa’s Persistent Vulnerable Link to Global Politics, San Jose: iUniversity Press, 2001, p.123

However, please consider the following statements:

“This is my plea to the new generation of African leaders and African peoples: work for unity with the firm conviction that, without unity there is no future for Africa. That is, of course, if we still want to have a place in the sun. I reject the glorification of the nation-state, which we have inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa we have not been completely successful . . . Unity will not make us rich, but it can make it difficult for Africa and the African peoples to be disregarded and humiliated. And it will therefore increase the effectiveness of the decisions we make and try to implement for our development.

–Julius Nyerere, speaking in Ghana in 1997. Quoted in Kwesi Kwaa Prah, The African Nation, Cape Town: CASAS, 2006, p.276


“One must say that our first preoccupation (in foreign policy) has been and remains the creation of working African solidarity, with a view toward African unity, the necessity of which—now unanimously accepted—no longer seems necessary to prove.”

–Amadou Ahidjo, 1962. Quoted in The African Nation, pp.276 –277

“I think that Pan-Africanism should be concretized either in the form of regional States or one continental State, whichever is feasible, . . . ”

–Azikiwe, 1962, “The Future of Pan-Africanism” in J. Ayo Langley, ed., Ideologies of Liberation in Black Africa, 1856-1970, London: Rex Collings, 1979, p.305

“the organization of African unity in 1963 stated its first purpose to be ‘to promote the unity and solidarity of the African States’ ”—Nyerere, (1968) in Langley ed, Ideologies, p.350

“The ideal of African unity is premised on the notion that the emancipation, development and prosperity of people of African descent can be achieved only through the unity of the people.”

— Kwesi Kwaa Prah, The African Nation, p.269

There cannot be “one Africa that fights against colonialism and another that attempts to make arrangements with colonialism.”

–Frantz Fanon, quoted in The African Nation, p.276

“Our objectives must be the creation of an economic and politically federated continent. . . . If despite goodwill on our part, North African Arabs were to refuse a continental federation, then nothing should stand in the way of the formation of an exclusively sub-Saharan continental federation. . . . In such an eventuality, no one could accuse sub-Saharan Africans of being guilty of exclusivism, since their appeals to the North would have been refused.”

–Chiekh Anta Diop, (1977); Afriscope Interview with Carlos Moore, in Great African Thinkers, ed by Ivan Van Sertima, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1986, pp. 260, 261


A little reflection will show that the nature and character of the African unity mentioned in the above quotes is not the same. Nyerere, like Nkrumah, Azikiwe, the OAU and Diop, is talking of unity as state integration, the integration into a federation of the colonial states inherited at “independence”; Ahidjo is talking of solidarity of the states; Prof Prah is talking of “the unity of the people” and not the integration of states; Fanon was talking of unity of purpose and action by the states. These few examples make clear that Prof Agyeman cannot be correct in claiming that the nature and character of the African unity desired has been agreed upon or settled.

Given these disparate notions of African Unity, the question of “what type of African unity” is still to be resolved. To help us move towards a resolution, I shall now attempt to elucidate the aspects and dimensions of the issue.

Here is a list of some different possible types of unity.

1] Unity as state integration or political federation. Examples of this include the USA, the EU, the former USSR, the proposed United States of Africa. African unity of this kind, being a union of states, would exclude those Africans of the Diaspora who have no states of their own. However, Cheikh Anta Diop has said:

“Black communities must find a way to articulate their historical unity. The ties between black Africans and the blacks of Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean, South America and the United States must be strengthened on a rational basis.”—Diop, GAT,p.246

Now, if this type of unity is pushed to its global limit, as hinted by Diop in the above passage, it would require a global Federation spanning the Black African states of the Homeland and those of the Diaspora ranging from Fiji and Papua New Guinea all the way west to the Black Caribbean states like Jamaica and Belize. An impossibly unwieldy union of states.

2] Unity as solidarity of people based on distinctive racial, cultural, linguistic and historical identity. Examples of this type include the solidarity between the Chinese in China and their global Diaspora; a solidarity based on their Yellow race, Han ancestry and Chinese culture, and effected on the basis of what they call “the mirror test”—if you want to know whether you are Chinese, look in the mirror and see.

Another example is the racial solidarity of whites, a solidarity about which Chancellor Williams said:

“Caucasians will wage frightful wars against other Caucasians, but will quickly unite, as though by instinct, against non-whites, not only in wars but in international politics. They have developed a kind of built-in solidarity in their relations with non-Caucasian peoples. This fact, as much as anything else, helps to explain their position as masters of the world.” –Chancellor Williams, Destruction . . ., p.298

Pan Africanism has paid hardly any attention to this type of unity. In fact, it is resisted by our racial integrationists who denounce a racial criterion, a black “mirror test”, as “racist”.

3] Unity through a shared ideology or religion. Examples of this are the unity of the population of the USA through a Constitution that articulates a body of beliefs, i.e. the ideology of the USA; the organized State Shinto in Meiji Japan; Christendom; Dar-al-Islam; The Free World—unified by the doctrines of capitalism, free enterprise and anti-communism.

Unity of this sort, unity by norms and customs, rites and ritualized behavior, is explained by Konrad Lorenz as follows:

The triple function of suppressing fighting within the group, of holding the group together, and of setting it off, as an independent entity, against other, similar units, is performed by culturally developed ritual . . . Any human group which exceeds in size that which can be held together by personal love and friendship, depends for its existence on these three functions of culturally ritualized behavior patterns.. . . From the little peculiarities of speech and manner which cause the smallest possible subcultural groups to stick together, an uninterrupted gradation leads up to the most elaborated, consciously performed, and consciously symbolical social norms and rites which unite the largest social units of humanity in one nation, one culture, one religion, or one political ideology.. . . It is perfectly right and legitimate that we should consider as “good” the manners which our parents have taught us, that we should hold sacred social norms and rites handed down to us by the tradition of our culture. What we must guard against, with all the power of rational responsibility, is our natural inclination to regard the social rites and norms of other cultures as inferior. . . . The moral of the natural history of pseudo-speciation is that we must learn to tolerate other cultures, to shed entirely our own cultural and national arrogance, and to realize that the social norms and rites of other cultures, to which their members keep faith as we do to our own, have the same right to be respected and to be regarded as sacred.


— Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, New York: Bantam, 1967, pp. 74-75, 78, 79, 80

Our fidelity to the symbol implies fidelity to everything it signifies, and this depends on the warmth of our affection for the old custom. It is this feeling of affection that reveals to us the value of our cultural heritage. The independent existence of any culture, the creation of a superindividual society which outlives the single being, . . . is based on this autonomy of the rite making it an independent motive of human action. (ibid., pp. 71-72)



For large groups, this is the most important source of the feeling of belonging together; but it has never even been recognized by Pan Africanism. This type of unity is especially important in view of the fact that Black Africans are deeply divided by their strong adherence to the various religions and ideologies of their white enemies.

The need is therefore most pressing for a Pan-African ideology or religion that will bond the entire black race together. Kwanzaa is a beginning, and should be propagated throughout the black world.

4] Unity through a hierarchy of organizations– economic, social, cultural etc.

This is the kind of unity which a conglomerate imposes on its units; an economic franchise imposes on its outlets; the unity of the Rotarians, Kiwanis, Boy Scouts Movement; it is also exemplified by how Wall Street unifies the economy of the USA, and the City of London unifies the global economy of the British empire.

Lack of attention to this type of unity has meant that there have been no efforts to create Pan-African apex organizations to unify efforts and give leadership in the economic, social and cultural areas of life. No great consortium of banks with Pan-African reach and clout; no Pan-African equivalents of the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis; No pan-African hierarchy of religious outfits, etc. Yet it is hierarchic networks of these sorts that embody and operationalize unity.

Chancellor Williams correctly laments that “The picture of several thousand black organizations, each independent and vying for leadership, is substantially the same picture of fragmentation and disunity in Africa that led to the downfall of the whole race.” [Destruction . . ., p. 321] But the remedy for that situation is not one massive membership organization, but the creating of hierarchized groups of these organizations to give them coherence and the potent force for united action under the control of the top echelon organizations.

5] Unity through joint activity. This is exemplified by the unity of the members of a football team or league, of a sporting association. Of this kind of unity Chancellor Williams said:

“the total membership is mutually and individually involved in activities which each feels is important and will be directly beneficial to him all in his own lifetime. . . . [This unity is achieved] almost unconsciously as people work together for mutual benefits to each other and the advancement of the [group] as a whole. Meaningful, practical activities [are] the cement which we call unity.”—[ Destruction . . ., pp. 343-344]

Since 1958, Pan-Africanism has had a one-track mind, and has been obsessed with state integration. It has failed to promote joint and periodic activities like a Youth Movement with four-yearly Youth Festivals. Its Pan-African Congresses have not been regularized to hold, say, every 5th year. Even its cultural festival, FESTAC, has been allowed to lapse. FESTAC should have been organized to hold every decade, and so give Pan-Africanists in the cultural field a festival to work towards every decade. These are the kinds of periodic activities that help to build solidarity and win and hold adherents to a movement.

6] Unity as a functional bloc or League. This is the kind of unity exhibited by blocs and alliances of states like NATO, the Arab League, the defunct Warsaw Pact, and the British Commonwealth. About the British Commonwealth, Azikiwe said:

“The Commonwealth is bound by a complex system of consultation and co-operation in political, economic, educational, scientific and cultural fields, working through many Commonwealth organizations and through personal contacts, like the Prime Ministers’ Conferences.”

–Azikiwe, 1962. In Langley ed., Ideologies, p.310

The unity Diop proposed for all the blacks when he said “The ties between black Africans and the blacks of Asia, Oceania, the Caribbean, South America and the United States must be strengthened on a rational basis.” is probably better embodied in such a League than in a geographically unwieldy Federation of states scattered across the globe.

The lack of attention to this type of unity has been disastrous for Pan-African collective security. With everything concentrated on states integration through the continental, Black African and Arab OAU/AU, no attention has been paid to our need for our own organized bloc of states, a Black African League or Black World League where matters peculiar to ourselves, matters of exclusive interest to ourselves, could be addressed without interference by our Arab enemies.

7] Unity through one mass organization with one voice. This is the type of unity manifested in Garvey’s movement, the UNIA; it is also proposed by Chancellor Williams when he suggests a “kind of massive organization”, “a nationwide organization of Blacks only [with] an active membership so vast that it would go far beyond the accepted scientific criteria for determining the wishes of a whole people; [an] organization that would, beyond all doubt, be the voice of Black America.”—[ Destruction . . ., pp. 332, 342]

A mass organization of this sort is probably best done through an organized religion or ideology, the type described in #3, above.


Pan-Africanists seem, thus far, to be fixated on types #1 and #7;they have not even explored the others. The failure of Pan-Africanism since 1958 to attend to and develop other types of unity besides state integration, has not just been misguided. It has helped to weaken the effectiveness of Pan-Africanism. It has left it without a basis of appeal to the ordinary Africans whose interests are monumentally different from those of states and presidents.

In its obsession with states integration, it has expected a Federation of states to do the job of a globe-spanning league of states for collective security as well as the job of popular solidarity; it has not explored the ways and means for organizing people’s solidarity.


Lack of solidarity organs


Of the missing types of unity, one whose absence is the most deadly is probably the lack of organs of popular solidarity. Lack of people’s solidarity helps account for the absence of expressions of popular support by Black Africans for the South Sudanese, Darfurians and other victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing and colonialism perpetrated by the racist Arab settler minority government in Khartoum. There has been no wave of popular indignation or demonstrations against the Black African presidents in the AU who have been campaigning to prevent Bashir from being arrested and tried in Die Hague for his crimes against humanity.

Also conspicuously absent have been demonstrations of popular Pan-African solidarity with Zimbabwe in its long struggle against the neo-colonial sanctions and regime change campaign by the white imperialist powers.

Lack of popular solidarity organs manifests also in the American Diaspora’s failure to support the Afro-Sudanese against Khartoum. When not totally indifferent to the plight of our endangered racial kith and kin, many in the American Diaspora have sided with the Arabs out of Islamic or anti-imperialist solidarity. And they have failed to mobilize the US government to stop the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Darfur. They have failed to use their power as American citizens to do what Chancellor Williams suggested, namely

“Influence American foreign policy and actions in regard to crucial matters affecting African nations just as effectively as American Jews can influence this country’s relations with Israel. . . . This would be real Pan Africanism.” [Destruction p.345]

I would suggest that Pan-Africanism needs to distinguish and build these various types of organs of unity (these 7 do not exhaust the types). Only when we have built a dense network of these 7 types of institutions can we be said to have organized ourselves and achieved Black African unity.

via Hope for Africa


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