I am certain the original pan-Africanists would never have imagined that despite periods of political stability and significant progress, ethnic violence still remains a visible reminder of our differences today.
As I write this, I am in Nigeria where as the country waits for the now postponed elections, 66 Fulani Muslim people were killed on Thursday last week.
Born as a vehicle of what Guinean President Sekou Toure called “spiritual decolonisation,” pan-Africanism seen as an ideological and political means of uniting people of African descent and fighting for the abolition of slavery, colonialism and the attainment of Independence. It stressed collective self-reliance and represented, at its height in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the renewal of hope for the continent.
Is it time to craft a new interpretation of the ideology of pan-Africanism with one of its pillars being ending ethnic violence? What would be more self-reliant than the ability to respect our differences and live in peace as Africans?
In a video clip shared often on social media, Kenya’s Lt General Daniel Opande, the Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping troops in Liberia, stands in the middle of heavily armed young rebels, who have been raping and killing people. He takes their leader, a notorious fighter known as “Small General,” by the arm and asks him “Young man, who promoted you to a One Star General? Is it Charles Taylor?” The Small General, surrounded by his fighters, says yes.
Lt General Opande then tells him, “You are not even worth the rank of corporal, because I was with you here two weeks ago and I told you that I do not want misbehaviour on this road, yet you misbehaved again.”
Yanking off the “Small General’s” red beret with the one star on it, Lt General Opande adds, “Today, you have lost even your rank. You understand, you have lost your rank. You are no longer a general and you are going to hand in your weapons now!”
What we see from the unarmed Lt General Opande is an African promoting self-reliance, in absolute control of the situation.
The Ghanaian peacekeepers in Rwanda too, were often outnumbered and out armed by the Interahamwe militia in the genocide that took nearly million lives. It is widely acknowledged that the international community failed to protect Rwanda from the genocide.
General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian former commander of the UN Mission in Rwanda, said of the Ghanaians, “They violated orders from the UN Security Council to withdraw, staying until the genocide was over. They demonstrated courage that so many others were unable to sustain in the face of such a horrible catastrophe.”
Colonel Clayton Yaache (later to become a Major General) for instance, tried to sneak 80 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a well-sealed lorry to safety. At the fifth roadblock, the Interahamwe militia caught them, flattened their tires and decided to kill all the 80 people.
Colonel Yaache, as a military observer, was unarmed and the 10 Ghanaian soldiers with him were outgunned. Colonel Yaache negotiated with the would-be killers for 12 hours, speaking until he lost his voice. All survived!
The Ghanaians, with then Lt-Col Joseph Adinkra (later to become a Major General) as the Commanding Officer of the only remaining battalion on the ground, guarded Rwandans in the stadium and airport, organised convoys to evacuate victims and negotiated through barricades.
Yet academicians would hesitate to label Lt General Daniel Opande, Major General Joseph Adinkra, Major General Clayton Yaache, and the Rwandan peacekeepers in South Sudan as pan-Africanists. This despite Lt General Opande having served Africa in Namibia, a country that recently honoured him, negotiated the Mozambique peace process and was Force Commander in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
A number of peacekeepers have lost their lives while serving. As a people and as individual nations, how many of these heroes, both the living and the dead, have we honoured?
Pan-Africanism, originally conceived as a political movement, has deteriorated into an intellectual exercise restricted mainly to academia and African Union discourse. Is it not time to reinvent it as an ideology more relevant to us today?
What happens to the knowledge that peacekeepers bring back home? Are peacekeepers represented in think tanks on African self-reliance mechanisms in violence prevention? Are there writers assigned to them so we learn from their stories? Is there a roster with their names and areas of expertise at the African Union?
The constant need for peacekeepers in Africa is a reminder that fundamental issues relating to identity and sectarianism remain unresolved.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.