The African Union at 50: Rethinking Pan Africanism

On Saturday Africans will celebrate fifty years since the formation of the African Union (AU) (until 2002 the Organisation for African Unity (OAU)). Half a century later we can, and should, critically analyse the body’s success and truthfully point out its shortcomings.

When the OAU was founded in 1963, its primary objective was to help the African states under colonialism to achieve independence and at the same time maintain the independence and sovereignty of those who had already gained independence. Also important was to foster unity amongst African states and present a unified front at global institutions such as the United Nations.

By 1999, when the OAU resolved to change to the AU, these objectives had, by and large, been achieved and no country in Africa was still under colonial domination. Africa, however continued to lag behind socially, technologically and in good governance. The OAU did nothing as Africans were massacred across the continent by bloodthirsty despots such as Abacha, Idi Amini and in Rwanda.

Our own governments looted national resources and converted countries to personal treasure chests and continued to oppress the people, sometimes fatally. As a response to the changed circumstances and goals, the AU was born.

The AU came with new objectives, amongst which are: To achieve greater unity and solidarity between African countries and the people of Africa, to defend the sovereignty of member states, promote peace, stability and accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent.

Whilst the AU has achieved some success, it has also failed to act decisively on several occasions most notably in the revolutions of North Africa, particularly in Libya and also in the countless coups that have taken over governments in Chad, Mali, CAR and elsewhere. This has led some to say the AU is a toothless dog, whose only weapon is its bark.

Against this background, and on the occasion of the AU’s 50th birthday, we have a chance to see where we went wrong and more importantly to avoid those same mistakes in the future.

Without doubt, Africa’s biggest problem is that of leadership and good governance and how in many instances leaders have led countries for over two decades, sometimes democratically but usually using questionable means.

Speaking at a Pan-Africanism Conference at the University of Oxford Dr Vera Songwe notes that in 2011 there were sixteen elections in Africa, and of those ten returned the incumbents to power. Those ten on average, had ruled for more than twenty years.

This shows clearly that Africa is lacking in both able leadership and leadership renewal which is surprising because Africa has more than half a billion youths who ideally should be involved in governance but are being side-lined.

Dr Songwe adds that there are two kinds of leaders, transformational leaders who lead by vision and ideas and work towards a common goal and transactional leaders who lead by contract and are beholden to a certain stratum of society. This later group, to which the majority of African leaders belong, reward their subordinates, are beholden to a certain group, be it a foreign country, an ethnic group, a religious group or an ethnic faction.

Because of this, a good leader may find himself surrounded by sycophants who are not critical of his/her decisions and are incompetent. The able leader therefore soon finds himself a dictator as has happened in many countries across the continent.

Speaking at the same event, Zimbabwean Deputy Prime Minister Professor Arthur Mutambara stresses the importance of unity, a common vision, respect of our values and ICT and technology. With a common vision, Prof Mutambara said, it does not matter who wins an election as the national vision is the same.

He also pointed out that having good laws is not enough, what is important is whether you believe in those laws giving as an example that despite having the mightiest army on the globe there has never been a coup in the United States yet small armies were taking over governments in Africa.

The Pan-Africanism of our generation therefore, is fundamentally different from that of Robert Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Joshua Nkomo and others who fought colonialism and – by extension- racism. Theirs was a political question, driven by the need to emancipate black people from European subjugation.

It was characterised by great leaders who were believed to be infallible and almost divine: Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Haile Selssie etc. The period of the great leader, however, has passed, as noted by Prof Horace Campbell who says, “In the past revolution required the ‘Great Leader’, the vanguard party, the vanguard idea, not anymore. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions show that the autonomous, self-organised possibilities of different sectors of society can make change in society.”

The Pan-Africanism of our generation also has women at the forefront, women who challenge traditional and long held beliefs that they are inferior. It is also characterised by the transmission of ideas using modern means and subsequently non-violent mass protests as the new generation of Africans embrace the importance of ideas and dialogue in opposition to violent confrontation. The recent events in North Africa easily highlight this.

The biggest problem is that there is mutual distrust between our generation and the generations who had direct contact with colonialism, who accuse us of “threatening to undo the gains” of the struggle. Their fears are not without basis, to most of us the massacres of Sharpeville, the tragedies of Nyadzonia and Chimoio or the concentration camps in Kenya, are events in the distant past we only know of because of history. This fear is prevalent in Zimbabwe, where the comrades in ZANU PF feel that we downplay the importance of the liberation struggle.

The feeling also exists in South Africa, Kenya and other African states. In an article published by The Guardian on the eve of Kenya’s elections early this year, Ngugi wa Thiongo writes:

When Kenya goes to the polls on Monday it will mark a generational change-no matter who wins. For the first time in its history the country will be run by a leadership with hardly any direct experience of colonialism. There are risks to this development: the new leadership might trivialise what it means to be colonised, and the insidious ways in which imperialism is reproduced….. The next leaders will not be encumbered by memories of humiliation and triumphant resistance. This may make them act with more confidence relative to Europe and the outside world. But it may also make them gullible to the machinations of the corporate west, without regard to national vision.”

The prodigious task of this new generation of African leaders is to reconcile our aspirations and expectations as a generation living in an increasingly global world with the wisdom and experiences of our elders so that we instil confidence, not only in the youths but also in those who sacrificed a lot to give us freedom. If we fail in this, we risk becoming what Ngugi wa Thiongo calls “Africa’s new imperialists…. A new generation of leaders, forged not by the independence struggle but western corporate greed.”

The Pan-Africanism of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Walter Sisulu, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara and many other eminent heroes of our struggle as Africans arose in response to the challenges and problems of the day- such as colonialism, racism, foreign domination, exploitation, sexual harassment and unfair treatment. To remain relevant the Pan-Africanism of today must confront the new and ever changing problems which we, as Africans face, and the different forms in which imperialism continues to rear its ugly head.

These problems are bad governance, exploitation of Africans by Africans, foreign meddling in our affairs, the unreasonable travel restrictions between African nations, civil wars, disease and lack of education. We cannot blame imperialism for some of the tragedies we see today, such as the Marikana shooting, the electoral violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe and the endless religious wars in Nigeria and Mali.

We need to put our heads together to come up with solutions, remembering what Achebe said, that “as Africans we are older than problems”.


“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories .”
– Amilcar Cabral (12 September 1924 – 20 January 1973), Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean agricultural engineer, writer, and revolutionary

A new form of Pan-Africanism is needed, one in which there is less sloganeering, there are no cults of personality but instead where each of us is a leader in their own small spheres effecting positive change. Ideology is good, but what is most important, as Amilcar Cabral says, is to “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children .”

True Pan-Africanists must recognise the importance of honest criticism, and Africans, home and abroad must not condone irresponsible and evil actions in the name of the revolution. To condemn the bad and commend the good, that is revolutionary honesty. 

Pan-Africanism for our generation must transcend religion, race or national borders, and at the same time we should remain  mindful of our history but not trapped by it. Other generations did their part, ours is to make Africa a just, peaceful and prosperous continent for all.

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

― Frantz Fanon








2 thoughts on “The African Union at 50: Rethinking Pan Africanism

  1. sometimes I think we Africans are unjustified for crying out over discrimination and marginalisation, because we always see, to prove our detractors wrong with our very actions, never walking the talk. and then the so-called big brothers come and bully us, but basically it is our own fault. Failing to move with the times.

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