African unity: revisiting the popular uprisings of the North

Published on Pambazuka News, by Awino Okech, May 24, 2012.

The most important question post-uprising is how to entrench a Pan-African agenda led by citizens that addresses the fundamental challenges hampering African unity … //


I must underscore that what I speak about here is not the instrumental debate of whether Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans consider themselves African. By virtue of geography and history they are African without a doubt. 

In fact, one of the most popular refrains today is the fact that Tunisia gave Africa its name. The more important question for me is whether being African is simply a process of naming or whether it is connected to belonging? If becoming African entails a much a more complex process that is not simply limited to a shared history of colonial oppression, then what do we need to do to differently as those interested in a Pan African agenda beyond invoking semantics?

Semantics are of course critical given that years of exclusion and disconnection of any form have a psychological effect that damages the possibilities of imagining alternatives. Three years ago when I lived in South Africa, I was initially amused and then increasingly irritated when I engaged with Capetonians who lived in the infamous “matchbox houses” [1] who would say to me “ things are so terrible up there in Africa, no wonder you are here”. DRC, Nigeria and Kenya were all one big country in their eyes, all war-torn and refugee producing. In fact, all Africans were Nigerians. Unlike the American or European students who arrived in droves every year at the University of Cape Town and were perceived as being able to offer ‘something’, I was constructed as unable to offer anything but would instead benefit from the new South Africa.

I recognise the gallant efforts that have been made by various civil society formations to engage ‘North Africa’. In fact, holding the next World Social Forum in Tunisia offers an incredible opportunity to open it to Africa. However, the process of belonging and ownership requires much more than our civil society jamborees. It demands a concerted engagement around some of the central issues that limit real connections. On Africa’s Liberation Day it is to the question of how as citizens we re-assert a new Pan African agenda that we must focus. There are a number of practical realities that we must deal with head on.

“Africans moving around Africa with African passports [this distinction is important] are still treated as others. Neither abroad nor at home do we receive first class treatment” (Tajudeen Abdul Raheem)

The limitation of mobility in Africa is a critical starting point. Holding an African passport in Africa buys you no favours. In 2009, when the African Union summit was held in Sirte, most African citizens despite Brother leader Gaddafi’s calls for a united Africa could not get into the country easily because of the securitisation of travel. Your passport had to be submitted to a specified local mosque for translation; you had to have an invitation from a sanctioned Libyan NGO: all of this before you actually got to the embassy where appointments had to be secured through the ministry of foreign affairs or through the African Union. The fact that our State systems are anti-people and citizenship and immigration systems are constructed to exclude must be at the forefront of our engagements today. African people especially their women move daily with or without passports but it is the implications of illegality linked to this movement that makes it insecure and subject to micro-economies on the borders that are often hinged on bodily integrity. Of course, progress has been made on this score through the Regional Economic Communities but this has instead resulted in regional balkanization, which was interestingly affirmed in the election debacle of the AU Commission’s chairperson. As citizens our seeming disinterest in playing a central role in determining who heads the AU’s commission is worrying to say the least.

The second reality is the question of language. My fellow Kenyan and a prolific author Ngugi wa Thiong’o has always insisted on the importance of reclaiming indigenous languages as part of the process of decolonizing the mind. Wa Thiong’o has ensured that his novels are first written in his mother tongue Gikuyu and then translated into English. This is a powerful political statement but one which means that even in his own country only give or take 6 million people are able to read his publications in their original form despite their global appeal. This is one layer of the problem, which a country like South Africa ‘resolved’ by making all languages national, including sign language.

The second layer involves our ‘inherited’ languages. Those of us colonized by the British walk around the world with an air of superiority (at least I do) and are appalled when we reached African ports of entry where immigration staff speak to us in what they have espoused as a national language. Their blank stare when you ask ‘can you speak English’ is less disconcerting than their refusal to engage after your continued attempts to get through the border by insisting on speaking English. Nkrumah’s calls to unity make little meaning when you cannot communicate. My attempts to interview Ahmed Maher, one of the leaders of Egypt’s April 6th movement, failed because between us we could not find one language that we could communicate in fully. He spoke some English, I spoke a lot of English, he spoke a lot of Arabic, I spoke no Arabic, he spoke no French, I spoke some French. Of course my mother tongue and Kiswahili would not have been useful here. Given that language is perceived as a key repository of one’s identity, this creates a challenge, but it is one that we must devise strategies for.

The third issue is rooted in how we need to organize. If there is one powerful lesson to be claimed and owned from Tunisia and Egypt despite the reversals has been the place and pressure of masses pushing for change. The lack of a state owned security apparatus no doubt played an important role in ensuring that citizen’s voices were not quashed a la Libya. The inability to transform those institutions or at least place that as a critical agenda post the uprisings means that security apparatus designed to secure elite interests are maintained: the turn of events in Egypt are instructive here. In addition, the subversion of various interests groups and their voices is also critical here. The construction of youth voices as limited to the streets and not re-constructed in political players driving demands is an effect of the uprisings that must be monitored. That said, these struggles have been disconnected from organized civil society, largely independent of proposal writing and grant reports and removed press statements. The democracy debates and resultant discourses are produced on the squares and on the streets and are not predicated on a network secretariat or per diem for travel. This is not to argue that these movements have not been confronted with what is constructed as the inevitable need to organize, create a structure and name leadership because we need a hero.

In my view, the important question post-uprising is not about where the initial influence was derived from: that is a battle that has been lost. Instead focus must be placed on how we influence each other today. Herein lies the importance of a renewed source: a renewed Pan African agenda led by citizens that addresses the fundamental challenges hampering African unity. If we must own anything, let us claim and own the legitimacy and opportunities created by mobilization that is not shackled by funding deadlines and let us remember that liberation is not an event.
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