The Challenge of Heterogeneity: The Frailty of the Pan-Africanist Ideal


When Africans speak of Pan-Africanism and African Unity, they do so mostly in abstractions. The recent xenophobic attacks on other Africans in South Africa have now prompted an honest conversation about the concept of Pan-Africanism. The idea was born out of a quest for self-determination for the people of African descent around the world. This was the thread that bonded Marcus Garvey, Aime Cesaire, W.E.B. Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie, and other leaders to a shared interest in the idea (Ackah, 1999). Their common belief was that the oppressed black peoples of the world needed to come together to form a coherent bloc to oppose the West’s imperialist and oppressive power. Their thinking represented a good start, but it was based on unrealistic hopes. Nonetheless, the idea that there should and could be a united Africa, or better yet, the equivalent of a United States for black peoples around the world that could stand up to the imperial western powers, including Britain, France and Belgium, was a bold, admirable and, to some degree, cathartic statement.

Many ideas, including Pan-Africanism, capitalism and the millenarian conceptions of communism and socialism, are alluring and apparently prophetic on paper, until individuals seek to realize them and learn a lesson in human fallibility. This is not simply to dismiss the works and aspirations of the Pan-Africanists. After all, a century or so before, a group of colonies, which became the United States of America, had successfully attained independence from the most imposing imperial power of that time—Great Britain—an idea that was surely easy to critique when first advanced. The notion, therefore, that black peoples of the world could potentially form such a union doubtless appeared romantic, rebellious, and emancipating to many, and in concept at least, it was surely alluring.

Nevertheless, there were various problems with the construct from the outset. To begin, a United States of Africa, a new construct for the African consciousness, was not and is not realistic, for many reasons.  The first of these concerns is the remarkable diversity of Africa, with its many tribal and ethnic divisions, and most importantly, the fact that the continent’s inhabitants never saw themselves as Africans before Europeans so labeled them. For example, I could argue, and accurately, that my great-great grandparents never heard of Africa. They saw themselves first and foremost as tribal members of their land and never imagined their identities as tied to a concept of Africa as a whole.  Second, and as a point of emphasis, Pan-Africanists neglected the many divisions among tribes, groups, and nations in Africa as they called for a self-conscious unity. These would come to the fore, as I noted above, once any idea of unity was put to the test. Third, xenophobia is not unique to South Africa or to Africans. One could contend that it is a very human inclination and unlikely to disappear soon as a result. We have seen many civil wars in Africa that have had nationalism and chauvinism as their genesis. The recent terrible civil war in Cote d’Ivoire serves as a sad example  ( Unfortunately, it would be too easy to cite additional examples of such behavior among Africans.

Given this reality, my concern comes to this: it is time to reexamine the idea that Africans are/or should be one, and that residents of the continent should therefore understand each other on that basis. Should those interested in mitigating conflict in Africa or in building on its current development and immense potential appeal to the better angels of our humanity rather than our Africanness, whatever that is, to accomplish these purposes? It is time to admit that Africans, from Antananarivo to Algiers, are not the same, that they are in fact quite different and typically quite foreign to each other, and that, every now and then and however regrettably, they are likely to attack fellow Africans on the basis of their perceived otherness.

Alternatively, we should finally agree that we are Africans because of a European, Western narrative, since the only things we can point to as a common denominator are our shared struggle with imperialism and the name those powers gave to the continent. We need serious and honest conversations around these topics, for they are the elephant in the room that most Africans are not discussing. To address the challenge of xenophobia meaningfully, African leaders and their citizenries must first acknowledge that the potential for it exists in their countries, and that it is not an isolated South African or Maghreb problem and cannot be eliminated by appeal to a stipulated shared abstract bond based on geography that in fact does not exist.

It is perhaps worth recalling that there has never been a nation in modern Africa that has unified the continent or even substantial swathes of it, under the Pan-Africanist banner. Ironically, apartheid South Africa may have come the closest to this possibility. This was the country whose white Afrikaner government for generations marginalized, criminalized, killed, imprisoned and impoverished that nation’s black citizens ( All of black Africa, in unison, stood up, supported and marched for the end of racial discrimination in the Transvaal, Witwatersrand, Natal, the South West Townships (Soweto) and other tribal areas, including Qunu. One might therefore assume that South Africans would understand discrimination, marginalization and the process of “othering” better than citizens of any other country on the continent, but recent events suggest this is not the case. Humans are more complicated and complex and willing to stereotype and scapegoat on the basis of “difference” than we often imagine.

Interestingly, South Africa’s existence served as a Pan-Africanist rallying cry for many during that nation’s apartheid regime, and today, that nation is demonstrating that the idea of African Unity is little but an abstract and emotionally charged concept to which many Africans turn when in distress or perceiving themselves under attack. Sadly this point was underscored in Gambia in the summer of 2003, when citizens of that nation destroyed and looted Senegalese shops and businesses in the country in the name of their nationalist identity after Senegalese soccer hooligans attacked a Gambian soccer team bus in Dakar (, 2003). If Gambians, the overwhelming majority of whom are of Senegalese descent and share the same languages, history and lineage of those whose businesses they attacked, could perpetrate such violence, how might a Nigerian, Congolese or Liberian national, with no ethnic ties to South Africa, be treated in that nation following a similar incident?

Perhaps the Rwandan genocide could serve as the case for the concept of Pan-Africanism. More than three-quarters of a million people were hacked to death in that tragedy on the basis of their ethnicity ( If this horrific and macabre genocide could occur in a small country of a few million people, imagine involving an entire continent of with thousands of tribal and ethnic groups, who have nothing in common, other than skin color? And, no analyst should forget the millions of non-black Africans as one ponders the challenge of heterogeneity for continental unity.

One might ask rhetorically, what makes one African, anyway, and how can we deal peaceably with our own diversity? Are Africans, irrespective of their national identities, willing soon to discuss the challenge of heterogeneity and xenophobia? Are Africans content to wait for another Rwanda or, less far ranging but no less disturbing, another set of incidents like those so recently witnessed in South Africa, while pretending that xenophobia only occurs in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia)? (Huffingtonpost, 2015)  I hope that Africans of all tribes, ethnicities and national identities can soon admit our common humanity, but also our shared frailty and begin the hard work of addressing our diversity in healthy ways in our own backyards, whether that be The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa or any other African nation.


African Arguments. (2015, June 30). “The Rise and Paradoxes of Pan-Africanism Today”: Retrieved October 2, 2015.

Ackah, William, (1998): Pan – Africanism: Exploring the Contradictions; Politics, Identity and Development in Africa and the Diaspora. Ashgate.

BBC. (2003, June 9). “Border Shut After Soccer Clash”: Retrieved October 3, 2015.

Business Africa. (1997-2015). “Facts to the Political Crisis in The Ivory Coast”: Retrieved October 2, 2015.

Esedebe, Olisanwuche, (1994) : Pan-Africanism: The Idea and Movement, 1776-1991.Howard University.

Evans, M., “ Apartheid 1948 – 1994) Retrieved October 3, 2015., “The Rwandan Genocide”: Retrieved October 3, 2015.

Oduah, C. (2013, December 19). The Huffington Post, “Nigeria’s Ethiopians Protest Abuse in Saudi Arabia”: Retrieved October 2, 2015.


About the Author

Saul 2015Saul N’Jie is from Churchill’s Town, The Gambia. He is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). He has earned a bachelor’s degree from Bluefield State College, a master’s degree from Virginia Tech, and a graduate certificate in Nonprofit and Non-Governmental Management from that same institution. Saul’s dissertation examines the potential effectiveness of commercial and nonprofit, cooperative (mostly women farmers and gardeners) microfinance institutions. He spent the past summer in The Gambia, where he conducted interviews, observed the day-to-day operations of selected commercial and cooperative women-led grassroots microfinance institutions, in rural, peri-urban, and urban Gambia. He also conducted semi-structured interviews with selected government officials and representatives of development agencies such as USAID and UNDP.

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