Siyabonga Hadebe | Africa Day celebrations, yes, but where is uhuru?

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Africa Day celebrates the diversity and rich history of the African continent.
Africa Day celebrates the diversity and rich history of the African continent.
David Malan

At times, it is necessary to critically examine the commonly held beliefs and terms in African politics. "Pan-Africanism", a philosophy advocating a united and better Africa, is one such term that deserves scrutiny. It is important to ask: What has Pan-Africanism delivered to the continent and its people?

As a start, it is worthwhile to note that this philosophy predates the independent African states. However, Mark Malisa and Phillippa Nhengeze argue that "the existence of nation-states did not imply the negation of Pan-Africanism".

The importance of ideas which saw a united, single African identity as a powerful vehicle for fighting racism and oppression were initially espoused outside the continent, mainly in North America and the Caribbean.

With the advent of post-colonialism, however, there was finally hope that nations would put Africans in a better position to realise the goals of Pan-Africanism, not just in Africa but also among people of African descent in different parts of the world.

This article is thus premised on the understanding that the post-colonial state is or was supposed to play a central role in advancing the objectives of this ideology. Still holding the view that Pan-Africanism is a universal ideology for improving the conditions of Africans and their kin overseas, the argument is that nations in Africa have been a huge let-down, a dream deferred for all Africans, wherever they reside.

READ: Cry, the beloved Africa – a tale of two experiences

Liberators copy the oppressors

The challenge lies in the problematic nature of the political independence attained by former European colonies in Africa. Independence did not truly bring freedom, as economic and political ties with former colonial powers remained intact, and new imperial powers were born in addition to old ones.

Moreover, the leaders of the liberation movements often emerged from within the colonial system. Independence started in the late 1950s when colonial powers supposedly left the continent. They were then replaced by their extended, darker-skinned associates, and their governance reflected the same oppressive tendencies they had purportedly fought against.

The rule of individuals such as Hastings Kamuzu Banda, José dos Santos and Félix Houphouët-Boigny did not bring freedom or prosperity to their people, but, instead, perpetuated a culture of make-believe and unrealistic expectations.

As a result, the post-colonial state in Africa has dismally failed to break free from its colonial legacy and fulfil the objectives of Pan-Africanism. The preservation of colonial borders and the prioritisation of European languages and political and economic systems perpetuated the divide-and-conquer tactics of the colonial era and benefited the new ruling elites. Corruption, authoritarianism and neo-colonial dependencies persisted, and the majority of Africans did not experience the promised freedom and improvement in their lives.

The new leadership under the Organisation of African Unity argued that they did not want to alter borders as it would open a Pandora's box, and they also wanted to protect the integrity of post-colonial states.

Neo-colonial dependencies continue to hobble continent

Furthermore, some West African countries continued to be tied to France via an arrangement that required them "to vest their foreign exchange reserves with the French central bank". Nigerian journalist David Hundeyin suggests that this "neocolonial tax" from 1958 contributes significantly to the $2.5 trillion (R48 trillion) French economy.

On top of it all, African countries are still bound to their colonial heritage through structures such as the Commonwealth of Nations and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. It seems that these countries cannot justify their existence without their former colonisers.

After the end of apartheid and without pressure, Nelson Mandela took the "new" South Africa back to the Commonwealth, after the previous white regime had opted out in the 1960s.

In 2018, Angola expressed an interest in joining the Commonwealth, while at least six of the 14 British-linked countries in the Caribbean want out. Mozambique and Rwanda, though never a British colony, also voluntarily submitted to the UK in 1995 and 2009, respectively. The benefits of accepting the remnants of British imperialism and its filth remain vague.

What is not clear is whether the end of colonialism meant freedom for Africans or if it merely entrenched indirect rule via people with darker skin. Almost all states in Africa, from Namibia to Morocco, still exist under the shadow of their former colonisers and maintain diplomatic relations with these countries.

However, relations among African states are not at the level they should be for reasons beyond the focus of this analysis. Even such things as the African Union, many regional economic communities, and the continent-wide free trade agreement remain paper giants. Worryingly, there is no single entity Africans can claim to fund and control.

On the other hand, blacks in the diaspora, such as Henry Williams, WEB Du Bois, Marcus and Amy Garvey, and George Padmore did their part to connect with their brethren in Africa. They envisioned a unified struggle for African freedom.

READ: Editorial | Let us reclaim our place as Africa’s beacon

Much later, Africans born elsewhere, such as Frantz Fanon, Padmore and Walter Rodney made Africa their home after "independence", but it does not appear that the new African leadership really understood the political significance of this gesture.

Rodney, for example, headed back to Guyana in the end, maybe frustrated that Africa had not appreciated the nature of the political direction it had to pursue. The new leaders became increasingly removed from the people they claimed to represent, and repression became the order of the day. And new attitudes, including self-aggrandisement and material accumulation topped the agenda of former liberation heroes.

The dream of uhuru, or freedom, has remained elusive for most Africans, while the political and economic elites continue to amass wealth and power.

Blame is squarely laid on both the political and economic elites, who continue to hog the African state as theirs alone, and their external friends. They are the only ones who benefit from its wealth and accrued rents from its endowment, while the majority live under difficult conditions that have not changed a bit with freedom.

As Chinua Achebe pointed out in The Trouble with Nigeria: "One of the commonest manifestations of underdevelopment is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations."

READ: Africa Day: Foreign nationals being used as scapegoats

These elites saw, and still see, themselves as natural successors to their former masters, with total disregard for an inclusive state.

Even more worrying is that there is little or nothing that connects Africans in different parts of the world, as there is nothing within Africa. For example, African states in 2016 resolved not to formally admit Haiti as a member of the AU.

The AU puts too much prominence on its lacklustre African Diaspora programme. But the reality is that intra- and intercontinental or state relations between Africans do not come close to what the global Jewish population enjoys.

To conclude, the implementation of Pan-Africanism has been hindered by disunity, inequality and the perpetuation of colonial legacies. The post-colonial state in Africa failed to prioritise the wellbeing and dignity of its people, instead favouring the interests of the ruling elite.

Without a fundamental reassessment of power dynamics and a commitment to inclusive governance, the dream of uhuru will remain distant for Africans across the continent.

* Hadebe is a writer and a South African diplomat based in Geneva, Switzerland.

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