African Liberation Day: Historical Perspective for Pan Africanism Today

Peoples Dispatch

Justice Henaku discusses the political, historical, and cultural importance of African Liberation Day for the people on the African continent, of the African diaspora and across the world.

May 25 is being marked across the world African Liberation Day. It marks the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Kambale Musavuli of the Pan-Africanism Today Secretariat talks to Justice Henaku of the Socialist Forum of Ghana on the significance of African Liberation Day for the African continent, the African world and the entire world.

The text of the interview is below.

KM: May 25 is a very important day in the continent. Many countries and youth organizations mark this day. Let’s start with the historical context. How did we come to have African Liberation Day?

JH: African Liberation Day, also called African Freedom Day or Africa Day, commemorates the struggle of African people against bondage, oppression, colonialism and imperialism. Our struggle merges with the struggle for women’s emancipation, the struggle of the minorities etc. So it is not a monolithic celebration of only a political struggle. It is an economic and social struggle as well.  We must situate African Liberation Day not only within the context of the African Union but within the context of the struggle of African people worldwide for emancipation. The antecedents of African Liberation Day go as far as 1900 when the Pan-african conference was held and its subsequent meetings in London and Paris, culminating in the significant conference which happened in Manchester in 1945 which set out instructions or directives on how to go about the immediate task of liberating Africans from colonial bondage. Liberating Africans from colonial bondage was only the first in a series of liberations. There was supposed to be an economic liberation and a social liberation. The second is significant because for 500 years, the Africans have been dehumanized, their history has been misinterpreted, they have been told that they didn’t have a history. They have been degraded and told that they are not human beings. They have been made into a commodity, into chattel through slavery who could be bought and sold and used a tool or machine to grow cotton or to build skyscrapers or work in the mines. So after the political liberation on the African continent and the Caribbean and elsewhere, there was also the need for the liberation of our minds and our personality, as epitomized by what Nkrumah called the African personality.

But let’s get some historical background on African Liberation Day. In 1958, on April 15, eight independent Africa states and liberation movements met in Accra for the Conference of Independent African States. It was the first conference of independent African states, of African people, in Africa. Its aim was to create awareness and amplify the decolonization struggle. Within two years (1960), we had 17 African countries gain independence in 1960 and by 1963 32 African countries had gained independence. So that conference called for April 15 to be celebrated and commemorated by all Africans as African Freedom Day. This was so that we create awareness, we educate people and energize the liberation struggle for decolonization and to free ourselves from racism and apartheid in South Africa. In December that same year, the All-Africa People’s Conference was held. The first one was of the states, at the governmental level. The second one was for the people, it was for non-state actors. They met in Acca and you had all sorts of liberation movements participating.

KM: What was the idea of having these non-state and state actors in meetings in 1958? We had people coming from the Congo and other places too. 

JH: This is because the main essence of any liberation movement, any freedom movement, is the people. And there is a bit of a disconnect between the states and the people. We can have a reactionary state, a state with a reactionary regime. South Africa was independent but it was not allowed to take part in the conference because the South African regime represented only a minority group and not the whole of the South Africans. There have been many instances in our history. Ghana was in the forefront of these processes but it has also had governments which banned meetings and prosecuted people who organized meetings and if you displayed the picture of the founder of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, you could be arrested and jailed. So we must always show the two [state and the people] as being separate.

So the All-Africa People’s Conference in December was very important because it allowed all the African movements all across Africa and in the African World [to take part]. When we talk about the African world, we are talking about going beyond the physical space of the African continent and inclusive of anywhere in the world where there are African people. So the participants in the two conferences agreed that the decolonization process and the fight for African unity was very important. So African Freedom Day was first celebrated on April 15. When the Organisation of African Unity was formed in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, African Liberation Day was celebrated on that day. African Liberation Day was a liberation from a certain negative that has been put on us. Subsequently, the day was changed to Africa Day because the Organisation of African Unity, which was to be the forerunner of a United States of Africa, was never able to achieve that. What it achieved was through its Liberation Committee to provide material and diplomatic assistance for the liberation of Guinea-Bissau, Angola, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and elsewhere. However, it did not go beyond liberating Africans from imperialist regimes. It did not liberate Africans from terrorist regimes – because many such regimes came up in Africa. They were even allowed to play on the African stage. The Bukasa regime in the Central African Republic, Mobuto in the Congo, Idi Amin in Uganda – all came up. But the O.A.U did not fight [for] that second liberation. The first liberation was to free ourselves from foreigners. But the African people were under a double exploitation – exploitation by foreigners and exploitation by the local elite. And the local elite use all forms of governance – fascism, dictatorship, bourgeois democracy.

KM: So let’s talk a bit more about May 25, 1963. How did the Africans of that time understand African Liberation Day?

JH: Well, they understood it of course as the physical liberation of the Africans from external oppression by foreign countries. But many of them also understood that African liberation was not just the trappings of a formal statehood – having a flag, a national anthem, just being made a president and a sovereignty that had no essence. Most of our founding African Patriots went beyond that. They talked about an African high command which would give muscle to the liberation movement. They talked about an African currency, an African common market which would give muscle to the economic liberation of the Africans because whether we like it or not, two generations of colonialism had incorporated us into the western imperialist and capitalist economy. The rule we had in that economy was that we in the periphery were the suppliers of raw materials and cheap labor to the metropolis. Were we to remain that or were we to have a new reality? It was that reality, that vision that the leaders, the founders of most of the African states had. But as always, when you look at it dialectically, it has to be a struggle. And this struggle continues. Aluta continua. Due to uneven developments, there will be a lot of ups and downs and we have had those ups and downs.

But the main point for us is to focus and one of the ways to do so is to celebrate African Liberation Day or African Freedom Day. This can be used to educate us on the tenets of Pan-Africanism. It can be used to drum home the fact that the fight for African liberation is not individualistic. It is a whole. It is a fight for Africans in London, Africans in the Caribbean, Africans in the Americas, Africans in Australia and Africans in Africa. It is a holistic struggle. We need to understand the unity of the various struggles. For example, we are not talking much about Indonesia’s colonialism of the Papuans, who are Africans. We hardly talk about this in the mainstream media. But that struggle is part of the Pan-African struggle. We need to recognize that and we can only do so through this celebration which is commemorated worldwide.

KM: You’ve talked a bit about the challenges and issues affecting African people around the world, many of which do not find a place in mainstream discourse. Today, in 2020, how do you see us celebrating Africa Liberation Day? What are people in the African world celebrating and if it is not being celebrated, how can it be done?

JH: Throughout history, movements for liberation are often captured by the elite and turned around. For instance, Christmas, the celebration of Christianity, has become a consumerist binge and stripped of its spirituality. That is the danger that African Liberation Day faces. Within the Pan-African world, there is a struggle. There is a struggle between reactionaries – those want the status quo, those who want to have everything to do with their foreign countries, and the radicals who want change and genuine African liberation. This struggle is ongoing. Now, you see that a lot of the reactionaries have latched on to African Liberation Day. They no longer call it African Liberation Day. They call in African Day. They give all sorts of ideological interpretations to Pan-Africanism in order to strip it of its radical essence, of its true meaning, of what it set out to do.

We are told that liberation is over. We know that liberation is not over, we know that politically, we are being controlled. We know that economically, we are in shambles. 300 years ago, our valuable physical and intellectual resources were shipped out of Africa to build a new world for the Europeans in the Americas. Our gold was also shipped out to form the main currency for the Europeans in their world. What did we get? Velvet cloth, mirrors, beads, drinks –  consumer items. This paradigm has not changed. We send our people to do cheap labor as ‘illegal immigrants’ for the capitalist world even now. A lot of them die on the trans-Saharan route like they died on the trans-Atlantic route 300-400 years ago. They go to Europe and they are discriminated against and paid paltry wages like they used to be sent to the Americas and paid nothing. Our resources such as gold, cobalt and bauxite, and our food such as cocoa and coffee, are all sent there for almost nothing. In return, we get a Mercedes-Benz to drive on a rickety road. We get their food – ham, pork –  for a small elite class for whom a food shortage is when they don’t get sardines. This is when we have our own local food.

So the radicals, the real Pan-africanists, should fight for the soul of the African Liberation Day to continue to have a meaning for the real liberation of the African peoples all over the world.

KM: You mentioned that African Liberation Day is driven by the tenets of Pan-Africanism. Could you talk a bit about these tenets, these principles that have infused African Liberation Day?

JH: Pan-Africanism essentially was a liberation ideology for the emancipation of Africans from oppression and bondage. It was not seen from a racial light because oppression has no color. It is worldwide, it is an unbroken chain and it affects all sorts of people. Of course, racism as a category was used essentially as a tool of exploitation. But racism never liberated the poor whites or the working people in. In 18th century England, white workers were locked in factories, just like black workers on cotton plantations in America. Later on, the capitalists used racism as a category to separate and divide the oppressed. The same is with patriarchy. It tries to divide the struggles so that we don’t see that the struggles for women’s emancipation, the struggle for minorities, the struggle against apartheid etc is one struggle. The struggle for workers’ rights is one struggle.

What Pan-Africanism has to share is that the struggles for our emancipation are in unison with the struggles of the workers of the world for emancipation, for women for emancipation. It is one struggle. Of course, there are particulars. But it is essentially a struggle for emancipation from the oppressor.

KM: So young Africans sat down in Manchester in 1945 and came up with a declaration for the Pan-African Congress. Their ideology coming out of this conference demarcated itself from other ideas. They defined Pan-Africanism from the perspective that African unity cannot happen without socialism, with an emphasis on scientific socialism. These are the same people who, a few decades later, are leading liberation movements. We have Kwame Nkrumah who became the head of state of Ghana and helped facilitate the organizing later meetings. How do you see the influence of the 1945 meeting on the All Africa People’s Conference in 1958 and the formation of the OAU in 1963? How do we see that ideology form and how can we take it forward? 

JH: The fight is on multiple fronts. There is the fight against those who want to dilute the essence of Pan-Africanism and take it over for their own interests and the interests of those they serve. But one thing we need to understand is that socialism is inextricably linked with Pan-Africanism from the Manchester conference because socialism was a liberatory idea. Socialism in 1917 liberated a backward country from Tsarism, from oppression, from serfdom almost, into a humanizing form of governance. The liberation was not restricted to one corner of the country called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It extended help to other oppressed people all over the world. This is because they realized that their struggle was inextricably linked with the struggles of people all across the world. They also knew that if they don’t help their comrades in struggle, the oppressors will come after them. And we have seen how the oppressors came after them, whether through NATO or American imperialism.

Secondly, colonialism is also capitalism; it is a function of capitalism, So you can’t fight colonialism without fighting its economic aspect which was essentially capitalist ie. the ownership of property by a certain group of people. In Ghana, who were the colonists who were benefiting economically? It was the mines [mining sector owners] and the trading companies. In certain parts of Accra, no Black person was supposed to enter after 6 pm. They had their own hospital which Black people could not access. Why did they build the railway line from Takoradi to Tarkwa? First they brought the machines to Takoradi habour, transported it to Tarkwa and then sent the gold back to be shipped out. If you go to Tarkwa, you see where the white people were living and you see the shacks in which the Black people were living in. It was the same in South Africa. Infrastructure was built simply to ship raw materials out and these raw materials built the capitalist world.

So the idea and essence of Pan-Africanism was fighting colonialism which was a function of capitalism. So by extension, it was fighting capitalism. And the tools to fight it were socialist tools. And what are these socialist tools? It is to bring about the unity of all oppressed people led by the working people in order to make common the ownership of resources and use those resources to better the lives of all of us instead of bettering the lives of only the elite.

KM: So we are here now on African Liberation Day and we know that Africa is not free. We are still struggling. We are supporting and liberating our comrades in Western Sahara. We have countries across the continent that are still suffering from oppression. We can talk about our people in the islands, Rodrigues, who are still being subjected to inhumane conditions. We can talk about different wars and conflicts that are happening. But we see all these conflicts in the African continent only from a national perspective – the conflicts in the Congo, the massacres in Somalia, the situation of the people in Sudan. All these struggles are seen as separate. But if we see the history of Pan-Africanism, the history of African Liberation Day, we see that in the 50’s, all these struggles were united. What were the elements that really helped, beyond the conferences? What were the elements that helped the Africans of that period unite to create this common front, that we could use today to not see the conflicts or the struggles of all the Africans as a separate struggle but to see it as a common struggle?

JH: The Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester brought together most of the leaders of that generation who led the struggle and there were also meetings in Paris. Kwame Nkrumah in his Independence Declaration said something very significant. He said, “The Independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of Africa.” The truth of the matter is that for any organism, if it has a foreign matter within it, it is dangerous to the organism. So as long as there remained unliberated African states in Africa, it was a danger to the independence of the independent African states. So it was in their interest to ensure that like-minded independent countries were also created.

But it didn’t stop at that. When the enemy realized that they could not stop independence, they started putting up their puppets. So a typical example of where the people rejected their puppet and their consequences was Guinea where they said “No, we want our genuine revolutionary party to lead us into independence.” This was in 1958. So they took everything, including the tables and the chairs. That is France. They took everything.

We know France and its attitude. They were thrown out of Haiti but they came back with their friends and forced the Haitians to pay a huge indemnity which the Haitians paid (because they were liberated slaves) right up to the 1930s. Many countries in Africa keep a huge part of their reserves in the French Central Bank which is used to shore up their currency. They pay the French a whole lot of indemnities. This is colonialism in another form. In Côte d’Ivoire, the Presidential Palace was owned by the French, who collected rent for it. So you have all these things that are not natural to real Independence of the people. Like I said, liberation goes beyond the political titles. It goes deep into the economic and social fabric of the people.

One of the ways for us to be able to fight for this is for the unity of the peoples, the various groups – youth groups, women groups, social and economic groups, which represent the people and who understand the problems of the people. We need the unity of these groups which understand that the problems of these people are due to foreign interference and exploitation by the elite. It is this unity of these non-state actors that can be the most effective tool to fight for genuineness of the African Liberation Day and thereby, for real independence.

KM: So this unity is the solution you are putting forward for a revolutionary Pan-Africanism today?

JH: Yes. I am talking about a solidarity among people who have the same problems, the same struggles, and the understanding of that struggle being indivisible, one struggle. It’s a sine qua non for us to move forward. It is not a struggle of only black people. It’s the struggle of native Indians being oppressed in the Americas – whether in North America or in South America. It’s the struggles of minorities, wherever they are in the world.

It’s the struggle of women. More than half of humanity is under bondage. Now, what kind of struggle are we talking about? So it is the unity of all these struggles that is the antidote to fighting against oppression, in whatever form it may take.

KM: And finally, what would you like the people around the world to know about African Liberation Day? What is your message to the youth of Africa, wherever they are, on this day as we are trying to revive the pan-African spirit of African Liberation Day?

JH: Well, my message is that simple: that the youth forms the greatest part of the population in Africa and elsewhere. And that dependency – which is a mirage anyway, we are made to think that we are so helpless that we should be dependent on others for everything – is wrong.

And [we must focus on] self reliance – looking into ourselves. We are searching our history, looking for our heroes. The resistance, the history of resistance amongst us – the history of the unity with other groups – it is important for us to know this in order to equip ourselves, in order to lay the foundations for today’s solidarity, for all those who are struggling for freedom and liberation.

Pan-Africanism can do that. And it’s unfortunate that African Unity is taking the path of copying the European Union. That was not the original intention of the Organisation of African Unity.

The European Union is a union of capital against labor. Pan-Africanism is not so. African Unity is not a unity of capital because we ourselves, our capital, is subservient to imperialist capital – European capital and American capital.

So, on this day, I want us to hold aloft the banner of solidarity. I want us to remember the oppression which the Cubans and the Venezuelans and the Iranians are undergoing from Yankee imperialists and the Americans’ warmongering.

Pan-Africanism is for peace. It’s not for war. If it goes to war, then it’s a just war. It is a just war against the evil of Apartheid. It is a just war against the evils of colonialism. It’s a just war against the evils of exploitation. It does not undertake wars of conquests.  But the American war against Venezuela is for the resources of the Venezuelans. They are against the Cubans for the resources of Cuba. They are against the Iranians for oil.

This is not right. We must always be on the side of right. So that is my message on this auspicious day.