Pan-Africanism today

December 2, 2019

Pan-Africanism is an old idea of African unity. Today, African leaders are working on bringing into reality the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the first Pan-African trade deal. These efforts by the African Union answer today’s wish for African continental socio-economic and political unity. And not only is this remarkable in a world of increasing protectionism and nationalism, it is also of vital importance to the progress of the continent to integrate its economy and to face today’s new scramble for Africa.

Our observations

  • Pan-Africanism is a global cultural and political movement aiming at strengthening bonds of solidarity between all indigenous and diasporic ethnic groups of African origin. Its basic premise is that unity of all those of African descent is needed for economic, social, and political progress.
  • Multiple scholars argue that Pan-Africanism is rooted in the African philosophy of ubuntu, which decrees that “I am because we are”, a Sotho humanistic epistemology that connects all Africans in an ancient communal bond.
  • Today, Pan-Africanism is embodied in the African Union (AU), the organization of African states which includes the entire African diaspora as its “sixth region”. The intergovernmental organization aims to promote unity and solidarity of African states, to spur economic development, and to stimulate international cooperation. Its Agenda 2063 is a “concrete manifestation of the Pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity”. Currently, the president of the AU is facing criticism for firing the AU’s envoy to the U.S. for publicly disapproving of France’s occupation of its former African colonies. Critics say this shows that the AU stands with its foreign donors instead of with Africans, and that AU’s dependence on external powers keeps the organization from independent decision-making.
  • The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is the first Pan-African trade deal that could embody a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion. It is designed to create an integrated continental market for goods and services and to support the movement of capital and natural persons. The AfCFTA raises new hopes as a flagship project promoting Africa’s transformation and development agenda.
  • The AfCFTA could help the continent form its own economic growth. Today, Africa is home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, according to the IMF. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Benin, Kenya, Uganda, and Burkina Faso take the lead. Africa’s GDP has grown by 4.6% annually on average since 2000, the second fastest rate in the world, driven largely by domestic demand for processed goods. Africa will count a population of 2 billion by 2030.
  • However, the ambitious trade agreement faces challenges on the way to implementation.  Negotiations over tariffs, which are crucial to the agreement, have not been completed.
  • African diaspora (people of African birth and heritage living elsewhere) around the world maintain cultural, political and economic ties with the continent in the form of remittances, Afrocentric philosophies (Ubuntu), practices (such as the annual celebration to honor African heritage, Kwanzaa), music (such as hip hop) and popular culture (Black Panther). Shared African values are thus being kept alive even among generations that may never set foot on African soil.

Connecting the dots

There is no single story of Pan-Africanism. In Pan-Africanism: A History (2018) Hakim Adi describes the complex history of the countless individuals and organizations that have sought to enhance this unity as the basis for progress and liberation. Adi views Pan-Africanism as a mighty river with many streams and currents (many iterations and different strands) seeking to address the common problems Africa and the African diaspora face in different places and time periods. Pan-Africanism began in the 18th century with the fight against slavery and today takes shape in, among other movements, reparations activism (for apologies and payments to black citizens whose ancestors were forced into the slave trade). Adi describes how Pan-Africanism historically represented the quest for self-assertion and resistance to oppression and discrimination in the form of enslavement and colonialization. However, in the postwar phase, decolonialization confined anticolonial activists to the nation-state, undermining the international ideas of Pan-Africanism.

In the recent past, the Pan-African ideal of integration of African countries gained relevance. The Organization of African Unity (OAU, 1963), which later became the African Union (AU, 1999), was an answer to a call for continental socio-economic and political unity and renewed the continent’s commitment to Pan-African ideals. As Adi points out, Pan-Africanism was much more than a vague idea or a mere dream. Like most political ideals, it helped galvanize generations and political leaders into action. The fact that the African Union brokered the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the first Pan-African trade deal, is a strong example of that. In times of a global crisis of free trade and globalization in the form of protectionism, trade wars and sanctions and the rise of nationalism, the AfCFTA gives an even bolder signal to the world. As the future largest free trade area, AfCFTA can have global impact by showing unity and multilateralism.

At the same time, the AfCFTA is no more than a bare necessity for the development path of the continent. Although Africa is home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Africa’s intra-continental trade makes up less than 15% of total African exports (in comparison to 67% for intra-European trade). The agreement could boost intra-African trade by 52% by 2022. Moving people across the continent is a challenge as well. Today, it is often easier to transit through Europe to get from one African country to another than travelling directly between the two. Also, visa procedures are costly and time consuming.

Another rationale for further integration relates to the new scramble for Africa. Africa has again taken center stage when it comes to the interests of different superpowers. China, most notably, has arrived as a new superpower on the continent. The growing presence of China as a foreign aid power on the African continent has created an alternative to the conditionalities of the Western powers. Still, the continent sees China bargaining with African leaders individually. If African leaders could manage to align more, they could show the unity needed to come out on top in this scramble for Africa. This holds especially true when it comes to technology, as China and the U.S. are competing to dominate the African Stack.

This also applies to food. Superpowers are aware that the African continent is the world’s biggest food import market and that this market will only grow. At the same time, there is great agricultural potential in the fertile continent. While Western countries cannot increase production much further, 60% of the world’s unused agricultural land is in Africa. Superpowers China and the U.S. are fully aware of this. China has ramped up agriculture land purchases in African countries. The African Development Bank is trying to break the trend of exporting food commodities and importing food products. It is creating Staple Crops Processing Zones to develop agricultural value chains and agro-allied industries that process and add value to local commodities.

If the AfCFTA turns out to be successful, it could become the landmark of a new phase in the historic journey of Africa to realize the dreams of the Pan-Africanism movement for a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa, even if it was only born out of the necessity to survive and thrive in today’s global economy.


  • Although the AfCFTA can greatly benefit those African economies that are capable of expanding their exports of goods and services to the rest of the continent, there are concerns about the more vulnerable economies. Some argue that the European “free trade” approach to regional integration is not appropriate for African developing countries. They argue for a regional integration referred to as “developmental regionalism” that includes fair trade; structural transformation; cross-border investment in infrastructure; and democratic governance.
  • Increased connectivity is key to the success of the AfCFTA. Africa’s first cross-continental, high-speed train is now in the making and African Union experts envision a high-speed rail network by 2063 (as part of AU’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, 50 years after the formation of the AU), linking all African capitals and commercial centers. These shifts towards improved infrastructure and increased trade will boost the African continent by making it more autonomous and independent of other superpowers.
  • Whether these Pan-African aspirations become reality will also be strongly determined by how the young generation identifies itself. The fact that most of them no longer identify themselves primarily as being part of a tribe or specific ethnicity, could open doors for something like a shared African identity.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Researcher Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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