The month of July marked the 120th anniversary of the first Pan-African Conference, held 15 years after the partition of Africa had been sealed at the notorious Berlin Conference. Trinidadian lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams – who coined the terms “Pan-African” and “Pan-Africanism” – organised this meeting in London’s Westminster Town Hall in 1900. The idea was to promote the political, socio-economic, and cultural unity of Africa and its Diaspora. Williams had founded the African Association in London in 1897 to lobby the British parliament and public to oppose the violence of European colonial rule in Africa, the lynching of black men in America, and the economic exploitation of the Caribbean. The 1900 Conference was where African-American scholar-activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, uttered the remarkably prescient prophecy: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”
The attendees at the conference from the US, the Caribbean, and Africa addressed a message to Queen Victoria, complaining about the ill treatment of blacks in South Africa and Rhodesia. They also far-sighted called for reparations to be paid to Africans for slavery and colonialism, as well as for self-government and the recognition of the rights of women. Between 1919 and 1945, five Pan-African Congresses were held, with Du Bois as the moving spirit. The Western media mostly heaped derision on these efforts. The First Pan-African Congress was held in Paris in 1919, simultaneously with the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War. Du Bois was the dominant figure in Paris, along with the Senegalese-born French parliamentarian, Blaise Diagne. Delegates also comprised African public office-holders in Paris and black American soldiers. The Congress called for the abolition of slave labour, the passing of laws to protect Africans, the right to education for Africans, and their participation in their own government.
The Second Pan-African Congress took place simultaneously in London and Brussels in 1921, with the main demand made on behalf of the “Negro race” by “their thinking intelligentsia” being “local self-government for backward groups.” This language revealed the patronising mind-set of the movement’s middle-class leaders. The Third Pan-African Congress occurred simultaneously in London and Lisbon in 1923. The meetings mainly called for Africans to “have a voice” in running their own affairs. The Fourth Pan-African Congress was held in New York in 1927. It was here that the towering intellectual prophet of Pan-Africanism, Trinidad’s George Padmore, lambasted white communists for trying to discredit black Pan-African organisations that they could not control. By the time of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in October 1945, the movement had shifted its centre of gravity from the Diaspora to Africa.
The conference was now dominated by future African leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and Malawi’s Hastings Banda, as well as Nigerians, Obafemi Awolowo and Jaja Wachuku. Other Africans in Manchester included H.O. Davies and S.L. Akintola (Nigeria); Joe Appiah (Ghana); Wallace Johnson (Sierra Leone); Peter Abrahams and Mark Hlubi (South Africa); as well as Caribbeans, Padmore, C.L.R. James, and Amy Ashwood Garvey. Among the Pan-Africanists in Manchester for the first time were representatives of African trade unions, farmers, cooperative societies, and students. Africans were now speaking directly for themselves in a Western idiom of self-determination, and their demands were unequivocal: immediate self-government and independence for African states, as well as the waging of armed struggles to liberate colonial territories. A policy of non-alignment between East and West was declared, amidst calls for the total liberation of Africa and Asia. At Manchester, Du Bois symbolically passed the torch of Pan-Africanism to Nkrumah, and the movement returned to its ancestral home. In May 1963, 32 African states met in Addis Ababa to create the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). A “Pan-Africanism of governments” had now replaced a “Pan-Africanism of peoples,” and the connections with the original Pan-Africanists in the Diaspora were largely severed. As Guinea’s Diallo Telli, the first OAU secretary-general, lamented: Pan-Africanism had been born into an atmosphere of “complete alienation, physical exploitation and spiritual torment.”
Professor Adebajo is Director, University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.