People are quick to forget the crimes of dictators the moment they (the dictators) spew anti-West and pro-African rhetoric. It also makes some analysts and scholars feel learned that they can argue out the positive influence of known despots to Africa in long, tiresome essays. The remainder of supporters who rally behind African dictators have benefitted from the tyrants or have been whipped into line and conditioned to not simply endure but also enjoy their suffering under totalitarian governments. That the West does not always have African interests at heart should not mean anyone who opposes neo-colonialism is good for Africa.
It does not follow that every dictator who speaks against Western machinations is baptised by those words and is all of a sudden forgiven for violation of human rights. That has been the inherent flaw in the Pan-Africanism discussion; the perpetrators of killings and enforced disappearances in thwarting dissent, the looting and destruction of economies are branded champions of African progress. The whole truth, however, is that dictators are no friends of Africa just as neo-colonialists are no allies of the continent. Do not be fooled by empty speeches against America and her friends on the United Nations stage, ruthless African dictators are not Pan-Africanists.
Pan-Africanism now an excuse
In July 2015, Barack Obama visited Africa and made history by addressing the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His message was just what the youths needed. He said, “Nobody should be president for life and your country is better off if you have new blood and new ideas.” He went on, “I don’t understand why people want to stay so long, especially when they have got a lot of money.”
Naturally, there was a massive backlash from different quarters with some saying “Obama acted like a colonial headman lecturing the natives on how to behave as good subjects” and the best he could do was mind his own business. A simple statement on respecting term limits ended up being attacked using the neo-colonialism argument. Respecting a constitution somehow plays into the hands of the West, according to this flawed reasoning.
A Zimbabwean analyst, Charles Mangongera then rightfully said, “…the message tends to find resonance with the younger generation who are fed up with autocratic leaders. The younger generation will find Obama’s message appealing, while the old league of leaders on the continent will try to evoke Pan-Africanism to say Obama cannot lecture us.”
When one begins to analyse this, there is a realisation that African dictators are making democracy and rule of law seem like foreign concepts to Africa. They feed right into Western stereotypes of a continent ruled by strongmen.
Pan-Africanism has been manipulated into an excuse used by dictators to dismiss valid criticism. It is now used as an armour to fend off human rights concerns and democratic petitioning. This cannot be what Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere among many other figureheads of Pan-Africanism intended it to be. This form of Pan-Africanism that has become a glorified gag order is not what breathed life into African integration and ideas of African self-determination.
Dictatorship, the antithesis of Pan-Africanism
A Facebook post titled “Pan-Africanism is dead, dictatorship is born” on Mumia Abu Jamal’s page, says, “Pan-Africanism was not about power greed, the goal was empowerment. It was about creating a new breed of leaders – not locking them up behind bars. Pan-Africanism was about human rights, justice and tolerance not fear and intimidation.”
Western conventional media is known for speaking ill of Africa. Africa is presented to the greater world as democratically inferior to the West and when despots loom large, efforts to counter such claims are even harder. The continent ends up being vilified because one Pierre Nkurunziza decided he was not interested in respecting term limits. When Yoweri Museveni, Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo then implicitly claim to be champions of Pan-Africanism (evidenced by their high-sounding speeches), that brings the whole philosophy into disrepute. Pan-Africanism was born of a desire to encourage a common identity among people of African descent in order to fight exploitation and encourage unity. The truth however, is that it is flexible and not meant to be perceived as a destination in itself but a journey. This explains why the whole philosophy of Pan-Africanism has changed over the years just as the problems it should address have evolved too. If not, the end of colonialism and slavery could have been the end of Pan-Africanism. African Arguments says, “Rather than focusing only on identity, the “new” pan-Africanism is also a call for democracy, good governance and economic development.”
This means when dictators attempt to use Pan-Africanism as an excuse, they contradict themselves since their very defence questions their own legitimacy. Autocratic leaders cannot be the figureheads of Pan-Africanism because it is now a democratic force. If anything, the true torch bearers of the philosophy are now youth led African movements like Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag, Senegal’s Y’en a Marre and Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen. The fallacy of a Pan-Africanism which supports dictatorial tendencies has been debunked by the African youth.
Dictators who cling to power and destroy economies while at it are not only enemies of development but also enemies of the continent’s unity. No one should feel guilty for agreeing with their speeches but opposing their oppressive regimes. Yes, they are right, the West is usually biased, unfair and looking to exploit. It is also true that the dictators have unapologetically exploited whole countries, personalised state resources and enriched themselves and those loyal to them. If Africa is to count its enemies, dictators who abuse resources and citizens (trusting Pan-Africanism to rescue them) along with neo-colonialists top the list.