The first ever Pan-African Conference was held in Paris 100 years ago to demand freedom for Africa's colonies and a greater voice for Africans worldwide. Thus an idea was born which still shapes Africa to this day.
November 1918. Germany had just been defeated in the First World War. The old Kaiser-led German empire had been consigned to the history books. The world was changing fast and becoming increasingly unstable. American Pan-Africanist W.E.B Du Bois sensed this clearly. "It would be a shame for the more than 200 million black people in the world if they remained without a voice and without representation in this huge transformation of this world," he wrote.
A peace treaty was to be negotiated in Versailles. Du Bois had an ambitious plan that caused even his longtime supporters to shake their heads: black people from Africa, the US and other regions from around the world would gather in the center of Paris to make demands and present them to the peace negotiators meeting in the French capital. "The idea behind this very important push by black leaders was that Africa should be present during the discussions and that African issues needed to be presented by black people," Mamadou Diouf, a professor of African studies at Columbia University in New York told DW. "That presence could contribute to an African presence in the post-WWI world order."
After the war it was immediately clear that Germany's colonial empire in Africa would soon come to an end. "Du Bois was convinced relatively early that the European and North American politicians would not grant the colonies independence. But he at least tried to take advantage of this situation and say 'we need to negotiate concrete improvements for the societies that work and live in these colonies'," Andreas Eckert, a professor of African History at the Humboldt University of Berlin told DW.
A meeting against all odds
Senegalese politician Blaise Adolphe Diagne was the first black man elected to the French parliament
Du Bois started to implement his plan. He had already made a name for himself as a philosopher, writer and a fighter for black peoples' rights. Now the time had come to ask for donations, contact potential participants and search for supporters. But not everyone was on board. In Washington he tried to secure access to the US delegation in Versaille, but was rebuffed by the State Department. He needn't worry, though. Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese native and the first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies would turn out to be his most important ally. Diagne was then far from imagining that the Congress of Partisans of Peace would elect him president.
In the end, 57 supporters met in Paris — 16 of them from the US. But making it happen was hard. "It was difficult to get people to Paris, it was a challenge for people from the former colonies or African Americans to get passports," says Eckert. "It was only thanks to the initiative and influence of Blaise Diagne that the congress officially took place."
After three days of talks, the congress presented several clear demands, including the gradual self-administration of the African colonies, freedom of expression, the right to own land and — above all — an education. But the negotiators in Versailles paid no attention. "The speeches made by African Americans were considered to be subversive and judgmental," wrote Harry Worley, a white American, reporting to the State Department during the Pan-African Congress. He officially represented the government of Liberia at the meeting.
A dream is born
Nevertheless a dream had been born, and it would continue to grow over the next few years. "What was happening at that moment was that Africans and people of African descent were beginning to create a global movement," says Mamadou Diouf. "That global movement did not have a direct impact on the negotiations, but it began to create an important movement which would play a critical role in the inter-war period."
More meetings took place in London, New York and Manchester. The new movement soon started to inspire young Africans who were studying in Europe. Some supporters would go on to lead their own countries to independence, including Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. As Ghana's prime minister, Nkrumah co-organized the first All-African People's Conference (AAPC) in 1958. It was attended by the continent's young political elite and intended to affirm the spirit of African unity. The conferences formed the blueprint for the Organization of African Unity, which was dissolved in 2002 and replaced by the African Union (AU).
A return to the Pan-African spirit?
Did the Pan-African Congress mark the birth of the AU? Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, has evoked the original spirit of the Pan-Africanists. "May this centenary further raise awareness and strengthen the will for a stronger mobilization in a way commensurate with today's exigencies," he said in his 2019 New Year message.
At a time when things are not going smoothly for the organization, ambitious projects such as a common African Union passport, or creating a Pan-African free movement zone are making slow progress. Andreas Eckert does not disregard these problems. But he also thinks future opportunities may arise as a result. "There are a number of voices saying that this is Africa's chance to overcome fragmentation and formulate common interests," he says. "So perhaps the spirit of Pan-Africanism is slowly returning to the corridors of the African Union."