Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, at an African Union summit
Robert Mugabe, in his acceptance speech following his appointment as chair of the African Union (AU), said: “African resources should belong to Africa and to no one else, except to those we invite as friends. Friends we shall have, yes, but imperialists and colonialists no more.” This proclamation was met with applause from his peers. The news, predictably, was not as well received among Western commentators. The polarization of African and Western commentators on the Zimbabwean president’s appointment was nothing new: if anything, it was well in-line with the traditional lack of trust between the two regions. Africa’s general distrust of Western intentions and the credibility of Western attempts to improve the conditions of the continent garnered support for Mugabe’s customary anti-West rhetoric, while Western suspicions of the integrity of Africa’s leaders naturally leads to animosity towards one of the most overtly anti-West African leaders. More interesting is a possible – and longstanding – solution to this divide, raised by Mugabe in his acceptance speech: pan-Africanism.
The basics of pan-Africanism are that all African peoples, including the African diaspora, are connected not only by the common experiences of their past – oppression, slavery, colonialism, etc. – but also are connected in solidarity to their present and future by their African-ness. Beyond that, the ideologies and details of pan-Africanism vary from one proponent – or opponent, for that matter – to another. African liberation leaders of the mid-1900s such as Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, Ahmed Sékou Touré and Patrice Lumumba have become icons of the pan-African movement for their roles not only in releasing their countries from the hold of colonialism but for advocating for the liberation of fellow African nations and African solidarity against Western (particularly, at the time, European) imperialism. Of these original pan-African legends, Robert Mugabe is the only liberation leader still in power. Through his position on the liberation committees of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) – the predecessor of the AU, of which he was also chair from 1997-1998 – Mugabe was involved in Namibia’s struggle for freedom and the civil wars of Mozambique and Angola. In the words of Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of independent Zambia, “People see him as a hero. Not just in Zimbabwe or here in Zambia but across the whole of southern Africa.”
Mugabe, of course, is not considered a hero everywhere. He and his wife are subject to restrictions on their travel and finances in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, and his country is similarly shackled by economic sanctions. Domestically, Mugabe has faced opposition for his autocratic and often violent tendencies, as well as the country’s past economic turmoil. Much of the criticism stems from the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In response to Mugabe’s appointment as the AU chair, an MDC spokesman said: “Mugabe has trashed democracy in Zimbabwe and he and his party have ruined the economy. He lacks the political legitimacy to lead an Africa that should be looking to consolidate democracy and good governance.” How can a man accused of “[lacking] the political legitimacy to lead” Africa be hailed as a pan-African icon?
Autocratic leadership, in fact, is typical of pan-Africanist liberation leaders. Thomas Sankara, the legendary pan-African martyr-president of Burkina Faso, banned unions and free press, established kangaroo courts in towns and workplaces to try corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries and lazy workers based on personal grudges, and dismissed the entire nation’s schoolteachers when they went on strike. Ahmed Sékou Touré ruled Guinea as a one-party state, imprisoning, torturing and killing many political opponents and dissidents in camps such as the infamous Camp Boiro. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah banned opposition parties and trade union strikes, suspended due process with the Preventative Detention Act and declared himself president for life. The reigns of these rulers often saw the use of violence to achieve their means: Sankara encouraged gangs of armed youth to terrorize citizens, and some 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed under Touré. All of these leaders believed so strongly in the inviolability of their ideals for a post-colonial, truly independent and self-sufficient Africa that they believed no one else could be allowed to interfere.
Socialist principles, such as those that motivated Zimbabwe’s controversial land redistribution policy, were also embraced by these leaders, and have become synonymous with pan-Africanism. It is easy enough to see why socialism should arise in mid-century pan-Africanism: countries seeking independence from Western countries and particularly European colonial powers, the bastions of capitalism, would turn to a political and economic ideology that not only eschewed Western values but also cut ties of patronage with their former colonizers. Additionally, these liberation movements took place in the midst of the Cold War, so when newly formed African states were looking for international support for their radical new policies and anti-Western temperaments the natural ally was the Soviet Union – Touré won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1961. Sankara instituted land redistribution policies, similar to those of Mugabe, that saw land taken from the minority landowners put in place by colonization and redistributed among the peasant population.
Like Mugabe, these leaders were not immune to criticism, both internal and external. Autocratic and oppressive rule always creates resistance and retaliation. In the case of mid-century pan-African freedom fighters, rebellion was almost always sponsored, often even directly planned and initiated by Western nations, particularly former colonial powers. In 2002, Belgium apologized for its role in the death of Patrice Lumumba, who had also been the subject of a CIA murder conspiracy. Thomas Sankara was assassinated for jeopardizing relations between Côte d’Ivoire and France in a plot that has been suspected to involve the US. The man who seized power, Blaise Compaoré, is to this day France’s closest ally in the region. Mugabe has become famous for his anti-West rhetoric, particularly in regards to Britain and its involvement with sanctions against him and his politics. Is it exactly this anti-West narrative that has cemented Uncle Bob’s continuing role as the chief of pan-Africanism?
As much as pan-Africanism aims to move beyond the shackles of colonial rule, it can also be one of the few unifying pan-African forces: “It is a rare shared experience on a gigantic continent with thousands of languages and unique ethnic groups, where governments range from kingdoms to multiparty democracies to Islamic states. If nothing else, they can all trace their very borders to the decisions of European colonialists.” Britain’s government – former colonizers of Zimbabwe and much of Africa – has learned to be careful with its comments on its former colony: Mugabe is an expert at exploiting foreign criticism of his regime. Mugabe’s distrust of Britain has led to controversy before, such as his opening of a British diplomatic bag. However, Western powers have also been reprimanded in the past for overstepping the boundaries of sovereignty.
In 2008 the UN had to prevent Britain, France and the US from rejecting the run-off presidential elections and declaring Morgan Tsvangirai as the President of Zimbabwe. In 2003, Mugabe accused the US of being “born-again colonialists” and demanded that they disarm if they were to demand the same of Iraq. Pan-Africanism seeks solidarity between African states based upon their shared African-ness – however, it has yet to move beyond its dependency on Europe and the West. This goes both ways: the West draws many resources from Africa, while Africa’s strongest political and economic partners remain in the West, especially Europe. In the absence of the USSR, African countries have, in recent decades, been turning to the new economic powerhouse that is China as an alternative to perceived Western imperialism – a salient example of this is the relationship between radical dictatorship Angola and China. As Africa slowly begins to shake off dependency on its former colonizers, is the time of leaders like Mugabe coming to an end?
Mugabe is already the last of his kind. He is Africa’s oldest leader and its third-longest serving head of state. The reverence given him can, in many ways, be seen as symbolic of his historical pan-African role rather than endorsement of his relevance to modern African politics, just as his appointment as the chair of the AU – a position with very little political power – can be seen as ceremonial by some. While Mugabe was careful in his acceptance speech to frame his land redistribution policies as Africa’s agricultural answer, do his anti-colonial politics still have a place in the pan-African movement going forward? Land reform has not necessarily been as cataclysmic as it has been portrayed, but it is not the solve-all solution Mugabe wants it to be. Africa’s resources and economies are as diverse as its people. Africa will need a new banner to unite behind if it is truly to become self-reliant. The continent needs to escape its patron-client relationship with the West to move forward, but exactly how this will occur is up for debate. Uncle Bob, in the meantime, will retain his magisterial seat of honor, for all it may mean.
Adrian Jennings is a sophomore at Wheaton College, studying Chinese and Mathematics.