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Many into one Africa, one into many Africans

Mammo Muchie, Professor

Director: Research programme on Civil Society and African Integration
University of Kwa Zulu Natal(UKZN), Durban South Africa.

Contributing Editor: African Renaissance

“I know no national boundary where the African is concerned. The whole

world is my province until Africa is free.”

– Marcus. M. Garvey.

mamo mucheexpression of many identities is seen as the celebration of diversity and a legitimate vehicle for claims to political and other forms of rights. The resolution of diverse identities into compound /combined identities and unities is often suspect bearing the implication that rights and diversity might be sacrificed in the process of bringing about a new combination or synthesis to distinct and plural identities.


Also combined and hybrid identities are seen to command less loyalty than identities derived from origin, biology, cultural and other distinctive behavioural characteristics. It is argued that combined identities continue to bear schizophrenic, bifurcated and even fractured loyalties leading to breakdown in harder times than when the political and economic circumstances is going well.

The combination may not remove residual loyalties to the pre-existing

entities. Worse, unless there is a new ontological base to back the

combinatory initiative, and a consciousness to overcome the possible

self-assertion from the constituting entities, there will be a tendency for a

phenomenon of loyalty bifurcation and even fractured expressions of

identities within the combination to prevail, thereby rendering

identity-hybridist endlessly unstable. The danger of combination can

therefore be more unwelcome than the status of remaining with

fragmented identities. That has been the argument that some of the leaders

of the first post-colonial generation made against the combinatory

ambitions to express an African identity and will. This more ambitious

direction was the road that Africa was not to travel despite the universal

and shared expression and appeals to political unity by nearly all the

leaders of post-colonial states during the period of decolonization in the

1960s. Those appeals gave birth to the Organization of African Unity, but

not to African unity. States retained their sovereignty in alliance mainly

with the system that subjugated Africa under colonialism without any

reform. State-identity building to make Africans citizens of largely

disunited post-colonial states continued. This has not prevented the

post-colonial state from being challenged by subversion, threats to

disintegration and re-making by ethnic or clan identity self-assertions,

outbursts and affiliations from within, often aided by external interests.

What makes the search for an African identity current and compelling is

the fact that hordes of disaffected identity groups mount precisely

opposition by taking advantage of the structural weakness of the

post-colonial state, its continued conceptual arbitrariness, and its inability

to become independent and rely and be accountable to the population

within its jurisdiction.


If it has been said that combined identity may not command loyalty as

local and less remote and familiar identities, it is even more true to say that

putting together groups that share little in common with each other in one

state, and splitting those that share more with each other into different

states, has given cause for identity groups to mobilize ethnicities into

national movements for political power.


The Meaning of Identity


In general identity expression is neither good nor bad. Identity posits two

interdependent and distinct entities. The first is the ego, self, inside person

or the in- group, and the other is the out-group, outside person, the other,

or even the other of the other. Historically and anthropologically a more

potent expression of identity has been ethnic identity. The latter defines a

group by distinguishing the persons entitled to belong to it through their

physical, behavioural, and social character and their myth of origin. Often

the ethnic identity has been used as a demarcation criterion of inclusion

and exclusion to determine who is inside and who is outside the group.

Selection of persons for inclusion and exclusion in the group is often based

on: a) physical characteristics such as skin colour and hair type, b) social

characteristics such as language, religion and belief, c) behavioural

characteristics such as style, ritual or traditional customs, and d) myth

based on imagined or real common origin, history and social-political



Some see identity as a naturally fixed, static and a historically given

concept inured with the binaries of exclusion and inclusion, particularity

and generality, and the inside and the outside. In the naturalist conception

of identity, historical interaction is defined by the assertions of identities.

Though history may dilute identity, in the final analysis, it does not

overcome it. The proponents of fixed and essentialist identity stress the

unchanging cultural and psychological attributes of a group’s survival and

roots in the enclosure of identity, heredity and blood. Such fixed identities

that brook no dilution by any social and historical experience can

degenerate into racialism. For instance I once met an Englishman who was

originally from Liverpool in a social event in Durban who told me he

would be migrating to Edmonton, Canada. I asked him why he wanted to

leave South Africa. His reply astonishingly was racist: “The blacks will

never change.” He was convinced that that South Africa under black

leader would implode sooner or later. This is a clear case of a racial

conception of who is entitled to rule, and who is not. I told him it would be

good riddance if his thoughts were coloured with such vile racism.

Identities that offer premium to natural attributes of genealogy,

kinship, race, clan and religion are narrow-minded and often lead to

barbarian consequences. Such conceptions resist hybridisation, and are

driven by a desire to control and oppress.


Control of women’s sexuality is often at the top of the list of the

expression of essentialist identity. Women have to be controlled to bring up

children to grow up as members of the inside, and not the outside – the

race, ethnic group, religion, clan or kinship. Marriages are arranged

formally or by informal pressure to gear women’s reproductive capacities

to reproduce the particular racial and ethnic group. This control of

women’s sexuality is at the core of an essentialist strategy for keeping

identity undiluted and pure. Some religions also insist that marriages have

to remain within the religion and frown upon inter-faith marriages.

In Africa we have a serious problem in relation to the oppression of

women by naturalistic and religious expressions of identity. In South

Africa, there is a serious attempt to carry out a gender revolution to

confront all forms of essentialist conceptions that limit women’s agency in



Making African Identity

When we speak of African identity, such an identity must be built on a

rejection of essentialism. There is no such thing as an essential African

character that has been frozen from time immoral. Africa has always lived

in history and through history. Its identity must be expressed through the

rejection of racism, ethnicity, parochialism, exclusivity and barbarism. It

must be an identity rooted in its earlier civilization, its experience of

resisting injustice and its record of humanising the world. Thus African

identity must posit an inclusive, non-essentialist and emancipatory goals.

The negative connotation of essentialism has to be replaced by the positive

connotation of building an inclusive, tolerant, civilized and combinational

African identity. As the distinguished African scholar Ali Mazuri puts it,

Africa needs a social engineering: “emphasizing what is African,

nationalising what is tribal, idealising what is indigenous and indigenising

what is foreign.” This is one of the greatest challenges in the making of the

African and of the Africa –nation. The African and the Africa-nation exist.

They are recognised by those who define Africa by its negative and those

who define it by its positive such as Kwame Nkrumah and Thabo Mbeki.

Africa invokes negative definition as it does positive. Those who define

Africa only with its negatives contest fiercely any positive narratives of, or

from Africa. Those who define Africa with its positives constantly contest

the negative representation of the African and the Africa-nation.


The substantive discursive referent of the negative representation of the

African and Africa is reproach, which is itself born from the undiluted

prevalence of essentialism and racism when it pertains to anything

African. The most potent way by which the idea of Africa is relayed to the

world by those who buy into the essentialist discourse (Africans and

non-Africans) is the reduction of African capabilities to solve problems

through African own resources. Its main mode of representation is to

associate the name of Africa with reproach and despair, and Europe with

civilization and hope. “Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible

disease.” (President Bush Jr.) Africa is “out of the world” operated by

“private indirect Government.”(Achille Mbembe). Africa is a “shackled

continent” (R. Guest). It is a ‘hopeless’ continent. (The Economist). It is the

heart of darkness (J.Conrad). Africa works through disorder (Chabal and

Daloz). Like Adam and Eve’s fall from grace , Africa’s hopes lies only if

there is hope from a tree of evil (Bayart). The kind of staggering

self-defeat mentioned above, simply boggles the mind. This goes beyond

describing a situation; it becomes a total moral condemnation of Africa.

Africa is defined by condemnation, reproach and lack of agency.

In our time we have a positive definition of Africans and Africa in

Thabo Mbeki’s notion of African Renaissance. This optimistic,

non-condemnatory and non-reproachful direction opens a new

perspective for Africa to seize the historical opportunity to bring about a

post-colonial revolution. The new conception builds on the positive

achievements of Africans throughout the world, without denying the

problems and the challenges.


The key platform from which Africans can find solace is that they have

successfully dealt with, and defeated a major contemporary enemy. Yes,

Africans can be proud of their victory over formal colonialism and its

attendant institution of white minority domination. The harder problem

that remains to be achieved is Pan-African integration. Despite all the

efforts of the OAU, AU, NEPAD and other regional and sub-regional

groupings, Pan-African political and economic integration is still at the

lowest end of the curve. One of the key missing elements for the lack of

progress in actual integration is the absence of ideology. Pan-Africanism,

for all its worthy contributions, has evolved more as a movement rather

than providing a coherent framework for African integration. It was Walter

Rodney who said that the “OAU does far more to frustrate than to realize

the concept of African unity.” The reason for that is because the leaders of

the post-colonial states that constituted the OAU never shared a common

African ideology on how to forge a united political and economic African

space beyond opposition to colonialism and racism. Frantz Fanon also

pointed out that opposition to colonialism and racism in itself does not

provide a sufficient condition for Africa’s full freedom. In his words,

“colonialism and its derivates do not, as a matter of fact, constitute the

present enemies of Africa. In a short time, this continent will be liberated.

For my part., the deeper I enter into the cultures and the political circles,

the surer I am that the great danger that threatens Africa is the absence of



In Africa, there has always been a goal-identity that is shared by all

types of political communities. When the OAU was formed in 1963 both

the radical Casablanca group with its slogan of “Africa Must Unite Now!”,

and the more conservative Monrovia group’s belief that Africa should

unite gradually- had both unity as a shared goal-identity. We can say they

shared the ultimate goal but differed on strategy. The chief architect of the

Monrovia group, the late President Flex- Houphouet-Boigny had declared

that “Africa is seeking her salvation through unity, unity of action.” The

situation is exactly the same now with the African Union that replaced the

OAU. There are some Africans who wish to form a more integrated Africa

by accelerating the tempo of unification and others that think the best way

to avoid the chaos of immediate unity is a gradualist approach. Like in the

earlier period, both would like unity as a goal-identity to take place.

While the Right says we must bring about such unity through

functional coordination and ceding sovereignty inch-by- inch through the

long haul, the Left wishes to bring a rapid combination of African

post-colonial states into a unity-identity. The fact that there is no

difference in achieving the ultimate goal is perhaps a very welcome

development that bodes well for the project of African unity.

Diversity in Africa constitutes the Achilles hill of Africa’s undoing.

Fractured and disunited, the lack of primary loyalty to African-ness

remains the sore problem undermining efforts to bring about Africa’s fully

decolonized future. Africans have neither recognised being African as their

premier identity, nor have they discovered that identity. They still express

multiple identities from their birth to their death, and have not yet

privileged as a principal and dominant identity the fact that they are

Africans. The reason why many Africans find President Thabo Mbeki’s “I

am an African” speech very attractive is because it provides the basis for

building the Africa-nation. It is the basis for constructing a common and

shared identity.


Between the individual and humanity lies the nation. Africa as a

nation-identity emerges when the African becomes the key nucleus for

bearing citizenship. This process has accelerated over the last three years

with the new rhetoric to change AU from an only state-centred to a

peoples-centred institution.

Africa is not a country. Africa is more a concept bearing the logos of

final freedom for people who were forcibly excluded from its soil as well

as those whose resources are daily robbed, and whose humanity and

liberty are denied and undermined by an indifferent and exploitative

international arrangement which they were denied agency in forming as

partners. Thus, as an identity, being ‘African’ expresses the desire to dream,

to deal with fear, to resist oppression and to promote a project. What is

lacking is the ideology and purpose to bring Africans together to build on

resistance identity against colonialism and racism, and to build on a

renaissance project identity so ably articulated by the current president of

South Africa. Being African expresses a double purpose: reject reproach,

affirm renaissance, reject the negative idea of Africa, and bring in the

positive idea of Africa. Only the development of an ideology of an

Africa-nation can complete the liberation of Africans the world over.



Ali Mazuri, (1972): Cultural engineering and Nation Building, Evanston, North-Western University Press,1972.


Frantz Fanon, (1967): Towards the African Revolution, (Grove Press, New York)


Felix Houphout-Boigny, (1947): “

Le continent African en marche,” Democratie


Nouvelle, no.2 Ferier, pp.74-79 reprinted in Rupert Emerson & Martin

Kilson, (1965): The Political Awakening of Africa, Prentice-Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs,

N.J., pp.38-41



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