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 CULTURE & COMMUNICATION 
CULTURE & COMMUNICATION / "The Contemporary History of Africa is Pan-Africanism"
Interview with Amzat Boukari-Yabara
Date of publication at Tlaxcala: 15/03/2015
Original: "L'histoire contemporaine de l'Afrique, c'est le panafricanisme"
Entretien avec Amzat Boukari-Yabara


"The Contemporary History of Africa is Pan-Africanism"
Interview with Amzat Boukari-Yabara

Anne Bocandé

Translated by  Jenny Bright

 

Let's dust off Pan-Africanism. This is what the researcher Amzat Boukari proposes in his work published by French publisher La Découverte, Africa Unite! A history of Pan-Africanism. Africultures met with him.

You evoke Pan-Africanism as a philosophical concept, a socio-political movement, or a doctrine of political unity. What is the definition of Pan-Africanism?

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Amzat Boukari-Yabara

Historian, Africa specialist.
Originally from Benin and Martinique, Amzat Boukari-Yabara holds an MA in the History of Brazil (Paris-Sorbonne, 2005), a Master in Social Sciences (EHESS, 2007) and a diploma in Latin American studies (IHEAL, 2011). His doctoral thesis in the history and civilizations of Africa (EHESS, 2010) questions the various aspects of Pan-Africanism and contemporary revolutionary movements, starting from the political and intellectual biography of the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney.
He is the author of Nigeria (De Boeck, 2013); Mali (De Boeck, 2014); Africa unite! (La Découverte, 2014); Walter Rodney (1942-1980): the fragments of a history of the African revolution (Presence Africaine, 2015).

Pan-Africanism was born in the late eighteenth century, at about the same time as liberalism and socialism. So this is a very old ideology which differs from the other two by its historical consciousness, by its "geographical" identity. Pan-Africanism is linked to a continent, a space. Pan-Africanism is Africa's equivalent of the concept of the West for Europe. Australia, North America, Western Europe come together in the same imaginary so-called "Western" system which shows that the division of the world is actually a reflection of the movement of people and ideas. Similarly, any society keeping an African identity in its evolution, in its relation to the other, and in its relation with the idea of ​​emancipation is a Pan-African one.

On the other hand, there is a historiographical aspect: to say that contemporary African history began in 1885 with the Berlin conference, or with independence in 1960, is senseless. My interest was to show that Pan-Africanism was born at the same time as liberalism and socialism which are related to the French Revolution, the American Revolution, industrialisation, etc. The contemporary history of Africa is Pan-Africanism. It is of exactly the same historical depth. So therefore, if we want to write the history of Africa, it is necessary to start with Pan-Africanism.

You specify that this is a story about a continent, a space, but not necessarily about skin colour. What does this mean?

Pan-Africanism was at first a kind of pan-Negroism, a feeling of solidarity among blacks deported to the Americas as part of the transatlantic trade. This crime against humanity accompanied the rise of capitalism, that is to say, the most advanced operating system and overall domination of man by man, and therefore the system at the origin of the world as we know it today. Racism- which stigmatises and assimilates black skin to a servile condition in the Americas- had for an answer a self-identification, positive this time, of blacks to Africa, but an Africa that was more imagined than represented. This imagination comes from passages on Ethiopia in the Bible or in slave narratives, and later gave us the writings of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude.

Moreover, the internal difficulties in Haiti after its torn independence in 1804, or the failure of the African-American colony of Liberia, founded in 1847, will show that sharing the same skin colour is not enough to build a harmonious society with a common political project. Thus, the denunciation of the colonisation of Africa by European imperialism in the 1880s will lead African-American and Caribbean activists to superimpose their own condition of segregation or colonisation with that of Blacks living on a continent they have rediscovered through the first African-American historians. Africa then passed from imagination to a concrete political entity when the news spread of Ethiopia's victory over Italy, at Adowa in 1896.

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Panel commemorating the Ethiopian victory of Adowa, where the Italian army lost 4,000 white soldiers and 2000 African auxiliaries

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Two views on the battle, one Ethiopian, the other Italian

Ethiopia, Haiti, Liberia... A space is created, and in 1900 in London, in the presence of black militants but also of white supporters, the Pan-African Conference emphasized the subtle formula of Du Bois, that the great problem of the twentieth century will not be the colour of the skin but the "color line". What are we able to do, and what should we do, as one who is on one side or the other of that line? It is this thinking that mobilised Pan-Africanist activists around figures like Marcus Garvey and Tovalou Houenou or later, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko.

In Angola, South Africa, Algeria, in fact, everywhere in Africa where independence was the result of an armed struggle, the question of the color line was abolished by struggle. Métis groups, and many whites individually, sometimes made more consistent efforts for the liberation and unification of the continent that some black groups co-opted by colonial or neo-colonial forces. That the world itself is divided into continents can be seen as very problematic and questionable, and it's the historical consciousness that determines the relationship to space that remains itself to this day a "color line".

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Pétion, Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture, Santo Domingo (Haiti), 1801-1803 

Contrary to popular belief, you explain that Pan-Africanism was born in Haiti, that is to say?

In fact, Pan-Africanism was born in the Americas, but its political concept, that is to say, the unity of African peoples in a federal system, has existed for much longer in Africa, for example through the Sahel-Sudan empires and kingdoms. Ghana, Mali, Songhai, had Pan-African political and social structures grouping together a mosaic of people in sophisticated alliances.

Now, Santo Domingo, in 1791, was the richest colony in the Americas, with an African slave labour representing 90% of the population. The revolution led at that time by Africans of various origins marks a historic turning point: the first abolition imposed by slaves on their masters, the end of a system of economic exploitation that will be recycled in the form of a debt of independence imposed by France in Haiti, and the birth of the second State of African origin which, after Ethiopia, has experienced since its creation a historical and legal continuity.

Faced with a hostile world order, Haitian activists then understood that their freedom was nothing without freedom throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and perhaps beyond, if one thinks of naturalisation from 1805 of Polish and German soldiers who had deserted Bonapartist ranks to join the African fighters. Supporting struggles for emancipation or resistance movements embodied by Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti and Menelik, Haitian activists like Antenor Firmin and Benito Sylvain showed that the story of the birth of their country, and thus Pan-Africanism, was to be a force capable of giving back balance to the world. So, today, beyond the issue of reparations, many Pan-Africanist activists plead for Haiti, which has become an observer member of the African Union, to be truly invested in by emancipatory projects other than those relating to neoliberal and militaristic humanitarianism.

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The Oath of the Ancestors was painted in 1822 by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1760-1830), born in Guadeloupe, mulatto of a settler father and a slave mother. It symbolises the historic meeting between the chief of mulattoes from Santo Domingo, Alexandre Petion, and black general Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louvertures lieutenant. The two officers sealed an alliance in November 1802 to drive away the French troops. This solemn "oath" that would allow Haiti's short-term independence came shortly after the general uprising of the blacks of the colony at the announcement of the restoration of slavery decided in Paris. 

How to explain the hitherto relative lack of French documentation on the subject?

The bibliography that exists is mainly in English. There is a very old Que sais-je by Philippe Decraene, quite dated, with lots of errors, as well as some works such as those of Oruno Lara. Initially, I proposed an updating of Pan-Africanism, in paperback. When the editors of La Découverte  received the manuscript, they wanted something more substantial that would become a reference and precisely fill this historiographical gap. During my doctoral research, I worked on the personalities of Pan-Africanism. I mainly worked with English speaking sources, I met the activists involved in African Unity, and I had the opportunity to travel to the African Union in Addis-Ababa. I was able to confront the institutional logic and activist logic, and find what were the minor and major contradictions. And I engaged personally in a movement, the Pan-African League - Umoja (LP-U) [Pan-Africanist political movement created in France in 2012, Ed].

I had the opportunity to meet historical figures, little known, some now dead. It is in their honour that I wanted to write this book. But I'm also aiming to reconcile generations. There are many Pan-African slogans chanted by the youth, but there's not necessarily any substance behind it all. With this book, I wanted to provide a guideline to this story, to produce a reflection on the need to bring Pan-Africanism to an activist and internationalist logic, and dust off concepts a little abused by historical events that had resulted in the unfavourable balance of power in Africa.

All that is scientific and cultural, from the moment where it affects Africa, necessarily has a political and ideological significance. And it was necessary to re-inscribe Pan-Africanism in the history of ideas, social, political and cultural struggles. Pan-Africanism is a very fragmented movement because of its own evolution, because of inequality of knowledge among the people who claim it. Some people have mastered the definitions of Pan-Africanism and related logics, those of Marxism, socialism etc. And others create only posture and even outright deception.

In your book, you mention several times the divide between the intellectualisation of the movement and the popular interest in Pan-Africanism.

This is still present, and is part of the story, especially if it continues to marginalise artists. Artists have made the connection between popular and political. Hence the title of Africa Unite, from the Bob Marley song. With this book, it is a modest question of crossing borders all over the South.

Many figures found in this book are English-speaking people, especially African Americans. Does this represent the reality of Pan-Africanism?

There are also contemporary references in the French environment: Thomas Sankara always causes an extraordinary craze among the youth. In West Africa, it is very dividing. Where historians and political activists Cheikh Anta Diop and Joseph Ki-Zerbo support Nkrumah 's federal project, others oppose it. Thus, Senghor is together with Houphouet-Boigny in the maintaining of close relations with France, as opposed to the desire to break with France defended by leaders and activists who very early disappeared, between 1958 and 1961, like Um Nyobe, Boganda, Lumumba or Fanon.

Today, in the reproduction of Pan-African figures, African societies have a delay of two or three generations to catch up on. There are also more intimate experiences in Benin, Mali, Congo, that are more local. In Benin, for example, there are Caribbean return projects, including the Jah family who I met, or the Professor Honorat Aguessy Institute in Ouidah. There is therefore outside the major figures, a kind of Pan-African intimacy.

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London, 1900

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Paris, 1919

But how to explain this relative lack of French speaking figures compared to English references?

Since 1919, at the Pan African Congress held in Paris by the French deputy Blaise Diagne of Senegal on demand of the American black activist Du Bois, there has been a rupture between Francophones and Anglophones. Since then, the French have always been absent from the Pan-African Congresses. And during independence, the rupture, the apparent break we've seen in the English-speaking environment, this we do not see in the Francophone movement where we stayed aligned with Paris, the referent of the metropolis. In the English-speaking world, there is a variety of experience: the African situation, the Afro-Caribbean situation, the black American situation, the Jamaican-British situation...

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Manchester, 1945

All this diversity of situation provoked debate, a flow of ideas, and also thinking, theorising and a different relationship to the political culture. Given that the British model is imprinted with a parliamentary monarchical and multicultural tradition while the French Republican model is centralised and assimilationist, readings on the colonial legacy diverge. What allows you to get out of this post-colonial paradigm that blurs comparative analysis, especially from the perspective of the political history of Africa and the Caribbean, is precisely to introduce Pan-Africanism as an analytical criterion of interactions.

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Sorbonne Congress, Paris, 1956

Obviously, there were some sparks from Présence Africaine [publisher, Paris/Dakar, Ed], the Sorbonne conventions, meteoric figures such as Frantz Fanon, censored figures like Aimé Césaire, who are not historians as such but all the same references, also for the Anglo-Saxon world. So there is this reluctance, this subversive who failed in African and Afro-French situations, also a repression that eliminated a number of figures, movements like FEANF [Federation of Students from Black Africa in France, founded in Bordeaux 1950 and illegalised by French govt. in 1980, Ed] up to the late 50s that could support this dynamic. Note also the predatory logic at the level of thought, that means that a lot of French-speaking African intellectuals are forced into exile or to cede their ideological viewpoint in order to survive.

Is there a Portuguese-speaking Pan-Africanism?

There is very little documentation of Pan-Africanism in the Portuguese-speaking world. Now there are the youth in this space who are migrants, potentially very aware of the challenges due to the fact that their parents were often trained in the liberation movements. The former Portuguese colonies has the peculiarity of being more geographically fragmented than other colonised territories, and suddenly, after the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique in particular, it further entered into national historical writings, rather than regional or pan-Africanist. Thus, there is a deficit in this level. A deficit that cannot be met by the simple fact that Brazil, home to the largest African diaspora, has committed to fund volumes of the General History of Africa in Portuguese. Finally, there is an embryonic Pan-Africanist movement in Lisbon that appears quite isolated but dynamic. The Portuguese-speaking world is indeed a very interesting challenge.

What are the issues in Europe, for Pan-Africanism?

Europe has always been a place to meet, exchange, but also a place of repression. The challenge is to create new spaces and new forms of liberation, with an international perspective. Europe is facing a number of crises, but it maintains a policy of predation on the African continent, and public opinion on Africa is split between the image of a continent of all evils, and that of an emerging space. And there is the question of all African diasporas here, which poses the question of integration or return.

Exactly, instead of Pan-Africanism, many intellectuals and other people are demanding more of an Afropean or Afropolitical identity. What do you think about that?

The Afropean and Afropolitical identities seem quite in tune with the times, that is to say both disappointing and stimulating. They are largely apolitical and non-African, in that they ring in my ears like notions of class, intellectual division of labour, or economic and social separation between Africans, according to which they would or would not have freedom to come and go to and from Africa. The Afropolitical condition may suggest that of the "advanced", Africans judged to be more "civilized" by the colonial power, according to the criteria of the colonial power. The risk is therefore to speak of Afropolitanism without studying the analyses of Du Bois on the theory of "double consciousness" or of Fanon on the cosmetic factor of identity and alienation in Black Skin, White Masks. Still in the analysis of Du Bois, are these Afropolitans the 10% of Africans who believe that by achieving a very good economic and social status, they will play the role of an elevator for others? I do not think so, this is not the case. Pan-Africanism, despite the criticism trying to pass it as a utopian or exclusive project, contains the idea of ​​consolidation and solidarity that seems necessary to confront the individualism of a growing westernisation of the world.

Again, this is not to oppose, but to ensure that identities evoking a reconciliation or hybridity as "Afropean" do not simply become new forms of assimilation, acculturation and domination in a world where we know that the dominant culture is often that of the economy or the dominant ideological system.

In a recent interview with a French magazine, Nigerian writer Chimanda Ngozi Adichie also rejects this label sticking to her by saying "African yes, Afropolitan certainly not." She explains that she does not understand the need to create a category for a type of person that has always existed. The history of Pan-Africanism is made of men and women of African descent who have never stopped travelling, connecting different worlds and intersecting identities. This is the story of Pan-Africanism containing sediment layers, mainly African and secondarily non-African which Afropean and Afropolitan identities touch on, but only superficially.

What's the challenge for Pan-Africanism in Africa?

In terms of strategy and political philosophy, one cannot use a foreign ideology to fight against another foreign ideology; you cannot use socialism to fight against liberalism. It makes no sense. We must instead use an ideology that is consistent with the historical trajectory of the populations concerned to bring an alternative liberation. And this reflection is highly important because in this relation to ultra-liberalism, Africa is the subject of a Sino-Western consensus by day, and an intense economic war by night. To escape these alternatives which are both dead ends, we must turn to Pan-Africanism.

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Courtesy of Africultures
Source: http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=12768
Publication date of original article: 17/02/2015
URL of this page : http://www.tlaxcala-int.org/article.asp?reference=14384

 

Tags: Pan-AfricanismAfricaBlack HistoryAfrica Unite!Black Emancipation
 

 
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