Men, with belongings, proceed towards a bus loading point during an evacuation of Nigerian returnees from Niger, at a camp for displaced people in Geidam, Yobe state, Nigeria, May 6, 2015.
Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

FEW were the French-speaking delegates who could hear, even less understand, what the grand old man of pan-Africanism, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, had to say at Accra during the All African People's Conference last December. Some, however, may have recalled that the first Pan-African Congress ever convened took place with the permission of the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, in 1919, at the Grand Hotel in Paris. It is difficult to find any trace or report of the event in the French or Anglo-Saxon press, which was then busy with what were known as "more important things," such as the fate of the Middle East, the Balkans and an obscure bunch of conspirators called the Soviet Communist Party somewhere in Moscow.

Last December Dr. Du Bois was describing to much younger and more successful generations of African politicians his various efforts to convene the second, third and fourth Pan-African Congresses, none of which actually took place in Africa. Were these young men moved by his account of the struggles of the pan-African movement? And were some disturbed by Dr. Du Bois' rather equivocal conclusions? "Your nearest friends and neighbors," he said, "are the colored peoples of China and India, the rest of Asia, the Middle East and the Sea Isles, once close bound to the heart of Africa and now long severed by the greed of Europe. Your bond is not mere color of skin but the deeper experience of wage slavery and contempt. So too, your bond with the white world is closest to those who support and defend China and help India and not those who exploit the Middle East and South America."

English-speaking Africans may have read and meditated the remarkable book by George Padmore (now Advisor on African Affairs on Kwame Nkrumah's personal staff) entitled "Pan-Africanism or Communism?" It is unlikely that many of the French-speaking delegates had done so. They were more likely to have known the remarkable Senegalese, Blaise Diagne, usually represented as a symbol of a successful assimilationist policy, but in fact one of the most active supporters of the pan-African movement, as represented by Du Bois. It has been said that "Diagne was not without his critics, some of whom were sincere and others motivated by jealousy. He was called by some a traitor for having brought the Africans to fight for France and a tool of the rich white colonial interests. Others, however, praised him as having done more than any other to strengthen the position of colored peoples in the French Empire."[i]

Europeans would do well to cease underestimating the practical stimulation which can be derived by efficient African politicians from the intelligent use of ideological weapons. As seen from Paris, politics in French Africa has appeared to be merely an extension of party politics as played in the rather special atmosphere of the Palais Bourbon. It was "unrealistic" and slightly treacherous to reinterpret some of the attitudes of French-trained African politicians according to criteria which found their origins outside the magic and closed system of French politics. Yet Diagne, the most important actor of the first Pan-African Congress, was not alone in being drawn into activities which had nothing to do with French political parties. A quarter of a century later, another French-trained deputy, Sourou Apithy, from Dahomey, took a prominent part in the conference which followed the fifth Pan-African Congress (held in Manchester in 1945), and which was supposed to set up a permanent institution to be known later as the "West African National Secretariat." It was there he met Dr. Nkrumah, then a rather penniless postgraduate student in London.

This individual participation by two leading French Africans is important and significant, but not decisive. For between 1946 and 1958 one does not find any trace of activity by any French-speaking politician in the various stages of the pan-African movement, as interpreted and operated by Mr. Padmore and Dr. Nkrumah.

This chasm materialized clearly when Dr. Nkrumah took the initiative in organizing the West African delegates into the West African National Secretariat. Later events were to take Dr. Nkrumah even further away from his self-appointed task of organizing a movement which would cover West Africa as a whole. From 1947 to 1957, the year of Ghana's independence, it is fair to say that the dream of pan-Africanism, though alive, was second in priority to the immediate task of establishing self-government and then independence.

It is surely significant that during the same period the French territories of West Africa went through somewhat the same evolution but devoted their efforts to obtaining within the rigid framework of la République une et indivisible enough autonomy and self-government to be able to stand on their own and develop their personalities without for the time being considering independence as a prime objective.

Meanwhile it has become a fact that the vigor and inspiration of pan-Africanism, stripped of any excess of American-Negro influence as expressed by black zionism or Garveyism, has taken roots in the land of Africa under the active and skillful leadership of Dr. Nkrumah, political secretary of the fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945. As a movement which was conceived in America and which blossomed in West Africa, pan-Africanism remains essentially an English-speaking movement, a delayed boomerang from the era of slavery as practiced on the West African coast two centuries ago. It is significant that, linguistically and ethnically, most of the American Negroes in North America came from the coastal areas on the Gulf of Guinea, and only a few from the interior areas of Senegal and Niger.

The Prime Minister of Ghana has been thoroughly consistent as far as pan-Africanism is concerned. According to him, "the independence of Ghana will have no meaning unless it is strengthened with the total liberation of Africa." Ghana, in other words, is to be as Piedmont was to an amorphous Italy--Accra the Mecca of pan-Africanism. Not to accept implicitly or explicitly the basic leadership of the Prime Minister of Ghana is in fact to reject the basic tenets of pan-Africanism, as defined by the small team which has followed the Prime Minister since his early days in London.


One may wonder why so little attention was paid by the leaders of Ghana as well as by foreign observers to the very important changes which were taking place simultaneously in the French-speaking territories nearby. The barrier of language is one explanation, but not sufficient. One difficulty was that the French-trained politicians were far more interested in what was happening in Paris and in their constituencies than in neighboring Ghana and Nigeria. The road to freedom was to be found through a free negotiation between the French territories in Africa and their Métropole and not through some kind of local arrangement with a neighbor, even though that neighbor in fact had to deal with the same problems and tackle the same difficulties. Therefore, pan-African propaganda for a short time fell on deaf ears.

The same was true, however, in Nigeria where the several provinces were far too busy negotiating their own differences to worry about the gigantic problem of West African unification. It can even be said that the more Ghana claimed a special position of leadership in Black Africa, the more Nigerian and French territories became aware of the need to evolve their own plans for some kind of loose confederacy which would eliminate the risk of personal power without rejecting what seemed both unavoidable and useful. In other words, pan-Africanism as an ideology was growing fast, but not as a uniform and well-disciplined movement. The problem was basically how to establish contact between French-speaking and English-speaking areas.

The history of the next few years, perhaps of the next few months, will show if the Prime Minister of Ghana considers himself first and foremost a national leader or an international one. In some respects he finds himself in a position similar to Napoleon the Third, who as Emperor of the French was responsible for the welfare and peace of France, but was also committed, through his past activities and connections, to the liberation of the captive nationalities of Western Europe, such as the Germans and Italians. Nkrumah, like Napoleon III, and some of the more contemporary European leaders, is committed to a revisionist policy. As the fifth Pan-African Congress observed: "The artificial divisions and territorial boundaries created by the imperialist powers are deliberate steps to obstruct the political unity of the West African peoples." Echoing this basic view, the All African People's Conference, meeting in Accra last year, held that "the great bulk of the African continent has been carved out arbitrarily to the detriment of the indigenous African peoples by European imperialists, namely: Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal."

As the spokesman for African revisionism, Nkrumah has no challenger. Together with his advisor, George Padmore, he is the doctrinaire to whom all nationalist movements in Africa south of the Sahara are looking for example, support and guidance. He is fast becoming the elder statesman of Black Africa. Apart from the heads of the independent states of Liberia and Ethiopia, who had to carry in isolation their own struggle for survival, he has contributed more than anybody else to the promotion of the "African personality" which is to play so important a rôle in world politics during the next decade.

Students familiar with the story of the rise of European nationalism in the nineteenth century will find many differences between the national struggle of, say, Germany and Italy to build up their political unity and the various brands of African nationalism. However, the emotional fervor is the same and is certainly to be found in the spiritual leaders of pan-Africanism. In this vein, Nkrumah expressed the hope in Accra that the African continent will not see a repetition of the petty quarrels and the constant disagreements, wars and national disasters which have marked the history of the other continents.

To an outside observer therefore, pan-Africanism, as interpreted and expounded by Nkrumah and his team, is a political Janus. One face is looking towards more effective power at home, that is, in Ghana and on the African continent. The other is looking outward upon a world in which a reborn and reunited Africa will play a most important rôle in the promotion of peace and progress.

To a next-door neighbor, like Félix Houphouet-Boigny, political leader of the Ivory Coast, or Sylvanus Olympio, Prime Minister of the Republic of Togoland, pan-Africanism is apt to look like a convenient smoke screen for very precise and down-to-earth territorial ambitions. To a distant colleague in "world government," like Mr. Nehru in India, it must clearly be the other way round: pan-Africanism is indeed a movement of world-wide importance and the petty affairs of Ghana are to be left in their parochial context.


The fate of Africa will be the result, however, of a concrete interplay of local forces in a regional framework and not of an abstract generalization. As the heartland of pan-Africanism is, after all, in West Africa, and is surrounded on all sides by French-speaking territories, it may be profitable to find out how these French-speaking territories have so far reacted to this so-called "universal doctrine"--a doctrine which may very well be for them as abstract as the theory of the Covenant was to Georges Clemenceau or, conversely, the theory of collective security to President Hoover.

The story of "nationalism" in French Africa is basically different from the story of African nationalism in British-dominated territories. From 1946, the date of the constitution of the Fourth Republic and the year in which French citizenship was granted to all the inhabitants of French Africa, to 1956, when the hotly debated loi-cadre was adopted, the political élite of French Africa had to express itself within the framework of the French political system, the center of which was the National Assembly in Paris. There is hardly a politician now responsible for the fate of the new autonomous republics and federations who has not been closely involved at one time or another with the intricacies, contradictions and excitement of the French parliamentary game. Votes of the African members of the National Assembly were sometimes decisive factors in a fragile governmental majority. African députés and sénateurs learned their politics, not in the narrow confines of territorial problems, but in the strange and stimulating world of the French parliament, where every issue in contemporary history was discussed thoroughly, albeit inconclusively.

One could argue that the world as seen from Paris is rather distorted. French deputies themselves were not always aware of the real factors of power politics. The continuous presence of friendly and able African colleagues led them to believe that there was no such thing as African nationalism in French areas, that the idea was a foreign import and, in some cases, one of those notorious plots against Franco-African community and its spiritual achievements.

On the other hand, there was no better school for intellectual and political sophistication than that of the French parliament of the Fourth Republic. The high level of debate in the congresses of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain and the Parti du Regroupement Africain shows how deep the Paris influence went. During the recent discussions in Africa, between the Fédéralistes and the Territorialistes, the most demanding of constitutional advisers could not have found any flaw in the legal reasoning involved.

Such is the result of more than ten years of direct participation of the African élite in the French political game, to which must be added the close connection existing for more than eight years between the trade-union movement in France and the trade-union movement in French Africa. Also, France, like Britain, carried out during this period a systematic policy of promoting university and higher education with a massive program of scholarships in French universities. As in Britain, and perhaps more so, the African student has picked up eagerly the rhetoric, the logic and the Weltanschauung of his fellow students of the postwar period, who were ready to reëxamine the basic postulates of political life. In Paris, existentialism, Catholicism, "progressivism" and Communism were the abstract intellectual categories which dominated the thoughts of the young and enthusiastic African.

Political leadership in French Africa is therefore of the most "modern" kind. In this process of assimilating new values and destroying old ones, the French-trained Africans found great support in their innermost spiritual being. The fundamental process of eliminating any "inferiority complex," which was done in North America and in English-speaking Africa by a quasi-mystical pan-Africanism and black zionism, was carried out in France through entirely different methods.

The American public did not pay much attention to the Congress devoted to la négritude which took place in Paris in 1957, under the sponsorship of that vigorous group, Présence Africaine. Many prominent Negroes from the New World and from Africa participated. Very few English-speaking Negroes were present, with the important exception of Richard Wright, now living in Normandy. This gathering showed clearly, however, that French-speaking Africans (and for that matter French-speaking West Indians) were claiming not merely redress for the untold harm done by European slavery and colonialism on the African continent. They were asking for full recognition by European cultures of the essential contribution made by Black Africa to what is known as Western civilization. In the fields of history, music, poetry, plastic arts, their contribution was said to place Africa, and therefore the African himself, on a footing of equality with Europe. There was no denial of the positive contribution of Western culture to Africa, provided it was recognized by all concerned that Africa can give and had already given much in exchange.

Obtaining spiritual equality is in a sense far more important than the immediate achievement of political and constitutional equality. The quest goes beyond the more theoretical aspiration for "liberty, equality and fraternity." This is where the English-speaking African politicians and those of the pan-African "school" have made a basic mistake. They considered the rather empty phrases of the 1789 vocabulary as one more "trick" of the French colonialists to exorcise the temptations of black nationalism. This belief seriously underestimates the depth of the spiritual revolution which has taken place in French Africa. Most of the French-trained African politicians are simply not interested in a doctrine which has been evolved by small teams of theoreticians who have derived their experience from the very special situation of the Negroes in America or of the constitutional struggles in British crown colonies. The same words, including "African unity," may have very different meanings. One suspects that this basic misunderstanding may dominate the trend of events in West Africa during the next few months, if it has not already emptied the much publicized Ghana-Guinea union of any real significance.


If French-trained African politicians are relatively immune to the seduction of pan-Africanism, one may wonder why it was a former French territory, independent Guinea, which took the first concrete step toward the pan-African program, that is, the Union of West African States. How is it possible, in the first place, that the vast Federation of French West Africa, which once embraced in one administrative, economic, financial and cultural union the eight territories of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta, Niger and Dahomey, was broken into component parts in less than two years? The answer lies in the loi-cadre itself, which deliberately selected the "territory" as the basic unit within which the process of transferring power would take place. But individual governments led naturally to growth of local patriotism which was hostile to any form of interference from outside.

Territories became used to discussing their individual problems directly with the metropolitan authorities concerned. The only common instruments which crossed territorial boundaries were in the fields of customs, federal finances, investments, defense and foreign affairs; these were left to the representatives of France which, through parliament, were indirectly controlled by the African members of the National Assembly sitting in Paris. This uneasy compromise between the power of the basic unit and the semi-federal powers exercised by the Metropole was a transitional one. Within the parties and the trade-union organizations like R.D.A., P.R.A. and the Union Générale des Travailleurs d'Afrique Noire, of which the Prime Minister of Guinea, Sékou Touré, was vice-president, there was a strong movement toward a new formula of federation. This would have a joint all-African executive and would, in fact, restore the federation as a purely African instrument rather than as a projection of the metropolitan bureaucracy. When the referendum was organized, the decision was taken to count the votes by territories and not by federation or by overseas territories as a whole.

Territorial sections of inter-territorial parties, like the R.D.A., were given the freedom to vote as they wished. Thus it was possible for Sékou Touré, who happened to be vice-president of the R.D.A., to ask for a negative vote and for Houphouet-Boigny, who is the president of the same party, to vote affirmatively. Similarly, certain sections of the R.D.A., in the Sudan for instance, are in favor of a West African Federation, although the R.D.A. of the Ivory Coast is dead set against it. Through this procedure, French West Africa ceased to be an organized block of French-speaking territories as soon as one territory, at least, could vote no, and did so, taking the opportunity offered by General de Gaulle to become immediately independent.

One may argue about the basic reason for Mr. Sékou Touré's negative vote. It is likely on the basis of his own statements that it was a tactical move to give himself a better bargaining position in future negotiations with France and with the neighboring French territories, and in the hope of eventually setting up a new West African Federation on his own terms. Instead, he was thrown into the whirlpool of pan-African politics at the very moment when Mr. Nkrumah was looking for an opening into French-speaking territories after having largely failed to get his foot in the door of Nigeria.

It is rumored that when Mr. Sékou Touré was presented with a first draft of a treaty of union between Ghana and Guinea he disliked the spirit of the whole thing, which was little more than the offer of a merger under the leadership of Ghana. The first draft was therefore much watered down, so that the final result was a statement of intention rather than an actual act of union. The final declaration is limited to a statement of principle. Subject to the ratification of the respective National Assemblies, the two Prime Ministers "have agreed to constitute their two states as the nucleus of a Union of West African States." It is, however, made clear that "the action taken with a view to achieving a Union of West African States is not, in any way, designed to prejudice the present or future relations between Ghana and the Commonwealth, on the one hand, and the Republic of Guinea and the French Community, on the other."

Dr. Nkrumah and Mr. Sékou Touré also made it clear in later statements that the joint declaration had practical possibilities in the fields of communications, foreign affairs, monetary, financial and economic matters, which would be studied and implemented in due course. The Union had also more general aspects of value for the rest of West Africa. It was an "open union" in which any other West African state was invited to participate. It was, Nkrumah told the Ghana National Assembly, a step "towards the establishment of the African community which will have its own distinctive outlook and African personality."

What is important here is that the two states wish to keep their own separate personalities and are anxious not to prejudice their respective relations with the Commonwealth and the French Community. From now on, pan-Africanism will have to leave the ground of "utopian romanticism" and, in Nkrumah's words, "will be guided in the creation of the African community upon which we have embarked by the realities of the actual situation."

Pan-Africanism has therefore entered a new phase. Like every successful ideological movement, it has had to transform itself. Its basic theses are now common ground for all African politicians in the same way as the European ideal is accepted by all nations of Western Europe. Emerging Africa will raise many new problems that Dr. Du Bois, Dr. Padmore and Dr. Nkrumah could not have imagined within the limited context of American Negro experience and the British West African experiment with parliamentary democracy. French Africa has been through its own type of revolution. French-trained African politicians have different traditions. Their view of a united Africa is apt to be at the same time more intellectual, more Western and somewhat more Marxist than the concept evolved by the small team responsible for the success of the fifth Pan-African Congress and the two recent Accra Conferences.

Such as it is, pan-Africanism is a dream come true. It will soon be taken for granted, at the very moment when it will be transforming itself into something more complex and more powerful. The change will probably be in the direction of a general ideology rather than a practical political movement based in Ghana, and led by a ruling few.

[i] J. A. Rogers, "World's Great Men of Colour," as quoted by Padmore, p. 121.

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  • PAUL-MARC HENRY, a French official with long experience in African affairs, recently lecturer at Northwestern and other American universities
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