Pan-Africanism as it once was dreamed is dead. In its place—instead of a transnational framework of solidarity deployed to give heart and direction to Africans during the independence and self-determination struggles—we have something that rallies to the defence of rich, powerful men but remains painfully silent about the suffering of the poor and dispossessed.
He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch
When Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a devastating report on the ongoing conflict in west Sudan, they highlighted the many violent crimes the Omar al-Bashir administration committed against Sudanese civilians, both through proxies and directly through the military. There are many things in the report that would shock anyone who reads it. There are many reasons to be angry and frustrated.
Such anger or frustration would require reading the report, which very few have.
This is surprising. During Bashir’s visit to South Africa, earlier in the year, there was tremendous coverage on the impact it would have on South Africa’s international standing as one of the most politically significant countries on the continent. You would think more news outlets would have picked up the HRW report; you would imagine that the many who indulged in pro-sovereignty polemics during the Bashir visit would have taken a moment to acknowledged the release of this report, even to criticize it. You’d think people who beat the drums for sovereignty during Bashir’s visit would spare a breath for the victims of his violence.
Of course, you’d be wrong. No major African newspapers picked up the report. There was no round the clock coverage of the potential impact the report would have on the African Union and its decision to stand behind Bashir. No African foreign ministries have breathed a word of reaction to the allegations in the report—even critically. Pan-African Twitter said little, Facebook even less. If you weren’t paying close attention, you’d be forgiven for thinking the report was anything but setting out a gory, detailed account of state sanctioned murder and extermination by an African government against Africans.
This silence is a soundtrack to the death of Pan-Africanism as it once was dreamed. In its place—instead of a transnational framework of solidarity deployed to give heart and direction to Africans during the independence and self-determination struggles—we have something that rallies to the defence of rich, powerful men at the drop of a hat but remains painfully silent about the suffering of the poor and dispossessed. Pan-Africanism has become a rhetorical tool invoked to defend Bashir and his ilk, another weapon in the arsenal that power deploys against vulnerable groups.
Everyone can tell you what Pan-Africanism stands for… when it is juxtaposed with the West. But no one seems to know what Pan-Africanism means when it is self-referential. And the solidarity consciousness is dying, leaving behind a network that exists solely to protect rich, powerful men.
Rest in peace, Pan-Africanism. Long live Man-Africanism.
Where were you when the heart stopped?
Pan-Africanism was a return-to-purity doctrine, with roots outside of the continent: Africans in the diaspora imagined an idealised vision of Africa, a utopia to which they could return, to escape the perdition of slavery. It served a specific political function: this idealised alternative to the misery of life in the slave country could be appealed to in the same breath as The Afterlife, and could be invoked as a social project to unite and organize solidarity. As long as the ideal existed, conflicts over programs of action could be easily resolved. It wouldn’t matter what means we used to get there, as long as we all agreed we were going to the same place.
These roots found welcoming soil in the independence struggles after the Second World War. The colonial experience gave African freedom fighters a “what” to fight against, but Pan-Africanism gave them a “why” and also a “how.” They built solidarity around the idea of the unitary, singular African. Steve Biko’s black consciousness, for example, is aggressively uninterested in the difference between a Luhya or a Sesotho person—in so far as “negro” was a politically constructed class created to oppress, then negroes could unite and tell a different story about themselves. If colonizers had made Africans into a singular black block of otherness, Pan-Africanism turned this negation on its head, producing a principle of solidarity in its place.
Until independence, defining the content of this Pan-African identity had to be secondary to the process of using it: the wars for independence and imagining the independent African state took priority. The Fanons, Bikos, and Cabrals are rightly celebrated for their rare ability to do both—pick up arms and intellectually articulate the nature of the African identity. But, more commonly, this task was left to elites aligned to the interests of those closest to power, to those who had received Western education, who could translate and represent African demands to the West. These were wealthy men, and so, it is no surprise that defining Pan-Africanism became a masculinised project. Pan-Africanism became about the status, goals, and desires of men. Under the “men means people” maxim, thinkers like Biko centered their theories on the experience of the black man, and the promise of liberation vis-à-vis this experience. There were exceptions, men like Amilcar Cabral or Samora Machel, who denied there could be liberation without the liberation of women. But these figures were exceptional: for the most part, the unique challenges that faced women in the colonial system—such as ritualised sexual humiliation—were erased, forgotten, and excluded… except where they could be framed as indignities visited on men.
The possibilities of independence were squandered. African nations not only inherited oppressive state structures, but ended up reinforcing the very systems that had been used to keep them oppressed, often through gender. Pan-Africanism was kidnapped. Calls to unity were used to justify state violence and repression, to animate calls for blind loyalty to the state. Those who led us to liberation did not live to see it: so many of the intellectual architects of the independence struggle did not survive to see their theories tested. And so, only the core idea that there was a single African identity—and a male one—seems to have survived. Pan-Africanism had a “what” but no longer a “why.”
This crisis persists, and cages our imaginations. While the idea that we are all Africans endures, few work to define what else “African” might mean, or how African solidarity can be built. This intellectual vacuum costs millions of Africans their lives and well-being. We have forgotten that solidarity must benefit the vulnerable, those who would be crushed if they had to stand alone. Instead, Pan-Africanism has been co-opted and corrupted by power, has become an elitist discourse protecting the interests of power. And so, we must defend Bashir from the West. But we must say nothing when he massacres nearly half a million Africans. Africans are called upon to blindly defend the excesses of power from Western interference—the what—but never really expected to engage with why.
Why does Bashir deserve your endless loyalty? Just because he’s an African too?
Man-Africanism is solidarity for the wealthy men whose power dominates Africa. It insulates power from criticism. It is not post-colonial ideology; it is not a critical theory or solidarity to protect Africans. It is used to justify systemic murder and humiliation of Africans, by Africans, because it cannot and will not be criticized from within or from without.
Man-Africanism has a slogan and it is this: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Man-Africanism protects Africa’s sons of bitches.
There was a time when the world was seized by moral panic over Darfur, an ongoing conflict in which an estimated 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million have been displaced. At the apex of this moral panic, the African Union wrung its hands and the UN Security Council instructed the International Criminal Court to consider charging the architects of the crisis with crimes against humanity. Then the news cycle moved on.
The people of Darfur, however, continue to suffer and die. But instead of the protection and liberation of the vulnerable women, children, and men of Sudan, Man-Africanists have come out in support of Bashir. Never mind that Bashir considers himself Arab, and is on record expressing noxious racist views against black people. Man-Africanism perversely defends the murder of Sudanese people. For the Man-Africanist, the protection of the powerful will lead to the liberation of the less powerful. (It won’t.)
At the core of Man-Africanism is the idea that people means man: the black man is the natural leader of Africa. Independence is a masculinised discourse, and the liberation of men was to lead to the liberation of women, children, and the elderly. Like other trickle-down theories, this hasn’t been the case. Instead, the consolidation of power in the hands of privileged men has been at the expense of everyone else. But it has been so uncritically woven into intellectual discourse on African history that we have never had a discussion on the real-world impact of Man-Africanism on Africa.
What if there are other forms of liberation that aren’t predicated on a unitary, masculinised identity? What if other forms of solidarity exist outside the presumption that men must lead? This is the situation we face today. In Sudan itself, Sudanese people have rejected Omar al-Bashir and his brand of racist pseudo-imperialism; they have demonstrated at the ballot box that they want to imagine new forms of political organisation. It is patriarchal institutions like the African Union—the great council of Man-Africanists—that continues to impose him on Sudanese people: they cannot conceive of a world where a rich African man could be unseated from power by mere Africans.
Man-Africanism has no philosophy, no principles, no beliefs. It is capitalist when capitalism reinforces the economic weight of the man-state; it is socialist when redistribution legitimises its populist credentials. It has no regard for the lives of the majority of Africans, because its primary goal is the reproduction of power. It is a game for the rich. It is crafted in Chinese-built boardrooms and conference centers, away from the gaze of the masses. Membership is earned by the ability to profit from Western institutions while also criticizing them. The African Union is primarily funded by the European Union, but it will always be the first to insist that Western nations stop interfering: obsessed with the “white devils” that unmake Africa, it will never cast its critical gaze on the unmaking of Africa by Africans.
Indeed, Man-Africanism can only discuss Africa by discussing the West. Incapable of self-examination, it has never defined itself as anything other than the anti-Europe. And so, its program of action is negatively defined, and it flounders when it cannot distance itself from Europe. What insights does Man-Africanism offer for the millions of young men and women risking death trying to cross the Sahara and know peace? What is its position on rape as a weapon of war in the DRC? When heads of state sell their nation’s lands and institutions to multi-national corporations—when Africans lose their lands, lives, and livelihoods—the Man-Africanist silence is deafening.
Man-Africanists never attacked the patriarchal colonial state. At its most idealistic, Pan-Africanism was still a project driven by elite men. And so, Man-Africanism has never seen the liberation of women as a priority; the oppression of women has never seemed as grave or as urgent as the suffering of powerful men. Focused on formal power and the public sphere, it will never seek to overturn private hierarchies of exploitation if the primary beneficiaries will be women.
It will never remake the African Union into a grassroots movement, because the grassroots are not powerful men. It will never reject external interventions that strengthen the central state, because the central state is powerful men. It will never defend the women of South Sudan from violent sexual assault, because the war has been started and perpetuated by powerful men. Its principle of solidarity is powerful men.
Man-Africanism has the hubris of anti-colonial thought, but none of its strategic creativity. Perhaps this is because the greatest minds of the anti-colonial movements were lost to assassinations by Western governments and proxies, to betrayal and greed. Man-Africanism is the broken and unfulfilled promise of Lumumba, Cabral, Mboya and Sankara, who never lived to see the limits and material opportunities that their ideas or theories would engender.
Man-Africanism is killing Africans. Victims of African violence must cease to exist. The most vulnerable must be silent, must service the machine; we must monetize our identity as Africans, must bleed them of meaning, must use them as a stick to batter critics, as they barter our bodies to the white devils they claim to hate. Women will be showpieces without politics. It will dehumanise and do to us what the colonialists did to our foreparents: we will become a trope to sanitize morally noxious politics.
Africans are more than what Man-Africanism would make of us. We are not born to suffer and die so powerful men can grow more powerful. We need renewed and inclusive frames of identity that recognise our humanity and urge genuine solidarity. We need a rebirth of true Pan-Africanism, the kind of trans-communal narrative of solidarity that could hold Bashir and his ilk accountable for the destruction they cause. We must, finally, find a way to say to the people of Darfur “you are African too.”
With Thanks to Nduko o’Matigere (@ndukoomatigere) who coined the neologism “Man-Africanism”
This article previously appeared in The New Inquiry.
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