Wednesday, March 07, 2007

We’re all Ghanaians: Reclaiming Pan-Africanism for the African Renaissance

On January 22, 1957, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, then Prime Minister of the then Gold Coast, wrote a letter to Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, inviting them to attend the auspicious occasion of what would on March 6 of that year become the independent nation of Ghana. It would be the first Black African country to achieve independence from a European colonizing country, and would be joining North African countries, including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Sudan, who had already achieved their independence.

The US Government refused to issue passports to Dr. Du Bois and his wife Shirley to travel to Ghana. They ended up missing the hugely significant occasion. But Du Bois replied to Dr. Nkrumah’s letter, in which he performed a highly meaningful and symbolic act for the future of the Black world. Considered to be the father of Pan-Africanism, Dr. Du Bois bequeathed to Dr. Nkrumah the presidency of the Pan-African Congress, which had first met in 1919, in Paris. The next Pan-African Congress would be meeting on African soil for the first time ever, and Dr. Nkrumah would, as per Dr. Du Bois’s bestowing, be presiding over it. Thus the torch of Pan-Africanism, the struggle for people of African descent worldwide to overcome centuries of dehumanization and exploitation, was passed on to Kwame Nkrumah, to Ghana, and to Africa.

The celebrations marking 50 years of Ghana’s independence this week reassert Ghana’s place as the world center of Pan-Africanism (Pierre & Shipley, 2003, in Falola, Ed., Ghana in Africa and the World). In addition to being proud and happy for all Ghanaians in the world, I’m also very pleased for Malawi’s participation in this momentous celebration. The President of Malawi, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, is in Ghana as I write, with a Malawian contingent that is reported to include traditional chiefs and the Kwacha Cultural Troupe, Malawi’s national traditional dance troupe that preserves the best of Malawi’s performing arts heritage.

In Malawi we have every reason to join the Ghanaians, and the entire Pan-African world, in celebrating Ghana’s jubilee. As Walusako Mwalilino reminds everyone on the Malawi listserv Nyasanet, it was in Ghana that Malawi’s first president, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, spent a good part of the 1950s, where he became very close to Dr. Nkrumah, having first known each other in London where Dr. Banda has been practicing medicine for sometime. Dr. Nkrumah would eventually become actively engaged in Malawi’s own struggle for independence from the British. We are indebted to Kanyama Chiume, a Malawian who played a crucial role in the struggle, for giving us 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.

In his autobiography, Kanyama (1982) writes about visiting London in 1959, whereupon learning of his presence, Nkrumah sent ₤100 to help in the work Kanyama was doing in London. Days later Nkrumah offered Kanyama an airticket so that on leaving London Kanyama should fly directly to Ghana to continue strategizing and mobilizing resources to aid Malawi’s freedom struggle. In Ghana Kanyama 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).

And more support from Nkrumah and Ghana was yet to come when Kanyama met with Nkrumah:

“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.”

When Kanyama met Nkrumah again in early 1964, Nkrumah could not have been more forthright and passionate about the significance of Pan-Africanism:

“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 ideals of Pan-Africanism as practiced by Du Bois, Padmore, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Toure, Nyerere, Obote and others played a very important role in helping Black Africa overcome a racist, oppressive colonialism, but it did not solve all of Pan-Africa’s problems. Even at the height of the independence struggle problems arose due to betrayals, as Gamal Nkrumah, the son of Kwame Nkrumah told the BBC this week; lack of unity; and external interference by the colonialists who were determined not to see Africans govern themselves. In the months following Malawi’s independence, Banda became increasingly dictatorial and intolerant of opposing views. He and Nkrumah fell out, and Banda even ordered the closure of the Ghanaian Embassy in Malawi. In Ghana itself internal divisions, fomented by the CIA and other Cold War suspicions, also led to problems, including the military overthrow of Nkrumah. To this extent, the Pan-Africanist philosophy was ill-prepared for the unforeseen tragedies that followed.

Whereas some might think that this spelled the death of Pan-Africanism, others think that these events provide us lessons with which to re-examine Pan-Africanism as a framework, and reclaim it for contemporary realities. The 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence gives us that moment to reflect on our history and re-envision the future. The African Renaissance project provides a framework in which to reassess Pan-Africanism and retool it for the struggles ahead.

Ghana has embarked on a comprehensive program to lead the rest of the Pan-African world in imagining a new Africa. The program involves harnessing the resources of the African continent and its Diaspora, to place them at the disposal of the new demands now facing us. Ghana has initiated the Joseph Project (click here for more details), inspired by the Biblical story of Joseph who was sold away by his jealous brothers, and who prospered in the foreign lands to which they sold him. He later rescued his family in their time of need. With the project, Ghana is offering citizenship, land and other rights to people of African descent from anywhere in the world. A similar idea has been discussed in the African Union, according to the blog Black Looks, and is so far looking at giving citizenship to Black Americans. Although the project has already been criticized for being economistic in its outlook, it needs no emphasizing the role that Diaspora Africans can play in reviving the entire continent of Africa. In this regard, the two types of Diasporas, the historic and the contemporary, the latter also inclusive of migration within the African continent itself, have enormous roles to play in this renewal (Zeleza, 2005, in Mkandawire, Ed., African Intellectuals).

A long-term strategy in re-envisioning Pan-Africanism for the African Renaissance will not be feasible if it does not place at its center educational curriculum and pedagogy, both on the continent and in the worldwide Diaspora. Curriculum and pedagogy, both at the teacher education and school level, constitute one of the comprehensive strategies that will awaken a Pan-Africanist consciousness in school children, teachers, and their communities, by generating new knowledge about African peoples, their histories, their struggles and aspirations. As with the Pan-Africanism of the 1960s, problems will surface, but the advances made by African peoples worldwide in various spheres of world influence in the last several decades should reassure us of our capabilities to overcome these difficulties. There will be a few who will decide that the African Diaspora identity means nothing to them, "thank God for slavery"; but there will also be plenty more who will reaffirm their Pan-African identity. Thus Ghana’s happy occasion this week is also a time to ask ourselves new questions about what Pan-Africanism might look like, and what role each of us can play, in the era of the African Renaissance.