Africa is undergoing an artistic renaissance that could be a part of the African Union’s approach in communicating the aspirations of Africa and Africans, engaging Africans in critical discussion and representing the potential strength in the diversity of the continent
Amongst the earliest Pan-Africans, the leaders whose dreams and visions ultimately led to the creation of the African Union, there is a conspicuous amount of newspaper founding. Marcus Garvey, leading the Universal Negroes Improvement Association, founded and edited the Negro World; Mohammed Ali Duse founded an international newspaper with an African perspective, the African Times and Orient Review in 1912; in this endeavor Duse was helped by Joseph Casely-Hayford, author of Ethiopia Unbound, and the editor of various African newspapers in the 1800s; equally, leaders like Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo and the editors of Drum Magazine, publishing defiantly in 1950s South Africa, used newspapers and media more broadly to disseminate their ideas, and represent the possibility of a different world. All of these leaders understood the inextricable link between the goals of the nascent Pan-Africanist movement, and the communication and valorization, both of that goal AND African culture more broadly.
As the African Union marks the 50th year of its existence – this link has never been stronger, and has never needed to be more strongly articulated. Put simply, for Africa and the African Union, culture and communication must become the medium for transforming the African continent in the image and aspirations of its founding documents.
In the early post-independence era, national governments across the continent marshaled and in some cases co-opted traditional and new forms of cultural expression as a shorthand and metaphor for national identity. In many cases, this cultural projection was successful, at least in providing an external perception of the continent as a potential beacon for peoples of African descent elsewhere, and as confident, young new nations; nothing exemplified this more than the World Festival of Black Arts held in Senegal in 1966 and Festac ’77, held in Nigeria in 1977.
The legacy of those post-independence cultural productivity has been long-lasting, and in the eras of structural adjustment, and the general assault from economic forces, as well as political ones that followed, the most enduring and sustaining legacy in many African countries have been the rich ferment of post-independence cultural production. And this activity was often rich in collaboration between artists, writers and other cultural producers across the continent.
Nevertheless, like the Organization of African Unity, many artists and writers across the continent were affected by the woes of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in Africa; yet increasingly, there is a resurgence in the arts, letters and creative economy of the continent, a resurgence fuelled in part by the digital and telecommunication transformation across the continent, and the newly liberalized environment in many countries; dormant or neglected creative economies are being reconstituted in an age which allows a more level (albeit still unequal) playing field between cultural forces in the Global North and South. This artistic renaissance could be a part of the African Union’s approach in communicating the aspirations of Africa and Africans, engaging Africans in critical discussion and examination of our condition, and representing the potential strength in the diversity of the continent. But first, to paraphrase what Nkrumah said, the African Union ought to ‘Seek first the digital kingdom’; both as a goal for itself as an organization, and as a continental aspiration.
It’s estimated that in the African Union’s next 20-50 years of life, the African continent will be one of the few places in the world to continue experiencing significant growth of its youthful population. Already the continent is the youngest in the world, by population. While we must not fetishize youth in the way we have in the old, festishized old age, it is without a doubt that this generation, unless African leaders fail woefully, will be comfortable in a world where communication happens most fluidly over mobile, and more importantly mobile and internet communication.
This is an important constituency for the African Union to communicate with. This is the digital kingdom – with whom the AU can establish a moral authority, and bond of legitimacy. At present, the digital presence of the African Union very much represents the organization as one for whom digital engagement, the mobile and internet connectivity are an afterthought; it appears that little consideration has been given to appearances. Yes, we might say, the African Union is in the business of power and politics, and not appearances; however, it should be clear to any politician worth their salt that the medium is the message, and appearances in a world of instant communication, 24-hour news cycles, and citizen journalists count for everything. This is not an argument for propaganda, but for real communication, and a pro-active representation of the continent by the one organization tasked with, and equipped with the moral authority and political legitimacy to be a continental voice. In this goal, the AU already has a firm foundation; the symbolism of the Union, reflected in its emblem, appropriate the long tradition of Pan-Africanism both in the diaspora and the continent itself; in its founding documents, the African Union already commits itself to the promotion of African culture, and the full representation and participation of African people.
Garvey’s movement represented as the colors of African pride – Red, green, and black – reformulated into banners of popular consciousness; raised as a flag they signaled the political arrival of a strident new force on the global stage. Pan –Africanism, from that early inception is now a living, breathing reality, even though not fully fledged. For too many Africans, on the continent and in the diaspora, the African Union is too distant an entity to have any direct import on their lives, and for too many elsewhere in the world, the African Union is not yet perceived as a forceful actor and advocate arguing Africa’s corner.
In the next phase of its existence that must change; its clear some of this is already happening; the appointment of first Jean Ping, and then Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as the first woman AU commissioner, is a sign the AU membership understand the importance of message and symbols in the perception of the organization. The new chair has been visible, engaging and engaged; yet we need greater visibility from the commissioner, and the team around the commissioner. Most professionals working on African issues, let alone ordinary Africans, would be hard pressed to name a single commissioner for the many areas in which the AU has established commissions or committees. Audiences – including many in rural parts of the continent increasingly seek out their own news rather than consume it via top-down media; this asymmetry of power in communication needs to be used to the AU and Africa’s advantage, and talk directly to Africans simply and consistently. The functions of its institutions must be transparently, and demonstrably open to influence through the mediums most Africans now use – its websites, social media channels, and most importantly, mobile phones, as well as radio broadcast.
And the talking needs to work both ways; Africa’s civil society, youth culture and creative industries are already spaces where the discussion of Africa’s future is shaped, the AU needs to be part of those conversations. A lot can be achieved by engaging the many creative people and institutions that have in recent years put Africa on the map as a place of groundbreaking innovation in digital communication, creative storytelling and news gathering.
Neither can the AU ignore the significance of what is, in diplomatic and political parlance, called ‘Soft Power’. ‘Soft Power’ is a necessary element of power projection that Africans cannot neglect in the 21st century. The cultural element of Africa’s power projection needs to be harnessed and proactively communicated; this is not to advocate for a propaganda office, exhorting every artist and cultural institution to valorize the motherland, but instead to say that culture in its diversity and complexity needs to have a greater influence on what the AU says and shows about Africa. Africa’s regional partners, including Europe, China and the United States encourage the existence of in-depth awareness, rather than a pastiche, of their cultures through cultural institutions, notable examples of course are The British Council, Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institut, and the Chinese Confucius Institutes.
These organizations project the values of their countries and regions in African countries. It is time that we did the same, and/or began to find ways to have a stronger impact on their perception and communication of African culture. There are, of course, 54 nation-states in Africa, some of which are regional powerhouses, but many that are small or sparsely populated states, which should demonstrably benefit from the associational power and protection of a regional body. These countries need to have an influential role in raising the profile of Africa’s cultural and intellectual contributions to the world, and in the world, and indeed the African Union as an institution can be instrumental.
But what does all this mean on a pragmatic level, in the day-to-day experience, and brutal administrative reality of an institution constrained by funds? It means the AU has to work smart, and hard, but also openly, and collaboratively with private institutions, and civil organizations. These are a few practical ideas the AU can engage with:
1. Reform its overall communication and digital strategy to engage with an African audience – this should include a mobile friendly version of the AU website, ongoing campaigns to engage African and international audiences; the aim should be to place the African Union’s digital presence at the heart of its communication with the world and its constituents.
2. The AU should aim to be at the forefront of communicating directly with Africans about African culture – through partnerships with existing institutions, in particular universities of good standing on the continent.
3. Establish partnerships with existing cultural festivals in Africa – for example the FESPACO film festival – with the aim of strengthening their capacity and bringing international attention to the best of African creativity.
4. Use events like the African Cup of Nations to highlight and show off the potential of African cities; already a global phenomenon, the African Cup of Nations offers the host location a specific opportunity to show off itself – and this is particularly relevant for small countries and cities. The tournament can and should be twinned with cultural events and programmes that capitalize on the international interest this Africa-focused event generates.
5. Establish a regular occasion for the AU commissioner to engage with African audiences – particular a regular occasion for engagement with the broadcast media of African countries
6. The AU should establish ‘Years of Culture’ – perhaps focused on particular cultures on the continent, or particular genres, or forms; the emphasis in doing this should be on highlight and raise the profile of the genre, form or culture in question to a wider audience inside and outside Africa
7. There should be scope for volunteering by the many talented Africans working in institutions across the continent and outside it; well formed partnerships, particularly in the areas of communication can be forged with the leading technology and communication companies on the continent
8. Establish small centers of African cultural exchange – particularly in states where Africa increasingly seeks and gets investment – for example, Brazil, China, India and Japan. This activity should be undertaken in partnership with existing African universities, with support from private sector organizations.
Culture is ultimately expressive of values; the African Union, an organization that reflects the most politically and socially influential aspiration of Africans will more and more have to communicate the values that an emancipated, democratic, and increasingly economically united Africa stands for. This is of course a field of contention; there are dissenting views of what constitutes African culture; which parts of tradition must be treasured, reformed or jettisoned; but even if many of our values may be argued about, the codification of particular aspirations in the AU’s founding charter, and the African [Banjul"> Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights represents a particular choice of values; within a humanistic framework that treats the individual as protected and valued for their difference, as the building block of community with an equal right of expression as all others, whether that difference is gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity the African Union must communicate clearly to the world and to African people and their leaders that these values are rooted in the laws and commitments African member-states have made voluntarily in their association.
There is no monolithic African culture, but we do have one African institution to set the standard for the sort of values Africa wants to stand for.
* Dele Meiji Fatunla is a writer and digital communications professional
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