Pan Africanism for the 21st Century

The Golden Jubilee celebration of an institution like the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and later on the African Union (AU) is special event. For Africans and non-African partners, it has a greater public importance. It offers an occasion for celebration, but also a unique opportunity for critical introspection and collective reflection on the journey of Africa in the past half century. More crucially, such an opportunity needs to be seized to set a clear vision for Africa, craft a common and widely shared mission to realize this vision and mobilize the necessary commitment and resources to implement it.

While building on the good Pan African legacies of OAU, the AU needs to shift focus to new foundations of Pan Africanism. But what are the good and bad legacies of the OAU/AU? What should be the focus of the AU so that it can build on the good parts of the legacy and address the bad ones?

Era of Pan Africanist Solidarity:

Externally Progressive and Domestically Regressive Regimes

Pan Africanism began with the African Diaspora’s struggle against slavery and search for African roots and identity. With the establishment of the Pan African Conference in 1900, the struggle against colonialism gained momentum. In May 1963, Ethiopia called the Conference of African Heads of State. This led to the establishment of the OAU. Speaking about the purpose of the Conference, Emperor Haile Sellassie said:

“[We] are determined to create a union of Africans. In a very real sense, our continent is unmade; it still awaits its creation and its creators.”

In other words, the OAU could be seen as political institutionalisation of Pan Africanism at continental level. Consequently, in terms of discourse and debate, the early years of 1960s and 1970s could be considered as an era of Pan African Solidarity. Its main achievement was the successful anti-Colonial and anti-Apartheid struggle. Nonetheless, the OAU was not a union of Africans; it was rather, a fragmented gathering of its leaders. The OAU was not established on a solid and principle based-foundation, because independent African states were permeated by flaws of their own making and by those of colonial and external forces. The founding fathers of the OAU were externally progressive but domestically regressive in their governance. Most of them believed in life-long incumbency.

The Original Sin of OAU

Hypocritical rhetoric denied the logic of linking the legitimacy of external and internal policies of states. This was the marker of the false start for the OAU. The same leaders applied the most regressive interpretation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states while cooperating on the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle. This became a hallmark of the OAU and the original sin that paralysed it for the next four decades. This mismatch between regressive internal governance and progressive Pan African solidarity allowed confusion to breed within the young generation of this period. Thus, with the Cold War between the bipolar world and the ensuing ideological struggle among Africans compounded by their failure to democratize internally, the Pan Africanist era ended in the killing, removal or death of some of the founding fathers, including Emperor Haile Sellassie I, Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, King Idris, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Bella.

Era of Confusion and Division:

Ideology, Violence and Militarism

The era of Confusion and Division set in within the Cold War brought ideological struggle between supporters of the West and the East. This led to conspiratorial and undemocratic political mobilizations, dictatorial governance styles, bloody political changes through military coups, revolutions and civil wars. With leaders like General Said Barre, Colonel Houari Boumedienne, General Mobutu Sese Seko, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, General Moussa Traore, General Ibrahim Babangida, General Gafar Numeiry, and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, etc; this was the African era of generals.

The regimes of this era had two cardinal failings: politics through extreme violence that was alien to Africa, and a self-serving leadership. The result of this era of confusion and division was destruction, blood and tears. Despondent about such outcomes, within two decades the leadership of that era abandoned their ideologies of the Cold War and left Africa in disarray. Most ofthe generals were either toppled by the opposition left-leaning rebel groups, coups and uprisings or through democratic transitional processes.

Era of Intervention and Integration:

From OAU to AU

In the early 1990s, Africa was no longer a proxy for the superpowers. Africa’s civil wars became real challenges for the new and old African leadership demanding urgent attention and action. African conflicts became more intra-state and less inter-state, with localized manifestations and coverage rather than civil wars that engulf and divide an entire country. With the end of the Cold War, the OAU entertained more interventionist and integrationist agendas, necessitating the transformation of the OAU into the AU. The AU Constitutive Act shifted the mission and vision of the OAU, mainly from an organization of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid solidarity, to the more interventionist and integrationist AU. It bestowed the AU with robust substantive mandates such as the right of intervention in member States of the AU through the Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). By doing so, the creation of the AU constituted a critical step in resolving the original sin of OAU that supported the blanket application of sovereignty overriding state responsibility. In the past ten years, the AU has responded to urgent crises in more than 21 countries including Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Lesotho, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Côte d’ Ivoire, Togo, Mauritania, Madagascar, and the Comoros Islands.

Nonetheless, a salient characteristic of this era of intervention and integration is the democratic profile and generational composition of African leaders. The AU is still composed of long serving dictators, some of them from independence-liberation movements, rebel leaders, who waged decades of protracted civil wars that toppled military dictators, and democratically elected leaders. During this era, Africa has witnessed political struggles from amendments of constitutions to extend terms of office of Presidents and Prime Ministers and/or unconstitutional changes of government), numerous elections marred by vote rigging and post-election disputes and violence, fragmented political parties and mandates, and grand coalitions. However, since the establishment of the AU, more than 35 countries have conducted democratic elections. More significantly half of them achieved a peaceful transfer of power to victorious opposition parties or new leaders.

Era of Popular Uprisings:

Generational progression of democracy

After the North African uprisings of 2011, Africa is now in the Era of Popular Uprisings and Democratic Progress. As a result, today’s Africa exhibits visible democratic progress since 2002 when the African Union (AU) was established. With three dictators toppled by the North African uprisings and fifteen democratically elected new leaders since 2010, the democratic profile of Africa has sharply increased. Each decade, the numbers of democratically elected leaders has surged faster than ever. Despite having some, but fewer, dictators and other leaders with contested mandates and diminished legitimacy due to election-related violence, evidently Africa has experienced what I call “generational progression of democracy”. The composition of the leadership of the recent AU Summits is significantly more democratic compared with the early years of the AU.

African States:

Strong on the wrong functions, weak on the right areas

Since the establishment of the OAU, most of the problems that Africa currently faces emanate mainly from the nature of state and external interferences. Most of the problems are also political. African States are strong on the wrong functions and weak on the right ones. They are very effective at maintenance of government security, the interest of political parties and individuals or groups. They are vigorous and resourceful in deception, intimidation, and repression.

At the same time these states are weak on necessary functions of states mainly in ensuring human security of their populations. Human Security has two aspects–hard security, which refers to the absence of war, violence and destructive conflicts and soft security, or the eradication of the root causes of war and violent conflicts. Extreme poverty and injustice of various kinds breed discontent that makes poor and aggrieved people prone for manipulation by violent extremism. Ensuring soft security for all people creates sustainable hard security. Thus, extreme poverty will remain the main obstacle to a meaningful life and indirectly to stability in Africa.

The North African uprisings were born out of desperation due to the absence of opportunities to pursue a decent livelihood and the lack of meaningful political reform. The absence of constitutional means for changing governments peacefully as a safety valve in times of public displeasure led to changes of government by violent means. In these North African countries, participation in politics was considered a private money-making business pursuit in the public sphere. Politics served as a racket to amass wealth. This unhealthy political mobilization led to the undemocratic internal governance of political parties. Uprisings are still looming in many African countries. Accommodation of diversity is at its lowest level. Simply, Africa remains vulnerable to revolutions and violence, which are symptomatic of the undemocratic nature of the exercise of power, and weaknesses in implementing and enforcing peaceful and constitutional changes of government.

New Era of Pan Africanism:

Delivery and Democracy

By re-inventing Pan Africanism for 21st century Africa, it is time for Africa to move to the era of delivery and democracy to avoid uprisings and revolutions and ensure human security. Thus, the new Pan Africanism should focus on transforming the behaviour of leaders, strengthening the institutions of states, democratising political parties and building the capabilities of the regional economic communities (RECs) and the AU to respond effectively to both soft and hard insecurity. States are the key drivers of change in Africa without which efforts towards peace and development will remain futile. The various AU policies and treaties are all about delivery and democracy including the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and the African Governance Architecture (AGA). The era of delivery and democracy should be based on strict adherence to the AU Constitutive Act and a shift of mission from norm-setting to effective norm implementation of the various instruments and the overhauling of existing AU institutions.

Mehari Taddele

Mehari Taddele (DLS/PhD), is an independent consultant and security analyst. He was the Programme Manager for African Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis at the Institute for Security Studies. A former fellow of programmes at Harvard and Oxford Universities, he holds a Doctorate of Legal Sciences from JL Giessen University, Germany, an MPA from Harvard and an MSc from Oxford and an LLB from AAU. He can be reached at

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