In the past three years​ there have been seven military coups in former French colonies, all in West or Central Africa. Two coups in Mali, in 2020 and 2021, saw a president and then an interim president deposed. Assimi Goïta, a colonel in his early forties, is now running the country. In Guinea, Alpha Condé, a president in his eighties, was removed by the military in September 2021 after he tried to swing a third term. The president of Burkina Faso was forced out of office by the army in 2022. Eight months later the military head of an interim regime was toppled by Ibrahim Traoré, a junior officer in his thirties. Last July, the president of Niger was removed from office and replaced by General Abdourahamane Tchiani. In Gabon in August, Ali Bongo Ondimba, heir to his father’s presidency, was replaced by General Brice Oligui Nguema: Omar and Ali Bongo had run the country for more than half a century. A radical impatience with older men presiding over younger men and women is a key to this upheaval, but France’s lingering postcolonial influence is decisive.

Guinea is an outlier here: it broke with France at the end of the 1950s, opting for complete independence rather than membership of the Franco-African ‘community’ proposed by de Gaulle. By 1960 the others had signed up to his vision: independence in name – and eventually membership of international bodies such as the UN and the Organisation of African Unity – but always in the shadow of the former metropole. A dozen former French colonies still operate (mostly to their detriment) with a shared currency: the CFA franc, pegged first to the franc and now to the euro – for all the control they have over their money, they may as well be in the Eurozone. For sixty years, France has kept a vigilant eye on defence policy in its former colonies and clung tenaciously to military bases. To the fury of opposition movements, it has propped up leaders it favours. Bongo père et fils were typical. So was Blaise Compaoré, who toppled Thomas Sankara – president of Burkina Faso, and still a hero for young West African opposition activists – in 1987. Sankara was murdered during the putsch and Compaoré went on to run the country for more than 25 years. After an uprising in 2014, French security forces spirited him out of the country.

But the clock has run down on these arrangements. The CFA is under review; if it survives it will be under another name, with more lenient terms for members of the zone. France’s military presence is shrinking. It deployed its armed forces in Mali in 2013 to slow up a jihadist advance, but bitter arguments with the government in Bamako as the jihadists made gains led to the coup eight years later. France has since pulled back from Mali – and reduced its forces in Niger – under pressure from public opinion in Africa and the new khaki regimes. ‘La France doit partir’ (‘France must go’) has been the word on the street for three years. In December, the regime in Ouagadougou announced that copies of Le Monde would no longer be distributed in Burkina Faso: after reporting a massacre by an al-Qaida affiliate, it had been accused of complicity with the killers.

This cycle of anti-colonial anger has taken on a ‘Pan-Africanist’ inflection. Or rather, the term Pan-Africanism has done the rounds, especially on social media, in support of the coups, as though the officers in charge were acting not only on behalf of their own countries but the entire continent. Even Emmanuel Macron used the word during an address to the French diplomatic corps last summer. Caught off-guard by the coup in Niger and reluctant to recall the French ambassador, he complained of ‘pseudo Pan-Africanists’ – the putschists and their supporters – opening the gates to ‘new imperialists’, i.e. Russia and China. Pan-Africanism is morphing rapidly into a warrior term, for those who approve of the coups and for those, like Macron, who deplore them. No one is on steady ground when they invoke the Pan-Africanist model.

In 2021, the Côte d’Ivoire journalist Gauz – real name Armand Patrick Gbaka-Brédé – announced in Jeune Afrique that Pan-Africanism had become a relic. Pan-Africanism, in his view, had always been a gentleman’s club. Search in vain, he wrote, for women of note, or women at all. But what of the Canadian suffragist Anna H. Jones or the author and scholar Anna Julia Cooper, both of whom addressed the First Pan-African Conference in 1900? Or the journalist Amy Ashwood Garvey who spoke at the first postwar conference in the UK, in October 1945? ‘We are here,’ she said, ‘to tell the world that black peoples, supported by the semi-colonial people in America and millions of other people, are determined to emancipate themselves’? The Sixth Pan-Africanist Congress of 1974 in Dar-es-Salaam – the first to be held in Africa – was organised largely by African American women, including Sylvia Hill, who went on to become a dogged anti-apartheid activist.

This new shorthand Pan-Africanism has little in common with the compelling political programme that survives today as a set of interlocking cultural assumptions – in the Caribbean, Africa and the US – steeped in a history of opposition to racism and colonialism. The cultural dimension of Pan-Africanism, for younger generations of would-be adherents, has been reduced to a feud with a single colonial master – its language, its media, its flag, its lofty Declaration of the Rights of Man – while their sense of a political dimension seems to begin precisely where their predecessors failed, in the quest for national sovereignty.

How to become a nation was one of Pan-Africanism’s most pressing concerns. ‘The claims of no people,’ Martin Robison Delany wrote in 1852, ‘are respected by any nation, until they are presented in a national capacity.’ Delany was an early advocate for Black autonomy – most scholars call it ‘Black nationalism’ – and threw his weight behind an oppressed diaspora and their political rights. ‘Here were we born,’ he wrote of the US, ‘and from here will we not be driven by any policy that may be schemed against us.’ But it wasn’t enough, in his view, to be ‘a nation within a nation’. ‘Where shall we go?’ he asked. One answer seemed to be Liberia, which he visited in 1859; he returned in two minds. Nonetheless by the 1860s he was urging ‘Africa for the African race and Black men to rule them. By Black men I mean men of African descent who claim an identity with the race.’

Decades later, W.E.B. Du Bois, the monumental figure of the Pan-Africanist movement, was still wrestling with this challenge. In 1921, at the second meeting of the Pan-African Congress, Du Bois called for the ‘rise of a great, Black African State’: a continental federation that could ensure ‘absolute equality of the races’ across the board – and by implication a single, postcolonial Africa whose delegates would take their place at the international conference tables. Hopes were high: the assembly of the League of Nations, a representative sample of states rather than Great Powers in conclave, had convened in 1920. But unitary statehood was an elusive ambition, nurtured mostly in the diaspora and impossible to transpose to Africa. It remained elusive even when the symbolic leadership of the Pan-Africanist movement passed from Du Bois to a generation of anti-colonialists, led by the rising star of the Gold Coast, Kwame Nkrumah.

That moment came at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945. The point man between the diaspora and the African delegates was the Trinidadian George Padmore, who had joined the Communist Party in the US in the 1920s, spoken out in the 1930s against Stalin’s conciliatory approach to European imperialism and been expelled from the Comintern for consorting with ‘bourgeois’ groups and ‘striving for race unity’ instead of ‘class unity’. (His childhood friend in Trinidad C.L.R. James, who had given Nkrumah a letter of introduction to Padmore, was then at work on The Black Jacobins.) A version of socialist internationalism emerged from the conference, with Soviet influence in parenthesis, seeming to offer Pan-Africanism a promising future. Du Bois, who had spent the 1890s wondering whether Pan-Slavism and German Romantic nationalist theory held the keys to the movement he envisaged, certainly thought so. Nkrumah was in no doubt. He invited Padmore to Ghana. Together they would lay the groundwork for a Pan-Africanist International and turn Accra into its continental HQ.

Padmore’s experience of Nkrumah’s Ghana was mixed. Two shifts in Pan-Africanist ideology took place during his lifetime (he died in 1959). Like Du Bois, the movement had come a long way from 19th-century European theories of race: the urgent questions, in the interwar period and beyond, were how to achieve justice for Black people in the New World and colonial Africa, and what institutions – if any – could conjugate Africa and the diaspora as a real political community. The second change took place between the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement a few years later. It was triggered by Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal and the tripartite invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France that followed. The peak of Nasser’s anti-colonial prestige coincided with the Battle of Algiers (1956-57), a deadly acceleration of the Algerian struggle against French rule.

Until then the Africa of Arab and Berber peoples had been stranded beyond the Pan-Africanist imagination; now it could no longer be ignored. Nkrumah wasn’t the only leader who had seen this coming. The Organisation of African Unity, convened in Addis Ababa in 1963, was full of honourable Pan-Africanist intentions. But most heads of state who inherited colonial possessions were reluctant to fritter away their sovereignty in a nebulous federation on a continent divided by Cold War sponsors, glaring disparities in natural resources and separatist passions. Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa remains as distant as it was in 1966, when he was informed in Beijing that he’d been toppled in absentia by the Ghanaian army and police, with a helping hand from Washington. He had travelled east to attend a peace conference in North Vietnam.

Muammar Gaddafi was the last influential African leader to claim the mantle of Pan-Africanism and call for the creation of an African superstate. By the end of the 1970s, with his hopes for Pan-Arabism dashed, he was doubling down on Libyan influence in Africa. In the 1990s he led the call for a new organisation to replace the OAU. The African Union was launched in 2002 ‘to achieve greater unity and solidarity between African countries’. In 2004 it created a Pan-African Parliament, a legislative body that sits in South Africa. In 2021 a procedural row about the way the Parliament’s president should be elected ended in violence. Two MPs, both women, were injured. Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s radical populist Economic Freedom Fighters Party, threatened to kill a fellow MP.

Gaddafi, the chair of the AU in 2009, didn’t live to witness these scenes. In office he spoke out quixotically for an EU-style African passport and – as Macron has in Europe – for a pan-continental army. He was a believer in governmental institutions: the BRICS model of vigorous rising economies meant less to him than committees in permanent session proposing rules by which very few member states could abide. He tried in vain to cling on to the AU chairmanship as his term was ending. The following year, during the Nato intervention in Libya, he was murdered by opposition forces. He was a polarising figure in Africa, mistrusted by some for backing insurgencies, by others for supporting corrupt regimes. But his admirers, who include very few Libyans, still see him as a pan-anti-Westerner – and thus an honorary Pan-Africanist – martyred during a violent foreign intervention: one in a list of leaders undermined by European and US interference in several countries, among them Congo, Ghana, Angola, Chad and Central African Republic.

Last September, the Cameroonian political theorist and historian Achille Mbembe published an analysis of the situation in former French colonies. He took ‘Pan-Africanist’ to be a misdescription of an ‘imagined emotional community’ in West Africa and other parts of the continent. What was gaining ground, he argued, was ‘a poor person’s version of Pan-Africanism’. A better term, he thought, was ‘neo-sovereigntism’: an absolutist model of self-government with zero interference by external forces. For Mbembe, African neo-sovereigntism is a rhetoric of entrenchment and a reaction against disempowerment. Its origins lie in a series of reversals that began in the 1980s when structural adjustment bit deep into public spending programmes. It persisted in the 1990s as the rapid transformation of one-party states into multi-party democracies became mired in difficulties.

The greatest of those difficulties, for Mbembe, was that states often ended up with a multi-party system in principle and one-party rule in practice. Ruling parties, he argued, tended to champion ‘good governance’ at any price, though this turned out to be a euphemism for subservience to the evangelists of prosperity: foreign banks and global financial institutions proposing balanced budgets and wafer-thin state expenditures as bulwarks of democracy. The results in Africa have been mixed. In Mbembe’s view, they have led to a decisive turn against Western-style democracy – long regarded as a foreign ‘gadget’, first by intellectuals and activists in the 1980s and thirty years later by a rejectionist tide flooding social media across Africa. Any perceived encroachment on sovereignty by Western capital is a call to arms. Migrants, too, can fall foul of neo-sovereigntist ideology, especially in South Africa, where the ringleaders of Operation Dudula (‘beat back’ in Zulu), an anti-immigrant vigilante movement, plan to run in this year’s elections.

Mbembe isn’t the only commentator to detect a liking for strong men in these ‘imagined emotional communities’: on the one hand, the putschists, who can explode the democratic gadget; on the other, the two no-nonsense patrons, Russia and China, who can clear away the debris. In 2022, the Senegalese opposition figure Ousmane Sonko, who has called for ‘the total emancipation of Africa’, spoke out after the second putsch in Burkina Faso against ‘our Burkinabè brothers applauding a coup d’état with Russian flags. I say there’s a problem. You don’t replace France with Russia … Above all, we wish to be free and dignified. But Africans imagine they should always be under somebody else’s wing.’ If there’s any truth in that gloomy remark, African army officers exploring ties with Moscow have a contradiction on their hands.

The strength of Pan-Africanism today lies not in its failed ambitions for a united Africa, but in the wealth of curiosity about Black cultures which was present from the movement’s inception and lives on in the diaspora, enriched by the modest trickle of migrants from Africa and the Caribbean into the US, where one in ten Black people are now foreign-born, according to the Pew Research Centre. The interaction of African and New World cultures in the US, a Pan-African synthesis that went unnoticed during the melting-pot craze of the 1970s, is an enduring part of the movement: the evolving musical canon, mostly lenient about borrowing, quotation and repurposing – like European modernism – is one of its strongest suits. To take the measure of fiction lists in the US today, along with (beleaguered) humanities options, hybrid African fashion codes, Afro-fusion cuisine, even the plethora of Afro-futurist genres (music, movies, graphic fiction and blockbuster sci-fi), is to see that this is much more than heritage-churning.

Neither France nor its former colonies were fully at the heart of the Pan-Africanist movement. Delegates from French colonies attended the various Pan-African Congresses yet Pan-Africanism made its great political strides from the mid-1940s through the 1950s among the English-speaking majority in the New World diaspora and colonial Africa. The French were running their colonies from a battered metropole recovering from Nazi occupation. In Paris, the Négritude movement was hailed as a stylish performance of African specificity that strengthened the case for decolonisation. But by 1954, when the Algerian war began, the Anglophone internationalists and a new breed of French anti-colonial thinkers, above all Frantz Fanon, were making the running.

The latest round of coups in West Africa signals an impatience with the old European order, largely because French imperialism still brings back ambivalent memories of what Du Bois described in his ‘Forethought’ to The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as ‘double consciousness’: ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others … two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings’. Half a century later, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon was incensed that Black children working through the French colonial curriculum were still being taught to identify with ‘the civilising coloniser’. Forty years after Fanon, in The Black Atlantic (1993), Paul Gilroy tilted the idea of double consciousness towards a more elastic, miscegenated doubleness, proposing that cultures ostensibly defined by ethnicity – and divided historically as slaver and slave, coloniser and colonised, white and Black – are not ‘sealed off hermetically’. In Gilroy’s reading, for all their stark distinction, they are also in sinuous dialogue.

Ever since the independence wave of 1960, dialogue between the ex-colonised and the former coloniser in French West Africa has been strained. The wish for a definitive break – and a new single-mindedness – is clear from the exasperation of the coup leaders and their large, populist followings. No one can predict how long a generation of Russian or Chinese emissaries will preside over African regimes cultivating a defiantly anti-white, anti-European position. No one can tell how long it will take for memories of the Cold War, which also play a part in the African preference for Russia, to fade. The Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia were committed to the national liberation struggles that dragged on through the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. France, like Britain and the US, stood in the way of this second drive for independence, led mostly by Marxist insurgents – heirs, in spirit, of the Fifth and Sixth Pan-African Congresses – until the Soviet Union finally came apart. To this day, Europeans remain under a cloud of suspicion in many parts of Africa.

France continues to operate a share of extractive industries: mostly gold in Burkina Faso and Mali; in Niger, a diminished interest in uranium. But its role in the slow post-colonial reconfiguration of Africa may no longer be critical. During Mitterrand’s fourteen-year presidency, high-level military interventions came thick and fast in former French colonies. Mitterrand damaged France’s diplomatic reputation in Africa – and elsewhere – by aligning with the Hutu leadership during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Under Chirac, a hesitant interventionist, military deployments in Africa were kept to a minimum. It was François Hollande who dispatched the expeditionary force to hold back Islamist insurgents in Mali. He hoped to contain the spread of jihadism in the Sahel, pre-empt its passage across the Mediterranean to France and perhaps reduce asylum claims from fleeing West Africans as part of a net reduction of immigration from Africa. But revisionist Pan-Africanism in France’s former colonies favours freedom of movement for Africans to the metropole. In November, the junta in Niamey revoked a law, enacted in 2015 and championed by the EU, that was designed to choke off the transit route through Niger for tens of thousands of migrants heading towards the Mediterranean. The law cost the Nigerien army valuable income from deals with people smugglers, but now everyone is back in business.

Hollande’s objectives were political, with no short-term economic gains in prospect. France is facing stiff global competition in Africa and a conspicuous turn away from French to Arabic, English, Hausa and Swahili as the languages of commerce. Its market share of international trade with African countries has fallen since the turn of the century from 11 to 4 per cent. In 2012, one of its high-profile companies, CFAO (Corporation for Africa and Overseas), was acquired by Toyota: from trading groundnuts, cocoa and rubber in the 1850s, CFAO had gone on to become a dealership and distribution giant (cars, pharmaceuticals and supermarket premises) before the sale. In 2022, the French billionaire and media baron Vincent Bolloré sold his holdings in African container terminals and railway lines to a Swiss-Italian shipping company for €5.7 billion. Increasingly, smaller French investors in Africa are looking for opportunities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

France is not wholly diminished as a neo-colonial power but it’s on the back foot, with less hubris about its role in West Africa. In the history of colonial acquisition, European states followed their traders and adventurers into Africa. The French temptation must be for the neo-colonial state to follow them out, but that’s unlikely: too many subsidiaries of French mega-companies – Total and Orange, for example – are embedded in Africa for the game to be up. The CFA currency works to their advantage. Army rule, a familiar version of revolutionary statecraft in West Africa, can only lay feeble claim to the Pan-Africanist programme championed by Du Bois, Padmore and Nkrumah, while France bears no resemblance to the country that negotiated the decolonisation of Algeria with the National Liberation Front at Évian in 1962. This is an impasse without reliable interlocutors who can agree about the past. It could well turn out to be a case of zombie anti-colonialism rising up against a zombie predator.

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