As Qaddafi Died, So Did His Craziest Dream and Mistake: Pan-Africanism

For decades, he cultivated the idea that Africa is a unified block, in the process helping to entrench the continent's aging leaders and their worst practices
gpz2 oct24 p.jpg
Qaddafi meets local school children during the African Union Summit meeting in Kampala, Uganda / Reuters

Qaddafi's death -- and the outpouring of support for the late Libyan leader in sub-Saharan Africa following his demise -- is a reminder that pan-Africanism was an historic mistake of enormous proportions -- a simple-minded political ideology that for the past 50 years or so has done more harm than good for Africa's standing in the world.

The essence of Pan-Africanism is that all people living on the African continent share a common cause and a common destiny. This notion of a single African polity informed the mental outlook of many of the first generation of post-colonial independence leaders in the sub-Saharan.

Most distinguished in this tradition was Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first prime minister, who took office in 1957 and went so far in his embrace North Africa as to marry an Egyptian. Nkrumah sought to form political alliances across the African continent, which gave impetus to the Organization for African Unity (OAU), whose very existence betrayed the anxieties felt by elite and ordinary Africans alike: that because Europeans had overwhelmed them through a method of "divide and conquer," the only durable path through post-colonialism was unity.

The trouble with unity of the Pan-African sort is that the African continent is, as my friend Chanda Chisala reminded me recently, "diverse in its diversity." Yet in the name of unity, the essential tensions with Africa's important sub-regions, and between these regions, get erased. And in so erasing these differences, the possibilities for political exploitation re-emerged in the post-colonial era. Minorities and ethnic groups both within countries and across borders lost their voices, their identities, and their futures in the name of the great leveler, Pan-Africanism.

Opportunists, of which Qaddafi was probably the greatest, also seized Pan-Africanism as a means of resolving thorny problems in international relations. When Libya's militance and even criminal behavior towards the West led to Qaddafi's isolation, he turned to sub-Saharan Africa for allies, seeking at once to bridge both racial and regional differences.

Qaddafi's crypto-solidarity with black Africa was aided in the 1980s and 1990s by the patronizing turn taken by foreign aid donors, especially those in Europe and the U.S. who sought to deliver Western-style rights to ordinary Africans along with improved diets and medicines. Qaddafi instead cultivated the vanities of male autocrats in Africa, lubricating traditional African institutions with Libya's petro-dollars. In addition to buying luxury hotels for use by African elites in such cities as Accra, Qaddafi also supported far-flung Islamic mosques and schools.

When the African Union was formed in 1999, loosely modeled on the European Union though essentially as toothless as its predecessor, Qaddafi provided a seemingly endless bankroll for the organization, which in turn treated him as a visionary godfather. A pariah around the world, within the African continent Qaddafi could imagine himself as a future president of the United States of Africa. He fed the vanities of aging and sclerotic African leaders, who in turn thanked Qaddafi by overlooking his own "misadventures" in the region, most notably his penchant for trying to topple the governments of neighboring countries with governments unsympathetic to him.

The siren song of "one Africa," still the AU's unofficial motto, rendered African leaders in the sub-Saharan deaf to the rising complaints of Qaddafi's immorality and unsuitability even to lead his own under-achieving Libya. The contradiction between the realities of African diversity and the ideology of Pan-Africanism were never more nakedly obvious than when Qaddafi claimed the mantle of African-ness. No wonder, then, that in July the AU's first official reaction to International Criminal Court's issuance of an arrest warrant for Qaddafi was to ignore it.

With Qaddafi now dead, perhaps Pan-Africanism as politics and morality cannot survive much longer, even as a strange notion. Better to recognize the essential diversity of African than to sacrifice that diversity for a false unity.