Reclaiming Malawi’s Place at the Pan-African Table
It augurs very well for Malawi’s place in the pan-African world that we are celebrating our 43rd independence anniversary this year the same week that the 9th African Union Summit has been taking place in Accra, Ghana. After 43 odd years of independence, how many of us, not to talk of young Malawians, have a good grasp of the significance of celebrating July 6th as Malawi’s Independence Day? Each time this date comes, we move one year further away from the moment that gave birth to our nation. It is very easy for many of us to lose sight of what this meant in 1964, what it means today and, even more importantly, in the future. It might appear as if it is mere coincidence that we in Malawi are celebrating our independence anniversary in the same week that the 9th African Union Summit meeting in Ghana this week has debated the issue of a single government for the continent of Africa as the main topic. I argue that it is not mere coincidence. I argue that it is a sign of the times for us Malawians to step up to the continental table and take our rightful place as equal members with all the other African peoples on the continent and in the Diaspora.
For the first thirty years of our nationhood our ties with the rest of the African peoples were severed by a government led by a leader who, for the most part of his rule, did not believe in the unity of the African people. The irony of it all is that in fact Dr. Kamuzu Banda attended the 1945 Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, according to Kwesi Kwaa Praa, the first congress have taken place in 1919. Banda was a Pan-Africanist all the way up to the moment he began leading the independence struggle in Malawi. Historians are still studying what happened to the pre-independence Kamuzu, who was quite suddenly replaced by the post-independence Kamuzu who turned against his fellow Pan-Africanist colleagues. The legacy of the damage wrought on our country by this anti-Pan-Africanist policy is with us today, with many of us not fully aware of the importance of seeing ourselves in the larger ideal of a Pan-African identity and destiny. The policy of isolating ourselves from the rest of the African peoples led to a form of national amnesia insofar as the ideals that gave us a larger purpose and a vision. As Henry Masauko Chipembere wrote in 1971, we shared this larger purpose and vision with the rest of the continent, waging a struggle for freedom from a racist colonial oppression. Chipembere wrote in his paper that our struggle grew from learning what other Africans were doing in other parts of the continents, as much as other African countries also learned from the strategies we were using to achieve our independence. This year of 2007 is an auspicious one for the special fact that it has been 50 years since Ghana got its independence, an occasion that phenomenally emboldened the struggles of many other African countries, including our own.
Ghana’s independence in 1957 meant a lot for Malawi, for many reasons. For one, our first president the late Dr. Kamuzu Banda was a very close friend of Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a friendship that started long before either country became independent. Dr. Nkrumah became actively engaged in Malawi’s own struggle for independence from colonial rule. In his 1982 autobiography detailing what it took for us to achieve independence, Kanyama Chiume, one Malawian who was at the centre of the struggle, gives an elaborate and inspiring account of the support Malawians received from many Africans on the continent, and others beyond, at the height of the struggle. Chiume writes about visiting London in 1959, whereupon learning of his presence there, Dr. Nkrumah sent ₤100 to help in the work Chiume was doing in London. Days later Nkrumah offered an air ticket for Chiume to fly directly to Ghana to continue strategizing and mobilizing resources to aid Malawi’s freedom struggle. In Ghana Chiume was given a triumphant welcome, and “was carried shoulder high amidst shouts and placards to the effect that a Nyasalander murdered is a Ghanaian dead” (p. 122).
Even more self-less support from Nkrumah came when Chiume met with Nkrumah in Ghana. Chiume writes: “When I saw Nkrumah personally he was most vehement in his denunciation of imperialism in Nyasaland. Since the Devlin Commission had already been appointed, and we were determined to defend our colleagues in detention, he offered ₤10,000 to cover the defence costs. In addition, he placed at our disposal the services of an able Ghanaian lawyer, Mills Odoi, to accompany whoever we chose to go to Central Africa for the purpose.”
Chiume goes on to talk about the larger vision that Nkrumah had for the emancipation of all of Africa, outlining the idea of a Pan-African government to Chiume when they met a second time: “Nkrumah talked about the urgent need for an All-African government. ‘Many of our troubles, Chiume,’ he emphasized, ‘are due to the fact that we are not united. We must have a continental government to prevent the further balkanization of Africa and, as far I am concerned, when Malawi is finally free and only seven of us are ready, we should just plunge into it. Others will follow.” (p. 167).
The continent of Africa and its Diaspora has paid an incalculable price for failing to act on the Pan-Africanist vision of Dr. Nkrumah, Kanyama Chiume, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Henry Sylvester Williams, George Padmore, and others. Our countries have spent the past 50 years relying on the oftentimes guilt-ridden, sometimes benevolent conscience of our former colonial rulers who prop up our governments by providing a big fraction of our development budgets. We have many of our people believing that being dependent on our former colonial rulers is the permanent natural way of things, totally unaware that it is desirable for us to break free from this dependency and become self-sustaining. Most revealing of this pessimism and insular worldview have been the reactions this week to the issue of a union government of Africa, or a United States of Africa, that has been the center of the African Union summit this week. The opposition the idea has met from many Africans expressing their views on the BBC’s African Service programs, and in various other forums, has been eye opening in some ways, and also unsurprising in others. It would require a separate article altogether to respond to the most substantive skepticism, not to mention the purely reactionary and astonishingly uninformed comments that have come out from the mouths of many Africans used to thinking in the status quo, with no larger vision for what Africa’s future might look like.
The failure to make Pan-Africanist unity a reality is not easy to analyze as it involves many factors and contexts. The Malawi Cabinet Crisis of 1964, coming just three months after our independence meant that whatever capability Malawi had to contribute towards that ideal disappeared with the exiling and hunting down of the country’s first cabinet, which, according to Chipembere, was considered one of the most formidable on the continent. As a country we have spent very little time studying what led to the crisis, and what effect that had on our country. For us to claim our rightful place on the Pan-African table it is important that we recapture the ideals that helped us, together with other African countries, attain our independence. The struggle could never have been won had the entire country not been galvanized and involved. In the same vein, the future we envisage for ourselves will not come to fruition if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, and find new ways of galvanizing and involving all of our citizens in charting a new vision for our future. It has to be a long-term vision, and we have to begin with teachers, pupils, and schools.
Each one of us must strive to learn more about the ideals and visions that helped us attain independence, and the role the larger Pan-African family played toward that goal. Each of us must embark on an exploration of what it means to belong to a larger Pan-African identity which embraces all Africans on the continent and all people of African descent all over the world.
The African Union Summit has done very well to commission more studies on how a union government can become a reality. Every single person of African descent both on the continent and in the Diaspora needs to join in the debate and make it richer. Unlike the polarization that some are pushing as an either top-down or a grassroots approach on how to achieve a union government, the goal of greater Pan-African unity cannot be achieved by using one approach only. It has to be approached from multiple perspectives. The heads of government have their roles to play. The grassroots also have their roles to play. The regional groupings that already exist have a role to play, as do continental bodies such as the Summit itself. Universities and teacher education institutions in Africa and in the Diaspora need to devise more academic courses and research projects on the history, politics, economics, cultural and social contexts of Pan-Africanism, and involve students in research projects. Members of Parliament must be helped to have a better, informed understanding of the project, so as to lead their constituents in making their voices heard in the grand debate. Civil society organizations must take this an important part of their responsibilities in their quest to empower ordinary, grassroots people. The opposition and skepticism that have arisen on the debate are a healthy and relevant part of the process, and must be encouraged. However we stand benefit more from a better informed and reflective discussion.
We have the resources at our disposal to embark on a mass education campaign to enable an informed debate, but we need to mobilize those resources, and make them available to everyone interested in learning more. That is only one of the ways in which we are each going to participate in the grand effort toward Pan-Africanist integration and unity.