This Conference Was Kindling for Africa's Freedom Fighters - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Officials at the Nigerian embassy celebrating their country's independence in 1960.
SourceAfro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty

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This networking event actually changed history.

By Eromo Egbejule

In 1960 alone, 17 African countries celebrated their independence from former colonial overlords. From Mauritania to Madagascar, national movements won the day, nearly doubling the number of people on the African continent living in independent nations.

No sea change like that is a coincidence, and none starts at an exactly pinpointable moment. But to understand 1960, you have to go back to December 1958, to that most yawn-inducing of all events: a conference.

December 8 in Accra saw the opening of the first-ever All-African People’s Conference (AAPC). And the connections made, anger stoked and rallying done in the subsequent week would bear fruit just two years later in the form of a global power shift.

Just one year before, Ghana had made history as the first state in sub-Saharan African to extricate itself from the clutches of its colonial masters. In his inaugural speech in March of 1957, Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah spoke about his longing for freedom not just for his own nation but for other colonized areas across Africa. “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent,” he told a crowd of supporters.

all_africa

And so Nkrumah, a staunch pan-Africanist, got to work with his chief adviser on African affairs, a Trinidadian intellectual named George Padmore. They’d previously had their own convictions reinforced at the Pan-African Congress in Manchester in the U.K. in 1945. Now they hoped to catch lightning in a bottle again — and help other would-be revolutionary leaders achieve their goals.

Hundreds of delegates from 28 African countries and colonies attended the AAPC. At least 65 national liberation movements were represented. It was the first time many independence movements’ leaders were meeting each other, networking and drawing strength and strategy from each other.

Tom Mboya, the then-28-year-old maverick trade union organizer who later became Kenya’s justice minister and is regarded as one of the East African country’s founding fathers, chaired the conference. Martiniquais philosopher Frantz Fanon, who played an active role in the Algerian war of independence from France around the same period, was there — as was Patrice Lumumba, who would later become the first prime minister of the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

Nkrumah’s convening power had also brought together revolutionaries from Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia — now known as Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe — in Southern Africa. Participants crafted slogans like “Hands Off Africa” to signify their willingness to take action to reverse colonialism. Within a decade, almost the entire continent had declared independence.

The conference echoed outside the continent as well. A number of African-American observers were present, including the journalist and social critic Marguerite Cartwright, Shirley Du Bois, wife of the American politician and intellectual W. E. B Du Bois (who had organized several Pan-African congresses and would later settle in Accra, where he is buried today), and other U.S. observers. It inspired them to participate in a series of other forums to deliberate on civil rights and black liberation worldwide.

To colonial powers, the conference was seen as a threat — and it was. Follow-up sessions in Tunis and Cairo in subsequent years led to the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), forerunner of the African Union, in 1963. Individuals who’d attended were closely watched and sometimes had their travel restricted. According to historian Brooks Marmon of the University of Edinburgh, that helped colonial powers “to undermine transnational links between the liberation movements.”

Kwame Nkrumah Being Carried

Government officials carrying Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah on their shoulders after Ghana obtained its independence from Great Britain.

Source Getty

Ghana became Public Enemy Number One among European nations hoping to hold on to their colonies. In 1966, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson backed a coup by a group of Ghanaian army officers against Nkrumah while he was away from the country on a peace mission. The ousted leader went on exile to Guinea, where he was named co-president alongside Ahmed Sékou Touré.

Eventually the pan-African movement fell apart, bit by bit. “Africa is still in economic chains,” laments Gimba Kakanda, an Abuja-based foreign policy analyst. “So whatever they fought for, although noble, was only half successful.”

While the AAPC empowered leaders to make a difference for their countries, in the long term, many of those leaders wanted to hold on to power — and Western interests often extended military assistance to help them do it. Kakanda doubts there’s any future of pan-Africanism in a postcolonial world.

But for a moment — a crucial moment — it galvanized a generation of freedom fighters.

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