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



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. 

“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.

Disruption of Global Equilibrium /// 

For the past five centuries, Africa has been (and it remains today) the battlefield of competing empires and modern day nation states, as well as multinationals. Though not equal in power, each entity seeks either the workforce or riches of the soil to grow their wealth. In this context of crossfire from almost everywhere, where the world’s economic order depends in large part on Africa’s subordination, the modification of this continent’s status could provoke a tremendous disruption of that global equilibrium. Transforming the current political order with a federal state could open a window for other oppressed peoples in the Global South, as well as challenging the very foundation of capitalist exploitation. How then can this be achieved? For instance, the international Pan-African-Umoja created in 2012, which replaced to initial Congo-based Pan-African League of Umoja-Congo, affirms that its goal is “the construction of an African Federal State (United States of Africa) through the conquest of African political and economic powers on a popular basis.” This stance is further explained by members of the League, including one of its former presidents, in a January 2015 Kinshasa-based TV show Entretien, on Tele 7: the objective is to gain presidential election even in a small number of African states, and start a federation on that basis with a number of urgent demands and goals, to embody a concrete example of continental unity, offering an alternate set of politics. As explained in the TV show by the League members, the goal is to emulate and support other parties or coalitions in other nations who subscribe to ideas of both continental unity and political rupture vis-à-vis the current state of affairs, hoping that once they win the presidency, they join the federal state. This idea is not new. It draws on unitary attempts dating back to the late 1950s. The Ghana-Guinea Union, signed on November 23, 1958 by Nkrumah and Sékou Touré was an attempt to not only create a regional alliance against the signs of an emerging neocolonialism, and especially against France and De Gaulle’s economic war against the newly independent Guinea. It was also a way to develop a support system for other states fighting for their freedom. Below state level, other forms of alliances existed such as PAFMECA (Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa) formed in September 1958 at a conference held in Tanganyika for the purpose of coordinating nationalists movements in East and Central Africa and achieving independence. The goal today is to learn from these initiatives, understand why they failed to achieve their mission, and to have a clear view of the issues at stake for us at present. This requires having a multi-scale analysis that takes both internal and external forces into account. 

Lamola Funambulist
“Black Matter.” / Artwork by Duduetsang Lamola (2020) for “The Afromap of Space,” a radio show by Graeme Arendse on Ubuntu Beats Radio.

Equally important is to understand that, far from being a one-time creation with all its members already in place, the federal state envisioned by historic and contemporary radical Pan-Africanists is a process to remake the balance of power within Africa and outside of Africa. In other words, if a party or a coalition of Pan-Africanist organizations win presidential elections with an openly Pan-African platform in three countries for instance, they can join their forces and declare the creation of the African Federal State. With this entity in the making, they would progressively become an inspiration for analogous movements in other African states. The declaration of existence of the embryonic state cannot only be formal. It will exist through its actual actions. For instance, the removal of political frontiers could be one of them. People from concerned countries could travel in what would become the same territory. Other stands can come from developing voting strategies on continental or international issues. In addition to this institutional level, grassroots politics in neighborhoods, schools, villages, will have to be supported — not “implemented.” What I mean by this is that local activism that already exists and already makes sense in sustaining people’s lives within a specific region, neighborhood or street, will need to be supported— not replaced — by the embryonic state, in order to make positive transformations. It cannot just be a new coalition only benefiting the elite in power. 

The more the African Federal State will grow — both in number of countries as members and in power — the more it will gain stature in the concert of nations. One may say that multiple forms of “Pan-African” alliances already exist, both regional and continental. Nonetheless, if we consider the case of the African Union, not only do its policies not offer concrete alternative strategies against Western hegemony, but the one nation-model state still prevails. Thus, instead of being a coalition of states who, despite their specificities, share continental interests, the African Union works as a platform for each head of state to advance his own strategy for mostly national (and class) purposes. This is why unity can’t be the only horizon: anti-colonialism as a strategy has to be an explicit goal of the Federal African State. Pan-Africanists who believe and work toward this project are aware that a huge amount of difficulties stand in the way. Many African heads of states and the bourgeoisie comprador — i.e the African bourgeoisie that directly derives its fortune from neocolonialism — all those who have interest in the status-quo will oppose any attempt to transform the economic paradigm that governs the asymmetric relationships between great powers and Africa, as is the case of European-African relations, the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPAs). Surely, some segments of society notably in the business sector are benefiting from such agreements, but overall the economic divide between these two geopolitical regions remains. 

Empowering the Diaspora /// 

A Federal African State would also be of great significance for people of African descent outside of the Continent. It concerns both those who live in the West, or in the Global South as “Black minorities,” as well as those who live in Black majority countries outside of Africa, such as in the islands of the Caribbean. For the first category, I would suggest that the United States of Africa could strengthen anti-racist movements in the Global North. One of the main challenges of these movements, is to define a political project, and not solely take oppositional stands against everyday expressions of racism on TV, in politics, at work, etc. But one can understand how difficult it can be to elaborate a project in hostile countries where it’s impossible to completely feel that you belong. Anti-Black racism in Europe or North America is a constant reminder, even for those born and raised there for multiple generations, that Black people will never “truly” be French, Swiss, or Canadian. 

At the same time, we can’t invest in useless — or even dangerous — fantasies that we will all “go back” to Africa (or a Black majority country of the Caribbean). How does one resolve this paradox? I think that a solid materialist articulation of Pan-Africanism and anti-racism offers an answer: we (some of us) can be involved in issues pertaining to our life conditions wherever we live in the West (housing, schools, police brutality etc.) and, also, we (some of us) can be involved in political issues pertaining to either our country of origin, or a Federal African State to come. In other words, the goal is not to divest from issues that affect our daily lives in the West, but instead of pursuing the useless goal of making the political elite of Western countries racially diverse, we could re-orient our efforts towards the political fate of Afro-Caribbean or African countries and build concrete — and not abstract or projected — relationships with local activists and organizations. 

This has nothing to do with sentimentalism and how close or not we “feel” to our countries of origin (or those of our parents, grandparents or ancestors). It has to do with the political conviction that imperialism must be defeated at its root, meaning where the main source of its power resides, namely in the neo-colonies, and especially in Africa. It is also renewing with 20th century anti-colonial efforts when activists from Africa and the Caribbean who migrated for instance, were deeply invested in the fight for independence from Europe. It’s true for France-based activists of the Algerian Front de libération nationale (FLN), and also for Caribbean students and activists of Association des Étudiants Caribéens (AGEC), who created nationalist organizations while living in France. 

Most importantly, I’m a firm believer that the Federal African State project can galvanize diasporas to transform our anger into a real political goal. Not because we will do this “for Africa,” but because a Pan-African state is the condition to constrain the West and other regional powers such as Russia, to change their policies toward their Black minority and toward the African continent. It is in the diasporas’ best interest that Africa’s status improves. For the second category of diasporas, meaning those in their own Black majority country, a federal African state can also offer strategic support on some of the issues that they can face in isolation. As a matter of fact, I’m convinced that the issues of the state-sanctioned chlordécone poisoning of Guadeloupe and Martinique — Caribbean islands still under French rule — requires a Pan-Africanist (and overall international) struggle of countries affected by environmental colonialism. Once again, the objective is to turn the scales in favor of Africans and People of African descent, and let’s face it, for now, highly fragmented diasporic struggles don’t have the power to make the foundations of neo-colonialism sway, though they demonstrate our ongoing resistance and can bring us some victories locally. 

The African Federal State and the Paradox of Emancipation /// 

As a continuous process and not a finished object, the government of an African Federal State must keep a set of tensions alive to prevent the said state from freezing in a repressive and reactionary posture. For example, we must imagine modes of governance and representativeness that prevent the establishment of a political elite. Likewise, the role of the “arbiter” of the federal state will have to be constantly rethought, to know what extent and under what conditions it can be a recourse for the people and specific communities who are unfairly treated by their “national” representatives. Let’s say, to illustrate the point, that a community of farmers in a region of the continent expelled from their lands by their “national” state for the sake of a business company (even one owned by an African). An African federal state driven by an anti-colonial — and thus anti-capitalist — spirit could intervene against these mechanisms of predation, if these peasants take their “national” state to court. Finally, this federal process must from the outset guarantee a great deal of autonomy to the movements of civil societies, which, having the power to stand up to it, or even to threaten it, guarantee that it will not become authoritarian. In short, the challenge is to succeed in creating a state whose existence is justified by a particular historical sequence (articulations between nation-states and supranational federations), fulfilling a particular mission (disrupt global balances by giving to Africa a more favorable place in the concert of nations). But as it progresses, it must build the conditions for its overcoming. In reality, building a United States of Africa is not so much of an utopia. However, going beyond the state form, whatever it may be, certainly looks more like it — at least for now. May Africa become the place of this achievement, for humanity’s sake, even if it means taking a path, which at first glance, may seem paradoxical. ■