Pan-Africanism, Federalism and Decolonization in Sub-Saharan Africa and the West Indies

Jean-Francis Billion
Vice-president of UEF France and Editor of Pour le fédéralisme - Fédéchoses - Lyon

In his book, Africa Unite! A History of Pan-Africanism[i], historian Amzat Boukhari-Yabara writes in his introduction that “Pan-Africanism is a historical enigma. It can be defined as ‘a philosophical concept born with the emancipatory and abolitionist movements of the second half of the nineteenth century’, ‘a socio-political movement built and developed by African-Americans and West Indians between the end of the nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War’, or ‘a doctrine of political unity formulated by African nationalists within the framework of anti-colonial and independence struggles'”[ii]. He also writes that "in its essence, Pan-Africanism is above all an idea and a movement of history, which takes multiple paths to reach a final destination, Africa"; that "its birth marks the great return of Africans in the intellectual and political history of international relations" and, with good reason, that there can be no universal history today, between the Americas, Europe and Africa, without a history of Pan-Africanism. I hope that the author, who also cited one of my papers on Senghor in the notes, will not mind the above quotations, which have spared me a longer presentation[iii].

The first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 adopted an Address to the Nations of the World written by the African-American William E. Burghardt du Bois, considered one of the Fathers of Pan-Africanism. Despite the decision to organize new conferences in the United States (1902) and in Haiti (1904), there were no others until the Paris Congress (1919), organized by du Bois in conjunction with the black deputy from Senegal (at the time a French Colony), Blaise Diagne, which submitted a request to the League of Nations for the German colonies to be managed internationally. The next Congress was held in London in 1921 and published a new declaration drafted by du Bois, the Declaration to the World insisting on racial equality, and a Manifesto on the need to correct the unequal distribution of wealth between the metropolises and the colonies, before a second session in Brussels and a third in Paris, where there was disagreement between conservatives (Diagne) and "reformists" (du Bois). The third Congress took place in London and then in Lisbon (1923) with a representation of the Portuguese colonies but the absence of the French-speaking ones. The fourth was held in New York (1927) with more than 200 delegates from thirteen countries or territories and an audience of thousands. According to Philippe Decraene[iv], a French historian, "the Pan-African doctrine began to take shape "as participants proclaimed the right of blacks to African land and resources, to justice adapted to local conditions and including African judges, but also to world disarmament and the suppression of war. Some West Indians were also involved in the Pan-Africanist circles, from the 1930s in London: George Padmore[v], a communist in New York, responsible for the Comintern in Moscow until his break with communism (1935), founded the International Africa Service Bureau and is, with du Bois, considered one of the fathers of Pan-Africanism; his close friend Cyril Lionel Robert James, a former Trotskyite, and Eric E. Williams, the future President of Trinidad...

The crisis of 1929 postponed the holding of the fifth Congress, which met in Manchester only in March 1945, organized and led from top to bottom by two men, Padmore, "a little-known but key figure in Pan-Africanism", and the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah[vi]. The preparation of the congress allowed English-speaking people to renew contacts with French-speaking people, thanks to contacts made by Nkrumah in France, and new leaders were revealed while the territorial divisions resulting from colonization, economic exploitation and the brakes on industrialization, the appropriation of cultivable land by Europeans, illiteracy and malnutrition were denounced... and calls were made for the independence from France of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in the North of the Sahara.

From the 1930s onwards, certain black intellectuals raised the problem of the balkanization of Africa which, after 1945, aspired more and more strongly to regain its independence; many of them considered the question of African unity as a condition for the independence and the future of Africa. However, "only" the future Heads of State Nkrumah (Ghana)[vii], Julius K. Nyerere (Tanzania)[viii] and the Senegalese well-known academic Cheikh Anta Diop[ix] will really raise the question of a continental and federal African State. It is also worth recalling the differences and misunderstandings between English-speaking pan-Africanists (Afro-Americans, West Indians or Africans) and French-speaking people (such as Senghor or Aimé Césaire), who were the driving force behind the négritude movement, affirming the values of the black man.

According to our friend, Senegalese Federalist and World Citizen, Fall Cheikh Bamba[x], it is in great ideological confusion that African leaders led the anti-colonial struggle. They frequently wanted unity at the same time as, or before, independence, but none of them really asked himself the question of the need for a continental Federalist Movement, specifically African and strictly autonomous from the political classes (European or African) as an indispensable vehicle for African Unity. The attempts made at the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester at the end of 1945, and the last Pan-African Federation event in 1944, did not create a solid organization. Nkrumah's trip to Paris in 1947 to meet Senghor and French-speaking black intellectuals did not lead either to anything concrete. Senghor's later attempt to create the African Federalist Party, involving Senegal and some of its neighbors, also ended in failure. In the absence of a single, coordinated African program, demands were made in disunity, and remained confined to the territorial limits (often those of the current African States) imposed by colonialism during the arbitrary divisions of the Congress of Berlin at the end of the 19th century.

As far as French-speaking Africa (« French Equatorial Africa » and « French West Africa » being considered two colonial federations) is concerned, federalist or confederalist projects are numerous and there is not enough space here to analyze them in detail. Decraene draws up an inventory of the regional groupings envisaged by African leaders (1958 and 1959). Union between English-speaking Ghana and Guinea under Sékou Touré, joined for a time by Mali under Modibo Keita (after the failure of its union with Senegal); Sahel-Benin Union (Ivory Coast of Houphouet-Boigny, Upper Volta, Dahomey of Sourou Migan Apithy, a deputy close to Senghor at one time, and Niger), aimed at thwarting the Federation of Mali project; Customs Union of Equatorial Africa (Central African Republic, Gabon, Chad and Congo Brazzaville); United States of Latin Africa promoted with a pan-Africanist aim by the deputy-mayor of Banghi Barthélémy Boganda (Middle Congo, Gabon, future Central African Republic, Chad and if possible the Belgian Congo, Portuguese colonies, Cameroon and Ruanda-Urundi); United States of Central Africa aiming at perpetuating the AEF; Union of Benin (Togo, Niger and Dahomey)...! None of these projects, whether or not they were linked to a federal or confederal French Union supposed to be a "French-style Commonwealth", could be completed.

On the other hand, in a context of nationalist exaltation, projects for Euro-African federations between certain colonial powers and their colonies were often seen as final attempts by European States to maintain their domination. The failure of Senghor's 1958 federation project (Senegal, Sudan, Upper Volta and Dahomey) and his more limited attempt at The Federation of Mali (Senegal, Sudan), or the lack of follow-up to Nkrumah's efforts after the convening of the 1958 Pan-African Conference in Accra: all of this, according to Bamba, is still attributable to the organizational vacuum that prevailed in the period preceding African independence. Only the union of Tanganika and Zanzibar, present Tanzania, succeeded for a time thanks to Nyerere.

Senghor did not limit his Federalism to Africa. He worked closely with European Federalists before independence, particularly as Vice-Chairman of the Federalist Intergroup in the French Parliament during the debates for the European Defence Community (EDC, 1954) and later in the Council of Europe. He was also in contact with World Federalists and remained until his death Vice President of the World Movement for World Federalist Government, to which he was linked by his advisor at the Presidency of Senegal, Jean Rous[xi], former Secretary General of the Peoples' Congress Against Imperialism founded, with Gandhi's approval, by him and the British Ronald G. MacKay MP, a member of the British Federal Union since the late 1930s[xii].

In 1963, in Addis Ababa, despite Nkrumah's desperate efforts, the African Heads of State adopted the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which would define the political principles and legal rules of African unity for decades. It proclaimed as the basis of the new Africa the principles of "respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State" and "the inviolability of African borders inherited from colonialism". The constitution of the OAU thus sealed an important stage in the history of Africa, by signifying the affirmation of new African state-entities built on the European model of the Nation-State and absolute national sovereignty. As Bamba wrote, the OAU thus opened "a brand new period in the struggle of African Federalists. The 'state nationalism' that has plagued Africa since then regularly brings the question of federalism to the forefront with particular acuity».


In the Americas, the Spanish Colonies gained independence long before the 20th century and we do not discuss them. As for the French West Indies and French Guiana, the debates on the constitution of the Fourth Republic focused on the idea of departmentalization and an acceptable level of autonomy. Césaire, a Communist MP in 1951 for Martinique, was one of the actors; he left the Communist Party in 1956, joined the parliamentary group of the Rassemblement africain et des fédéralistes and created the left wing and local Parti progressiste martiniquais[xiii]. At its founding Congress, he revisited departmentalization, which had not produced the hoped-for results. He cited Proudhon's federal principle and asserted that only the federal idea would allow for a true synthesis between assimilation and autonomy, envisaging that one day "Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana together would form a State in a federal French Republic[xiv].

The debate in the British colonies was earlier and more ambitious. As early as 1932, Great Britain organized a conference and in 1938 a Labour Congress drew up a federal scheme emanating from civil society. In 1942, an Anglo-American Commission for the Caribbean was created, expanded to include French and Dutch territories; it was consultative and had limited powers, along with a non-governmental West Indies Conference. Many politicians, intellectuals and trade unionists took a stand. Eric Eustace Williams, the Labour Prime Minister of Trinidad, saw the West Indian federation in a globalist perspective[xv]. At the St. Thomas Conference in 1946, one of the French representatives, Rémy Nainsouta, a Guadeloupean French MP  and "independent communist," called for the future birth of a multinational "West Indian Community", without fearing that it could go as far as a Federation... he was accused of separatism. In 1947, a second Labour Congress called for a Federation of all the West Indies without distinction of nationality, and at the Montego Bay Conference, delegates from seven British colonies, meeting at the initiative of Great Britain, approved the principles of a federation with increased autonomy for the territories. The debate spread to the American continent where Richard Benjamin Moore, a Barbadian, was a member of the Socialist Party and then the Communist Workers Party, from which he was expelled in the early 1940s[xvi]. From the 1920s to the 1960s, he defended his theses at the Brussels Congress against Imperialism (1927), the Pan-Africanist Congresses, and the Havana (1940) and San Francisco (1945) Conferences, where the United Nations was created. He led various committees: the West Indian National Emergency Committee (1940) and the American Committee for West Indian Federation, which sent a memorandum to the Labour Congress in 1947. Another conference was held in 1955, in Trinidad, under British presidency[xvii]. Norman Manley, Prime Minister of Jamaica, saw a confederation of all the West Indies taking shape, but Césaire remained doubtful, even though he could not rule out a confederal West Indian community in the indefinite and distant future[xviii]. The West Indian Federation, founded in 1958 (Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Leewards Islands and Windwards Islands) broke up in 1961, paying for its heterogeneous character, the oppositions between Barbados and Jamaica, or between the large and small territories. Nor did the Federation attract the British mainland colonies (Guyana and Belize) despite its efforts and a conference in Georgetown (1959, Guyana) of C. L. R. James, General Secretary of the very important West Indian Federal Labour Party[xix].

Padmore and James, natives of Trinidad who emigrated to the United States in the early 1920s, activists of the black cause, the former involved in the Communist International and the latter with Trotsky[xx], continued their pan-Africanist work with Nkrumah, whom James had discovered in New York and put in contact with Padmore in London. Another companion of Nkrumah, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Ghanaian Minister of Finance, presided over the WMWFG for four years[xxi]. Senghor, who was close to Rous, concluded his message to the 1961 Vienna Congress of the WMWFG as follows: "After your congress, we propose to create a section of the Universal Movement for a World Federation in Dakar"[xxii]...


[i] A. Boukary-Yabara, Africa Unite! Une histoire du panafricanisme, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.

[ii] The italics are mine.

[iii] The book being organized in three parts, I used here parts 1, « Back to Africa! » (late 18th century to the 1930’s) and 2, «Africa for the Africans! » (1930’s to 1960’s).

[iv] P. Decreane, Le Panafricanisme, coll. Que sais-je ?, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1959.

[v] G. Padmore, Panafricanism or Communism. The coming Strugle for Africa, foreword by Richard Wright, London, Dennis Bobson, 1956.

[vi] Elikia M’Bokolo, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Cyril L. James et l’idéologie de la lutte panafricaniste, Accra, Codesia, 2003.

[vii] K. Nkrumah, cf. « Continental Government for Africa », in ibid., Africa must unite, New York, International Publishers Company Co. Inc., 1970.

[viii] J. Nyerere, see Freedom and Unity, London – Oxford, University Press, 1967, more specifically pp. 334-450.

[ix] C. A. Diop, « Unité politique et fédéralisme », in Les fondements économiques et sociaux d’un État fédéral d’Afrique noire, 1974, and « foreword » in Nations nègres et culture, Vol. I, 1954, Paris, Présence africaine.

[x] C. Bamba Fall, « African Federalism », in The Federalist, Pavia, Vol. XXIX, n° 2, 1987, and « Le fédéralisme est-il un modèle pour l’Afrique », in Guido Montani, Tetevi Godwin Tete Adjalogo (eds.), L’Afrique, l’Europe et la démocratie internationale, coll. Textes fédéralistes, Lyon, Fédérop, and Ventotene, Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies, 1990.

[xi] J.-F. Billion ad Jean-Luc Prevel, « Jean Rous and Federalism », in The Federalist, Pavia, Vol. XXVIII, n° 2-3, 1986.

[xii] J.-F. Billion, World Federalism, European Federalism and International Democracy. A New History of Supranational Federalist Movements, foreword by Lucio Levi, New York, WFM-Institute for Global Policy, and, Ventotene, Altiero Spineli Institute for Federalist Studies, 1997.

[xiii] Daniel Guérin, Les Antilles décolonisées, Paris, Présence africaine, 1956.

[xiv] A. Césaire, Pour la transformation de la Martinique en « région » dans le cadre d’une Union Française Fédérée, Fort-de-France, PPM, 1856.

[xv] E. E. Williams, The Negro in the Caribbean, London, Panaf Service Inc., 1945; Federalism. Two Public Lectures, Port of Spain, People’s National Movement, 1956; E. E. Williams Speaks, - Essays on Colonialism and Independance, introd. Selwin R. Cudjoe, Welesley (Mass.), Calaloux Piblications, 1993.

[xvi] W. Burghardt Turner and Joyce Moore Turner (eds.), Richard B. Moore, Caribbean Militant in Harlem – Collected Writtings 1920-1972, Bloomington and Indianapolis (Ind.), Indiana University Press, and, London, Pluto Press, coll. Blacks in the Diaspora, 1988.

[xvii] D. Guérin, op. cit.

[xviii] A. Césaire, introd. to D. Guérin, op. cit.

[xix] C.L.R. James, Lectures on Federation (1958-59), CLR James Archives

[xx] CLR James, « Georges Padmore: Black Marxist Revolutionary – A Memoir », 1976, in At the Rendez-vous of Victory – Selected Writings, London, Allison & Busby, 1984.

[xxi] Re-elected in 1959 for a second term at WMWFG’s 10th Congress, he opposed Nkrumah in 1960 and had to leave Ghana on exile.

[xxii] See. Monde Uni, Paris, n° 54, August 1961.

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