What is African Liberation?
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Peter Adwok Nyaba
Jan 15, 2008
Peter Adwok Nyaba critically analyses the struggle by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement within the context of African liberation
“… [the] drive for African unity in our times requires a popular mass-based, Africa-wide political movement whose central goal is political and economic unity of African people..” K K Prah 
Before we proceed to define what African liberation is, there is need that we perceive and agree on the definition of who is an ‘African’. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that anybody on the African continent today including those who deny that identity is African. On the other hand it will equally be serious a mistake bordering on ignorance of history to perceive that people of the African descent domicile outside the continent e.g. in the Americas, Europe, Asia or Oceania are not Africans. What then is the criterion for classifying or categorising one as an African?
The Africans are the only race in the last one thousand years that has been raped, brutalised, denied its humanity, commoditised, exported like goods, its natural resources stolen by Europeans and Asians, its societies torn apart, their social bonds disrupted and compartmentalised into colonial territories. The history of the African people and people of African descent has in short been that of tremendous tribulations at the hands of nearly all the other races. No human race has gone through such a legacy and possesses such historical indignity.
An African therefore is one who or whose ancestors have gone through this experience and heritage. Black colour, although a characteristic feature of many of us, does not alone define who is African. It is the legacy of sustained dominance, exploitation and enslavement that really defines the African and people of the African descent domicile elsewhere in the world. This sustained societal domination has created a sense of belonging and other realities of its own but it is more among the African Diaspora that the urge to solidarity and identity consciousness in more evident.
On the continent this sustained domination worked negatively in many instances. It subverted the African confidence in them and created syndromes of inferiority, self-hate, and lack of self-esteem to paraphrase Prah. And many others prevalent today even in our societies e.g. the practice of skin bleaching, hair straightening or simulating the or anything European or Arab, are manifestations of this self-hate. It is in this context that we want to discuss the African liberation in all its dimensions socio-cultural, political and economic.
Let’s now attempt to define ‘African liberation’, what are its parameters and which social and political forces pursue this liberation struggle? In the context of decolonisation African liberation has been seen as process leading to independence from European colonial rule. Although that may be a significant aspect of it, African liberation is a socio-cultural and political process for self-rediscovery, self- re-humanisation and return with dignity into human history. Colonialism and dependence on Europe removed our people from history. Liberation essentially is the return of the African people on the continent and in the Diaspora back into history such that they take their rightful place in the course of human development. This process in the final analysis must translate into transforming the oppressive reality by which the Africans have been submerged in for centuries. Its main parameters are social and cultural emancipation, political independence, economic vibrancy, unity of the African people on the continent with their kin and kith in the Diaspora.
The oppressive reality the Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora find themselves is the reality of neo-colonialism – maintaining colonial relationships through diplomatic and economic strings which perpetuates economic exploitation and the robbing of the continents natural resources through such institutions as the Lome Convention [I, II, III & IV], the Cotonou Protocol -2000, which has perpetuated African’s dependence on the European Union. Europe continues to exploit the Africans through such agreements made by African leaders who never cared for their people. It is relationship in which Africa suffers capital flight to Europe, America and Asia to the tune of billions of dollars per year with a corresponding pauperisation of the Africans as manifested in the Human Development Indices of most of these countries.
A synoptic view of the African political landscape reveals astounding reality of conflicts, civil wars, famine, preventable diseases, and many other epidemics. Fifty years of flag independence most African countries find themselves in fiscal deficit which must be covered by donors – a sad reminder that it is ‘not yet uhuru’. They are unable to feed their own people or provide the minimum of life requirements as a result the Africans risk their lives fleeing away to become voluntary slaves in Europe, the Middle East and America. Africa is witnessing a brain drain to the West and this works negatively for Africa’s development.
In historical perspective, African Liberation and the struggle thereof is not something new. It also didn’t start with the struggle for decolonisation in the fifties and sixties. The process started against the European and Arab aggression many centuries ago. We may have to remind ourselves of the struggles against European slave merchants on the Atlantic coastal areas of Africa; against the Arab slave expeditions along the Indian Ocean coastal areas of East Africa and in the Nile Valley across the Red Sea. Africans played heroic roles against this human tragedy.
The Africans also didn’t accept lying down on their stomachs the European colonialism after the Berlin Conference 1884. We may have to remind ourselves of the Mahdi’s uprising against the corrupt Turco-Egyptian state in northern Sudan. It is a matter of fact many of participated albeit as slaves in the war against the European power. The defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1895 by the Ethiopians under Menelik II is a vivid reminder that African people always cherished freedom in their lands.
The struggle for freedom as manifested by decolonisation of Africa was long drawn out against European colonial administration. It also included the political, military and diplomatic actions against Apartheid in South Africa which ended in the majority rule in 1994. The situation in South Africa had been describes as ‘internal colonialism’ – in which the dominant political class, representing the social, economic and political interests of the predatory white racists captured the state and used it to dominate, oppress and exploit the majority of the citizens. This internal colonialism was more vicious and ruthless than the European colonialism.
Social and political forces for African liberation
The Africans struggle for freedom started in earnest with the process of decolonisation. This struggle took different forms ranging from negotiations [Lancaster talks] for countries like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania [British East Africa], Nigeria, Ghana, Cameron [British West Africa], Senegal, Ivory Cost, Mali, Niger [French West Africa] among others; to revolutionary armed struggle as it occurred with the Portuguese [Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau] and French colonies [Algeria] or with armed struggle against internal colonialism as in the case of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Eritrea and Southern Sudan.
The unfortunate outcome of this struggle for freedom and independence was the confirmation of Africa’s division in the images of its former colonial masters and the perpetuation of their respective zones of influence. Africa emerged divided and fragmented after decolonisation. Nearer home in Sudan, the Acholi, Madi, Kakwa, Masaai, Zaghawa, Azande, Beja, Anyuak just to mention a few find themselves today divided by the colonial borders of the countries surrounding the Sudan. The situation is the same in many regions of Africa.
The attempt in Addis Ababa in 1962 to forge African unity in formation of Organisation for African Unity (OAU) quickly turned into leadership club, which affirmed the colonial division of Africa. It became a ‘unity’ of African leaders to perpetuate the colonial legacy of oppression, marginalisation and political exclusion of sections of their citizenry. The first phase of African liberation therefore faltered. The result of this ‘false start in Africa’ is the present crisis in which the continent is embroiled. Conflicts, civil wars, military coups, economic depression, refugees, internal displacement, are all symptoms of a serious error of judgement of our independence leaders. There is no African state that has not had a military coup, civil war, tribal wars and conflicts, etc.
African liberation is therefore a struggle against neo-colonial state. It can only occur in the context of a continental movement to which the Africans in the Diaspora may subscribe to. A continental movement which involves all the social and political forces united in their different and variegated political parties and organisations, associations, and unions. A ‘Pan African Movement’ capable of capturing the aspirations of the African people and unite them in solidarity with one another and with the African Diaspora. The Africans may borrow a leaf from the Pan Arab Movement and solidarity in terms of its form and structure but with a different social and cultural content.
Is the Sudanese people part of the African Liberation?
We in Southern Sudan are emerging from a half century struggle against the politics of racial domination, exclusion and marginalisation. The Sudanese political situation resembled apartheid in South Africa and Namibia and qualified as a case of ‘internal’ colonialism. In this context the dominant political class, representing the social, economic and political interests of the predatory Jellaba, captured the state in 1956 and used its different parameters to politically exclude from power, marginalise dominate, oppress and exploit the majority of the citizens.
Disenchanted with the historical role played by the Jellaba in slavery and slave trade, the people of Southern Sudan, had always remained suspicious and never accepted the political dispensation that ensured Arab hegemony over the whole country. The call for ‘federation’ by Southern Political elite in the nineteen fifties didn’t come out of the blues. It was anchored in the belief that the Jellaba would not accept the concept and principle of power sharing in a unitary state. The people of Southern Sudan had to fight two wars to win the exercise of their inalienable right to self-determination. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement has now made it a constitutional right and therefore a victory for all the Sudanese people.
The relentlessness with which the people of Southern Sudan pursued their political objectives played a fundamental role in the awakening of the other marginalised and oppressed Sudanese particularly those of the African stock in central [Nuba and Funj], western [Fur, Masaalit, Zaghawa, among others] and eastern [Beja] Sudan. It is worth mentioning that hitherto many of these people, submerged by the oppressive reality they lived were ensnared into the false belief that professing Islamic Religion and speaking Arabic language [culture] was tantamount to being Arab hence superior to their brethren in the South. They therefore fought bitterly and fiercely to brutalise and dehumanise their brother and sisters in Southern Sudan.
The Southern Sudan influence is manifested in the wars in Dar Fur and Eastern Sudan. This has shattered the myth and falsehood that northern Sudan was homogeneously Islamic and Arab. Yes many of them, indeed most of them, are Muslims but they are not all Arabs. As a matter of fact even those who call themselves Arabs are indeed not Arab but a hybrid race – children born to Arab fathers by African mothers. It now can be said that the Africans in the Sudan have awoken to the reality of their collective oppression. They have therefore taken up the mantle for their own liberation suggestive of their conscientisation i.e. they have correctly perceived of their submersion in the culture of oppression and therefore the need to transform that oppressive reality. Like Southern Sudanese they have now enrolled in the process of their total liberation and emancipation.
Having said that, it goes without saying that we in Southern Sudan, as well as our brothers and sisters in other parts of the Sudan, who subscribe to the definition of the African, are indeed an integral part of Africa and its liberation. It may not be a late realisation because looking back into the sixties, one of the liberation fronts established by Southern Sudanese was Azania Liberation Front, something anchored in the South African experience.
The liberation process in the Sudan now helps highlight the nature of ‘internal colonialism’ I allude to above but more importantly highlights the perennial conflicts that run across African between the Arabs and the Black Africans in Dar Fur, Chad, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. These are conflicts to which many African leaders would prefer to squint from or fudge under the carpet of diplomacy as they flirt with Arab leaders like Gadhafi. A pan African Movement should confront this reality head-on to bring the Arab to accept the Africans as their equals.
This brings me to the recently established African Union and the proposed United States of Africa. What kind of United States of Africa including the Arabs? Going by the Arab’s attitude towards the Africans it will be like a union between the slave and his/her master/mistress. The United States of Africa is not an instrument for African liberation. Instead United States of Africa led by Mohamar Gadhafi is another was of perpetuating Arab hegemony in Africa particularly when viewed in the context of their lukewarm response to the war in Dar Fur and lack of support for the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005).
What should be done?
As part of the liberation process we need to embrace democracy and democratic principles of political organisation and action as tools for liberation. As a matter of fact this requires a high level of political awareness, consciousness and organisation. Africa has been so much segmented and partitioned that their primary conscious knowledge of themselves is their immediate clans or lineages. Even where the same ethnic community has been divided by the colonial borders people remain oblivious to the fact that they are one and the same people. We need to get out of this clannishness and look at the wider picture embracing our destiny as a people.
This discussion forum which has just been inaugurated in my opinion is a conscious attempt to start engaging ourselves in bigger issues that concern the destiny of the Africans on the continent and those of the African origin. This is a process of conscientisation which of necessity must be followed by mobilisation and organisation at every level of our society. This is because liberation will not come until we have internalised some of these issues like construction of a continent-wide political movement whose main goal the political and economic unity of the African people. Borrowing from the European theatre it is the political and economic unity that will really bring an end to the endemic wars and conflicts on the African continent.
In Sudan, we have been absorbed by our own massive problems. This has prevented many of us from engaging in regional and continental issues. The present dispensation which allows Government of Southern Sudan and the SPLM to have offices in the regions must be used to widen our contacts with our neighbours to increase cooperation in solving cross border issues, increase trade and unhindered movement of our people and their goods. The establishment of regional associations and unions of academicians, students, youths, women and political parties will accelerate this process. The movement for African liberation and unity must be two-ways traffic across the colonial borders with the ultimate objective of making these borders irrelevant in the lives of our people. This will eventually lead to the deconstruction of the colonial state and the final unity of our people.
The perpetuation of the neo-colonial state as a diplomatic as well as a reference of sovereignty was a major failure of our leaders. It is this attitude to the colonial state that witnessed the death in its infancy of the East African Community in the sixties. It is hoped the recent attempts to revive this important regional body and more particularly the joining of Burundi and Rwanda will help pull the peoples of these countries together. We are of the opinion that regional institutions of cooperation and economic integration should be stepped up and buttressed as a means of strengthening our economies to achieve genuine liberation.
The neo-colonial state, we in a misnomer, call nation state did not address the concerns of the vast majority of the African people for social and economic development. The current crisis on the continent may be attributed to the failure of the African leadership. Looking round the continent there are many failed or collapsed states. Their economies are in shambles and their people are daily escaping to other areas. Africa is experiencing a plight of its people this time voluntarily to become slaves in developed economies. This situation necessitates a second round of African liberation.
In conclusion, the Sudanese people are an integral part of the African liberation. But it is only those Sudanese who recognise and accept the fact that they are part of the African heritage I talked about above. The SPLM being the vanguard of the struggle of our people for the last twenty four years must continue to play this role more vigorously now than before.
The SPLM must become the rallying point for all the Sudanese in the south, east, west and north. It must engage in genuine democratic discourse and build viable, transparent and accountable relationship between the leaders and the masses of the people. It must punish clannish behaviour of some of its leaders and cadres; it must rid the government and society of corruption, nepotism, favouritism and all elements of bad governance.
The SPLM in its effort to transform into a popular mass-based political party in the Sudan must adopt methods of political organisation and action which are democratic. It should be a link between the Sudanese and the other Africans and the African Diaspora. Its departure point must of necessity incorporate a ‘firm cultural vestiture which strengths and roots African national consciousness in our cultural and historical belongings’ [Prah]. In this way the SPLM will be part of the process of uniting the ranks and file of our people across the colonial boundaries.
The Sudanese struggle for liberation, social justice, freedom and democracy is therefore part of the African liberation. We must therefore transform ourselves into conscious mass [Pan Africanist Movement] and agent of Pan Africanist ideals in this way we will have participated in the liberation of Africa.
* Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba is the author of The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View
* This article is taken from a talk delivered by the author at Juba University on November 17th, 2007
*Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org