|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
19 - 25 July 2001
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Pan-African odysseyThe fight for African continental unity, emancipation and self-determination started as an elusive Pan-African dream, and the crowning achievement was the birth of the OAU, writes Mursi Saad El-Din
It has been a long and arduous trek since the Africans had their dream of unity. While there had been a number of Pan-African conferences starting in 1900, it was the conference held in Manchester in October 1945 which marked the sowing of the seed of the African unity. The previous conferences in 1900, 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1927, had been organised by the African diaspora, especially African Caribbean and African American professionals and intellectuals but continental Africans were thinly represented.
Nasser enjoys a joke cracked by Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta at the 1965 OAU summit in Accra and Sadat, sitting just behind him, smiles too
The Manchester conference, however, was different. I had the rare opportunity of attending that conference as an observer. I had just started my job as secretary of the Egyptian Institute in London when I was asked by my government to attend the conference and report on its results. This clearly shows that there was always an interest in Africa and a realisation that Egypt was part of the continent.
The difference was in the wide African representation and the attendance of a number of would-be Africa leaders and founding fathers of African unity; Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyata, Peter Abraham from South Africa and Nmandi Azikwi from Nigeria. And, of course, there was George Padmore, the organiser of the conference and the author of "Pan Africanism" which became the gospel of the African unity.
Apart from the African intellectuals, who were mostly exiles or students in Western universities, there were representatives of labourers and youth. It was, really, an "All African Peoples Conference" and it was there that the continental African voice was first raised, demanding the liberation of Africa from the yoke of imperialism.
That was my first introduction to the problems of Africa south of the Sahara and to its future leaders. I had long talks with all of them, but especially with Kwame Nkrumah with whom I developed a friendship that continued until after he was deposed and was living in exile in Guinea.
The conference was presided over by Dr W E B Du Bois a distinguished African American academician and author-activist who had convened the 1919 Pan-Africanist conference in Paris, but it was, more or less an honourary presidency since the affairs of the conference were in continental African hands -- Kwame Nkrumah was the secretary-general of the 1945 Pan-Africanist Manchester conference.
That conference was a turning point in the concept of Pan Africanism. For the first time there were resolutions calling for independence and liberation. That conference saw the birth of liberation movements in Africa. It marked the transition from the passive phase of protest to active demands. It is worth mentioning here that Nkrumah and Kenyata played leading roles at the Manchester conference and they were later to lead the two strongest liberation movements in East and West Africa respectively. They were later joined by Sekou Toure of Guinea, Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Julius Nyrere of Tanzania.
The movement for liberation went hand in hand with the search for creating a new African cultural identity. A number of conferences were organised by Presence Africane a brainchild of Senghor in some European capitals, most notably Paris and Rome. Nkrumah had something to say in this respect. In the famous "The Vision that I see" speech which he gave in 1953 in Liberia -- then independent -- he said: "We must work a greater glory and majesty, greater than the civilisation of our grandfathers, the civilisation of the Ghana Empire, the civilisation of the Mali Empire, the Songhay Empire, long before the slave trade, long before imperialistic rivalries in Africa began. The civilisations of the Ghana Empire were in existence. And there you even distinguish that at one time, at the great University of Timbuctu, Africans versed in the science of art and learning were studying works translated from Latin, Greek and Hebrew into Arabic and, at the same time, exchanging professors with the University of Cordoba in Spain. Today they come and tell you that we cannot do it."
Then Nkrumah moves on to his vision, his dream which he fought to realise all through his life. That was in 1953.
"The vision that I see," he continued, "in that vision I see a parapet and upon that parapet I see the mother of African unity and independence, her body besmeared with the blood of the benighted race." He further went on to say, "The Gold Coast is going to have a new name, not Gold Coast, because it gives us memories of the past, but a new Ghana and a new name."
Ghana won its independence in 1957 and President Nkrumah lost no time in his efforts to bring together independent African countries, all the time obsessed with his dream of unity. In April 1958, just a year after independence, President Nkrumah invited independent African countries to the first conference of African governments. The conference was attended by Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana and Liberia. The slogan of the conference was "Hands Off Africa. Africa Must be Free, Africa for Africans."
That was the beginning of a march towards unity. Other African conferences followed in quick succession -- the OAU founding conference in Addis Ababa in 1963, a Cairo summit in 1964 and another one in Accra in 1965. This set the pattern for subsequent years.
But here I would like to recall another important event which, to my mind, helped to initiate a Pan-African popular movement. On December 26 1957 the first Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Conference was held in Cairo. It was attended by 500 delegates from 48 countries inhabited by more than two thirds of the world's population. I was involved in the preparations for that conference and played a part in its deliberations.
Getting the Asian delegates was no problem since most of that continent's countries were independent. The real obstacle was how to get the African freedom fighters. We managed, by fair and foul means, to gather the delegates in Khartoum. Some African delegates, like John Kale from Uganda, did the trek on foot. From Khartoum, a chartered plane flew the delegates to Cairo. Freedom fighters from different African countries met for the first time and together they forged a new coordinated liberation movement.
As a result of that conference Cairo played host to all African liberation movements regardless of their ideological leanings. From South Africa there were offices for both ANC and PAC, from Rhodesia there were ZANU and ZAPU and so on. Number 5 Ahmed Hishmat Street, Zamalek, became the headquarters of the liberation offices and later of the African Association.
Following that conference on the level of peoples came the All-African Peoples Congress held in Accra in December 1958. President Nkrumah asked for me to help with the organisation of the congress. I arrived in Accra on a Pan American Airline that flew me from Lisbon. I was seconded to the Department of African Affairs, headed by my old friend George Padmore and I spent two of the most enjoyable months of my life.
From that time on, the African movement progressed in two parallel times, governmental and popular. That was the birth of what came to be called the Civic Society. Africa went through a period of regional gatherings before heading to the OAU. There were the Casablanca Group, the Brazzaville Group and the Monrovia Group.
The year 1960 came to be known as "The Year of Africa," for it was in that year that many African states won their independence.
In an atmosphere of enthusiasm and jubilation the Kings and Heads of independent African States met in Addis Ababa from 22 to 25 of May 1963 and their meeting culminated in signing the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). That meant the creation of the first All-African grouping.
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