May 25 is celebrated as African Liberation Day. It is a commemoration of the struggles for liberation from colonialism, and specifically marks a key date in the struggle for Pan-African unity: the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. Comprising 21 member states, the primary aim of the organization was to support the liberation movements in Africa’s remaining colonies and to coordinate the construction of a new African society free of exploitation.
This struggle to build African solidarity through Pan Africanism was driven by revolutionary leader Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of an independent Ghana. Within a year of the west African nation’s independence on 15 April 1958, Nkrumah convened the All African People’s Conference – the first meeting of independent African states. This meeting followed in the footsteps of the 1900 and 1945 Pan African meetings (in London and Manchester respectively) and was attended by 200 delegates representing 60 organizations from 27 countries, including key leaders like Patrice Lumumba. The conference set the stage for connecting diverse movements of resistance from different contexts under one banner. In an adaptation of the explosive declaration in The Communist Manifesto, the meeting announced to the world: “Peoples of Africa, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! You have a continent to regain! You have freedom and human dignity to attain!” To the colonizers, they boldly pronounced this fundamental demand: “Hands Off Africa! Africa must be free!”
The Pan-Africanism that arose during this time recognized that colonialism was a system of capitalist expansion through brutal exploitation and racist oppression. The colonial project has always been one of the development of imperialist countries through the underdevelopment of the global south in general and Africa in particular. Nkrumah, together with other revolutionary groups, sought to build solidarity through the unity of African governments in order to gain economic freedom and bring an end to exploitation and oppression for the people of Africa.
This Pan-Africanism is, at its core, a people’s movement for the liberation of humanity from the exploitation of capitalism and imperialism. The Organisation of African Unity – and later the African Union – have disappointed many by not advancing the revolutionary program towards a unified, socialist Africa. In fact, many governments in Africa have, under pressure from imperialist institutions, routinely abandoned scientific socialism for chauvinism and neoliberal capitalism. These failures and limitations should, however, not distract us from the inspiration that the people of Africa, their organizations and their movements draw from the struggle for Pan-Africanism. This full liberation of Africa, its immense material wealth and the workers of the world, constitutes the substantive significance of the 25th of May.
Across the African continent, various liberation movements were able to secure political independence from colonial rule. This political independence was however not accompanied by economic independence – a phenomenon characterized by Nkrumah as ‘neo-colonialism’ as early as 1965. The continued exploitation of Africa’s resources and people through neo-colonialism was cemented by means of neoliberal austerity programs enforced by imperialist institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank. The capitalist stranglehold on the continent has maintained Africa’s status as resource rich yet indebted, exploited and thus impoverished.
In attempting to dispense with the prescriptions of capital, the majority of founding African leaders made genuine strides towards building socialism in their respective territories. History is replete with accounts of the consequences of these actions. Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown, Thomas Sankara was toppled and assassinated while Sekou Toure of Guinea faced massive repression from France. Under these economically repressive circumstances, the envisaged genuine working class democracy could not materialize.
The development of capitalism on the African continent has been at the expense of the majority of its people; privatizing natural resources and, over generations, denying many their freedom to access and own land. These sharpening contradictions of the class nature of our society have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The people’s organizations of the continent, which gathered in Winneba in 2018 to continue the march towards freedom and Pan-Africanism, insisted that the time is now to unite the struggles of the masses against capitalism and imperialism. This call for a rekindling of the popular demand for a unified Africa under socialist rule is even more pressing at a time when 22 individual men own more wealth than all the women on the continent combined. As Nkrumah declared at the inaugural meeting of the OAU, “There is no time to waste. We must unite now or perish.”