From decolonisation to the quest for a new pan-Africanism : in search of a lost African identity

As part of a (personal) understanding and ode to my condition as a black and African woman, to my blood, to the African continent and its world, this essay signs the questioning of a lost identity.

“Black Liberation” protestors in 1967 / © African American Film Festival

From my condition as a black woman, as an African woman, I retain and note in particular that the quest and the search for a new union, a new African independence — a new Pan-Africanism just as powerful and destructive as the previous one — has its roots buried in the woes left by colonisation and decolonisation. A prosperous and united Africa, a black and brown Africa, an Africa for all people of African descent, whether they live on the continent or elsewhere in the world, an Africa for Africans, this is what we have wanted for so many years — and yet, sadly, it was so… centuries ago.

What was the African continent at that time ? It was : important civilisations, important and large empires and kingdoms, great technological advances, different cultures and languages, different ethnicities, and a political context unique to all peoples. The African peoples lived, in the words of Allan Hope, « like Europeans ». Today, Africa is seen as a continent without history, without culture, without anything — and this is due to the European slavers who came to terrorise and destroy the continent, who spread the idea that Africans were backward people, an idea that persists today. I cannot talk about “pre-colonial” Africa without mentioning the fact that the famous Charter of Human Rights, the famous Text proudly advocated by French people, does not date from the French Revolution of 1789, no, but from 1222 and comes from the Empire of Mali, then ruled by the great Mansa Musa, called “Charter of the Mandé” (or “Charter of the Manden”).

It was a united, prosperous and advanced Africa that the Europeans found when they arrived. I like to think that they temporarily put a “stop” to the continent’s progress, instead of thinking, as everyone else does, that they simply signed its death warrant, its final stop — a temporary stop, admittedly one that lasted (and has lasted) for centuries and centuries, but a temporary stop nonetheless. Because I have hope, because we, as Africans, have hope and believe that Africa will rise again, that it will unite, as in the past, and that it will stand up, with grace and strength, to its (past) detractors.

There are many, hundreds, thousands of them who fought for the independence of African countries under colonisation. There are several, hundreds, thousands of them who tried to make the people responsible for their misfortunes leave. There are several, hundreds, thousands of them who chose to die (with dignity) for the African cause so that Africans could be free and united again. Some have entered the Pantheon of History, others have been forgotten — but they remain, nonetheless, all united and remembered for their relentlessness, for their sacrifices in the quest for freedom for the African continent and its children. Because colonisation — and decolonisation — is always told from the point of view of the colonisers, the European peoples, the ‘saviours’. They are seen as the Great Europeans who brought light to the poor and uncultured little Africans, as those who allowed them to advance, to be civilised. Because they portrayed us, and continue to do so, as savage beings, lacking any capacity to know how to live properly, like them, in Europe, they came as “Messiahs”, full of good intentions, wanting only our good, our blooming, our happiness — massacring and torturing men, women and children, raping them, reducing them to slavery.

In a deep and real desire for change, for renewal, driven by a strong desire for independence, for individualism, several heroes rose up and took up arms to wage a most bloody struggle against colonisation. Because they were more than fed up with being seen and designated as ‘inferior’ to the European colonists — to the Whites — , because they could no longer bear to see these barbaric monsters plundering, ransacking their countries, their continent, torturing, massacring the peoples of their blood, bruised and deprived of all dignity, they decided to fight the colonial powers to liberate Africa and its children. They wanted to raise a new (but well-known) air, that of Pan-Africanism, that of African unity and prosperity. One of the staunch supporters of this movement and president of Ghana from 1960 to 1966, Kwame Nkrumah, said : « It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems and that it can’t only be found in African unity. Divided we are weak, united Africa can become for good one of the greatest forces in this world. »

Because Africa lost so much during colonisation, according to the President of the Republic of Guinea from 1958 to 1984, Ahmed Sékou Touré, it must « retaliate by cutting ties » with the colonial powers if it is to rise again and shine as before. Independence movements and resistance groups were created to fight against the colonial powers and to bring about decolonisation. Important figures who are now part of history have distinguished themselves as true heroes, true figures in the quest for independence : Patrice Lumumba, Ruben Um Nyobè, Félix-Roland Moumié, Frantz Fanon. I only mention these four men because they were very numerous, but they were fervent believers and defenders of African unity and its independence.

Because they wanted to cut the ties that had bound their nations to the colonial powers for centuries, because they wanted to fight proudly and with dignity against their tormentors, because they wanted to liberate their peoples and their continent, these men took action in the hope that their detractors would leave their continent — and many of them lost their lives. The process of decolonisation, with its many resistance groups and independence movements, did not take place in complete calm and without violent retaliation by the colonial powers.

As a Cameroonian, I cannot talk about the decolonisation of my country without mentioning the bloody and disastrous war that it suffered between 1955 and 1962. It was a war of enormous atrocity, never mentioned in history books and which we prefer to ignore, to sweep aside with a wave of the hand, because it is so disturbing and not interesting. The war was orchestrated and launched by General De Gaulle, President of France at the time. The French army committed countless massacres (not to say genocides) in Cameroon and refuses, just like for the rest of its despicable acts on the continent, today, to acknowledge the facts — they don’t even talk about them.

General De Gaulle, revered and adulated in France, seen as a great hero — a view that has since been imposed on us in Cameroon — was an ignoble being in Africa. Our resistance fighters, Africans, are seen and qualified as “maquisards”, “bastards”, “terrorists”, when “angelic” beings like De Gaulle exist — the “maquisards”, on one hand, fought for a noble cause: that of Africa, of black and brown unity, that of a prosperous Africa once again. The “angelic” ones, on the other hand, wanted to continue exploiting people who had not asked to see their beautiful continent suddenly invaded by foreigners.

The French colonial power, in order to dissuade the numerous resistance and independence fighters from continuing their struggle, razed and bombed many villages, often with Napalm, committed genocides (such as one of the bloodiest, that of 2 March 1960), regrouped and displaced populations in camps… Their repression was partly aimed at my ethnic group, the Bassa, the main Cameroonian “revolutionaries”.

My country gained its independence on 1 January 1960, following some other African countries. The bitter taste left by the European Occupation on the continent is still not over, as I write these words, the hope of a united, prosperous, black and brown Africa, belonging only to Africans, seems to have vanished — although, personally, I still believe in it. French leaders, like Nicolas Sarkozy for example, think and maintain the horrible idea that Africa has never had a history, except for colonisation. This is completely false.

This desire to suppress our heritage, to brainwash us, to rob us of our real identity is despicable. Our leaders, our proud revolutionaries who fought for our continent, are described as “maquisards” when the real maquisards are the colonial powers, those who committed such unspeakable and repugnant acts.

If Africa is to recover, as Sékou Touré so aptly put it, it must cut its ties with the former colonial countries — but how can this be done when these same countries, especially France, are still firmly rooted there ? The change of mentality is also an important factor to be taken into consideration for an African “renaissance” — the African mentality of Mansa Musa’s time is not the same as it is today, colonisation has played a major role in it, and changing it is proving to be a more than complicated task.

The fact is that my grandparents’ generation were the ones who tried and stood up against their oppressors. They were the ones who took up arms and started the battle. My parents’ generation was cowardly — “generation of cowards” — because instead of continuing the struggle started by their parents, they preferred to flee and leave the continent in a mess. They should have continued to fight, so that later they could have handed over the weapons to us, to my generation — because technically it’s not my generation’s place to pick up the weapons and take up the fight because we have nothing. We don’t know how to do it.

I still have hope that the situation will change. But the wait is long, far too long, and it hurts. Our parents did not sacrifice themselves, did not continue the struggle, and we are expected/required to do so ? No one sacrificed as our grandparents did, no one wants to do it today. And that is sad.

The great thinkers, the great men and women who wished and dreamed of a new Pan-Africanism, as in the “old days”, have, for the most part, been assassinated by the former colonial powers — because they were disturbing, because they were stains on their boards. Thomas Sankara, Gaddafi… the (last) hopes of a new Pan-Africanism that died recently.

But, nevertheless, the dream does not remain forbidden : the day when Africa, the African peoples, black and brown, will rise up and unite hand in hand, with strength and courage, Europe (and the rest of the world) will be unable to do anything. And on that day, humanity will remember.

Published in french as “De la décolonisation à la quête d’un panafricanisme nouveau : à la recherche d’une identité Africaine perdue”, this is an essay written as part of a personal school assignment for which I received the highest mark with honours.

Law student and aspiring Political Science student, I write about racism and international affairs (politics) | My twitter : @whoreguimaraes