Across the continent, there is a second wave of agitation for a different kind of freedom and independence. 60 years ago, a similar agitation and fight took place across many fronts, from round tables, guerrilla warfares to labour union strikes against the colonial government. It was a fight for independence and self-rule against colonial rule. Political movements were formed across the continent, activists were imprisoned, and many were kept in torture chambers and killed. The irony is that those who experienced that fight for independence and sovereignty are the current leaders on the continent. The reclamation for Africa was not just a continental struggle, it included the diaspora. In America, the height of the civil rights struggle corresponded with the fight for independence in many African territories. Both struggles fed off each other. In many cases, African-Americans considered their quest for freedom to be directly related to the independence of African countries.
American sociologist, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist W. E.B. Du Bois recognised the similar state of oppression African-Americans and Africans suffered, thus his quote, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.” The racism African students faced in America and the United Kingdom led to the formation of various political organisations like the West African Students Union which sought to solve the issue of accommodation that African students battled with. These organisations evolved to anti-colonial movements, supporting the pressure that was building up on the continent. It was in meetings like the Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1945 that many African leaders who became heads of state fashioned out ways to fight colonialism. Those in the Caribbean were not left behind in this struggle.
The framing of the conversation
The current social and political movements across the continent have many times been framed as having been influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement. The framing of this conversation does two things, it takes away the peculiarity of the neo-colonial state many Africans live in, in which they fight the same characteristics of a colonial empire even though headed by African leaders. It also takes away and in some way downplays the capacity and capability of Africans to organise around their own internal struggles. The struggles many Africans are engaged in such as the fight against police brutality, fight for gender inclusivity and struggle against gender violence among others are not different from the experiences of African-Americans in respect to how they continue to be treated as second class citizens.
Historically, it is important to note that the reawakening we see both on the continent and in America is similar to what we saw in the 1960s. There is a shared history of solidarity between the diaspora and those on the continent. The acknowledgement of each other’s struggles as being part of a bigger struggle, the freedom of black people, should remain in focus. At Ghana’s independence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wept. He said, “I knew all about the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.” The murder of of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 was met with protests led by African American poet Maya Angelou who interrupted the security council meeting going on in the United Nations. Across the world, including in Nigeria, there were protests against the murder. Malcolm X, in his speech called Lumumba “the greatest Black man who ever walked the continent.”
Current realities shaped by new oppressors
The political realities on the continent, in a way had an effect on the struggle in America and across the world. State repression is not new, and has always been dealt with. The current reality in Africa is an oxymoron. A large population of young people are governed by an old generation which refuses to leave power or to include the voices of the young people in decision making processes. The African Union is made up of these men, old men, an old boys club who have defined the kind of Africa they want to see, based on their interaction with colonial powers. These leaders in Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania are the ones Steve Biko warned us about who would take the position of the white man. South African opposition, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema previously criticised the AU and SADC as organisations that serve as gentlemen clubs. In 2019 Malema was quoted saying, “SADC, there is no such a thing. AU, there is no such a thing. It’s a group of old people who protect each other. They don’t protect the interest of their people. It’s a club, it’s a gentleman club”. “They don’t call each other out. They are unable to say you are wrong here, you are wrong there,” Malema noted.
Young people have however taken to the streets demanding for change in the face of the continued corrosion of human rights and rising unemployment. It is not just an economic change, but also a demand for dignity of life. This encapsulates what the Black Lives Matter movement is about at its core. It also encapsulates Patrice Lumumba’s independence speech of how the Congolese people gained their independence, “It was filled with tears, fire and blood.” Many African countries, which are colonial vestiges have retained not just their colonial nomenclature but the colonial blueprint which was built on brutality of Africans. The recent struggles in Sudan, South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe have shown the vibrant spirit young people carry to reimagine a free, prosperous and inclusive continent. Several movements have shown the fighting spirit among the youths is alive. For example, the #FeesMustFall protests, #RhodesMustFall and #EndRapeCulture in South Africa, #ShutItAllDown in Namibia, #ZimbabweLivesMatter and #CongoIsBleeding drawing attention to deadly exploitation in Congolese mines have all shown an on‐going and remarkable thirst for activism by the youths.
The narrative of the African Union which is based on vision 2063 is not largely driven by the youths who make up the biggest proportion of the population on the continent but it’s encouraging that young people continue to be involved in inspirational struggles to reclaim their seat. The Pan-African dream has been awakened by African youths across the world whose first conversation is decolonisation and desire to change of the political, social and economic status quo.
This article is written as part of a collection commissioned in partnership with African Crossroads under the theme “Re-imagining the pan-African dream — reflecting on the past, experiencing the present and imagining the future”. The contents of the series are the sole responsibility of This Is Africa Trust, and cannot be regarded as reflecting the official position of Hivos Foundation.