Disturbing the Order: a 21st Century Approach to an African Federal State

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In this text, Joao Gabriel urges to make Nkrumah’s dream of an African Federal State come true. This, he argues, is not only a political necessity on the continent, but also for the diaspora; not a call for the erasure of diversity in the name of unity, but a crucial step in the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles. 

Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“We face neither East nor West: we face forward.” These words, pronounced by Kwame Nkrumah during the Cold War, expressed a desire to break from the long history of oppression and dependency in which Africa was retained vis-à-vis the great powers. But not only did these words address what to move away from, they also announced a path for the future. As other key figures of Pan-Africanism, such as Tanzanian Julius Nyerere and Senegalese Cheikh Anta Diop, Nkrumah had a clear vision of what “forward” meant: building a Federal African State, from north to south, east to west. Nkrumah was convinced that national independence gained from the end of the 1950s and for most African countries throughout the 1960s wasn’t sufficient to secure economic and political freedom. Instead, he believed that continental unity, embodied by a concrete political entity, was to be an urgent necessity: 

“We therefore need a common political foundation for the unification of our policies for economic planning, defense, and diplomatic relations with foreign countries. There is no reason for this basis of political action to encroach upon the fundamental sovereignty of the various mays of Africa. They would continue to exercise their independent authority, except in areas reserved for joint action, in the interests of security and orderly development of the entire continent.” (Kwame Nkrumah, Africa Must Unite, 1963). 

This quote is crucial for at least two reasons. The first is that it highlights the three pillars of the state envisioned by Nkrumah: economic planning, which includes a shared currency; defense, with a continental army; and diplomatic relations codified by a common Constitution defining the terms of interaction with foreign countries. The second reason is that it testifies to Nkrumah’s political wisdom countering caricatural depictions of this project as a utopia due to the fundamental, regional, and national specificities on the continent. Far from ignoring them, Nkrumah’s goal was to create a clever articulation between continental, national and even communal interests. A Federal African State was neither conceived as an erasure of African diversity on multiple levels, nor a denial of specific political, economical and cultural stakes, all of which are rooted in the continent’s diverse historical contexts. On the contrary, the state envisioned by Nkrumah was supposed to be the embodiment of this diversity, and maybe more importantly, the best bulwark against the neocolonial tendency to destroy societies and mold them to meet the capitalist productive apparatus’ needs. Indeed capitalism, behind a façade of Westernization, is the driving force of homogenization. Therefore, African federal unity didn’t — and still shouldn’t — mean uniformity, but rather, a shield used to protect the numerous ways of organizing life displayed on the continent, as well as the possibility to sustain a living and enjoy the continent’s resources. 

This vision, though carried by multiple generations of Pan-African activists, has yet to be translated into reality. This is due to multiple factors such as political oppositions that Nkrumah faced in Ghana, battles for leadership between African heads of states, the growing hegemony of liberal Pan-African alliances who increasingly kept their distance from the anticolonial and marxist approach of Pan-Africanism, and last but not least, with constant assault of neocolonial powers. As a result, many in Black political circles of the diaspora that I have encountered both in France and in the United States see the project of a federal state as an old fashioned dream of the 1960s. On the continent, nationalists, religious, or tribal interests seem to often prevail, furthering the notion that an African state is a naive utopia that will never see the light. To make this even more grim, the neocolonial mechanisms of foreign predations and the enrichment of the local bourgeoisie are more implanted than ever. Thus, this raises the following question: is there still value in pursuing the project of building a Federal African State? Following the stance of many contemporary Pan-Africanists, who refuse to give way to defeatism, in particular Johannesburg-based political leader Julius Malema, I believe that a United States of Africa — regardless of what we name it — is still the best option to achieve emancipation from contemporary colonialism. I would even personally argue that the United States of Africa is the necessity of the 21st century, not only for Africans and people of African descent, but also for the entire fate of humanity. Sounds overreaching? It might be, but this statement is neither delusional or pretentious. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of both the historical role of the exploitation of Africans in order to build capitalism and the contemporary dispossession of African resources, not only by Western powers, but also by other states such as China and Russia.