Post-Africanist Theory: Deconstructing colonial narratives of African unity

By Elias Munshya, LL.M., MBA, M.Div.

When European colonialists landed on the shores of Africa, they found a continent and a people that were diverse, disparate, and disordered. In order for colonialism to take root, however, colonialists had to dismantle these three characteristics of the African peoples. It had to attack the diversity and the disparity of the African peoples. As a Post-Africanist, I do believe that an attack on African diversity is a huge problem that needs redressing. With the landing of European imperialists came a very popular narrative that Africa was “one country” and its people were only but “one people”. The different shades of African blackness provided the necessary ammunition for imperialism to package Africans as “one people” and the continent as “one huge country”.

Cecil Rhodes is the patron saint of Pan-Africanism
Cecil Rhodes is the patron saint of Pan-Africanism

The initial step that all oppressors take before they impose colonialism, is to attack the disunity and disparity of their targets. Autonomy, personal agency and personal responsibility get overthrown once colonialism takes its root. Colonialism is impossible without unity. All imperial powers throughout the history of human civilization dominated other lands by first imposing some form of unity. Babylonian domination needed some form of unity among the people it claimed to colonize. The same can be said of Greek imperialism and the subsequent Roman colonization of the known world. In fact, the known world only broke away from Roman oppression after the barbarian tribes revolted against Roman colonial rule. With regard to Africa, European imperialists had to first claim to “unite” Africans before they could dominate them.

A true liberation of Africans’ minds must take place at a very fundamental level by disputing the popular colonial narrative that Africans are “one people”.

In pre-colonial Africa, there was no such thing as Africans co-existing simply because they had the matching hues of skin. Disparate African tribes fought each other and created alliances with each other based on various values: the colour of the skin was never a consideration. Skin colour became a consideration only after the advent of colonialism. Further, the narrative that Africans lived in a war-free paradise as “one people” until Europeans came is a false narrative that dehumanizes the African. By insulating the Africans from the human condition, this “paradise” narrative perpetuates the same colonial myth that Africans are subhuman.

Imperialists located the various African tribes, projected a monolithic narrative upon them and used that narrative as the basis for colonialism. It was from this projection that people like Cecil Rhodes envisioned a “one united Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo.” The Rhodesian conception of African unity was never born out of African realities. In fact, the Rhodesian conception was a defilement of African realities. However, the major problem is that even after the fall of colonialism, the Rhodesian narratives of African unity abound and have formed the basis for the attitudes underwriting Pan-African institutions such as the African Union (AU) and its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Elias Munshya, LLM, M.A., MBA, M.Div.
Elias Munshya, LLM, M.A., MBA, M.Div.

There is a persistent narrative particularly among Pan-Africanists that European imperialism divided Africa. With deceptive memes such as the “Scramble for Africa”, it is very easy to fall for such false narratives. Imperialism did not divide Africa for it is impossible to divide something that was not undivided in the first place. To the contrary, European imperialism united Africans for ease of colonialism. Many of our people, particularly Pan-Africanists, point to the modern nation-states in Africa, as evidence that the Europeans divided Africa. In actual fact, the present nation-states provide the evidence that Europeans united or tried to unite Africa and did a bad job out of it. A united Africa, organized on a continental scale, is what imperialists’ envisioned when they set out to dominate Africa. After they failed to achieve continental monism, they then settled for the next best “unity”, creating territories and uniting disparate tribes in their thousands into feudal territories to be later called “nation-states” after African independence. It is true that colonialism divided many African tribes, but tribes which were united into unviable nation-states are far much more than the tribes that were divided. As such, colonialism did not divide Africa, it united Africans for ease of colonialism and for the sole purpose of European domination. To state this reality is not to be fragmentalist, but to be a realist. By so stating, I am in no way advocating for the abolishment of the present nation-states, I am merely pointing out the fact that the popular narrative about Africa is wrong and needs a reimagination. Perhaps once our narrative is reimagined we can awake the greatness of peoples whose diversity has been sacrificed at the altar of a forced homogeneity.

When Belgian king Leopold II joined his European colleagues in colonizing Africa, he scrambled towards central Africa and used gun powder to “unite” disparate groups of tribes that had no business with each other and imposed upon them his own projected ideal of a personal orchard he later christened “free state”. While it is true that the creation of the Congo Free State (CFS) divided a few tribes along its border, the greater reality is that the CFS united tribes that had no business dealings with each other and had nothing in common with one another – except perhaps the skin colour. Otherwise, the tribes were foreign to each other and had lived thousands of kilometers apart. As such, to keep King Leopold’s personal orchard “united”, the imperialist used brutality and murder. This was true when Leopold first “united” the so called Congolese state, and it remains true to date: imposed unity through brutality and murder. A solution to the Congolese problem could rest in the people of that huge country facing the reality that their so called nation was founded on falsehoods, murder and brutality. Once this reality is acknowledged, the people can then negotiate for themselves a better philosophical narrative to underline their country, should they choose to let it subsist as one state.

For the various African peoples to achieve true liberation, they must denounce the colonial narrative and its trappings. The African peoples must reclaim their diversity and disparity. After reclaiming this diversity, the African peoples must then begin building new narratives that should underline their passage towards integration that respects their own diversity that goes beyond the colour of their skins. This is the goal of Post-Africanism as a theory for African development. African peoples’ development should be borne not out the desire to obliterate diversity by an irrational insistence on race, but rather on shared common visions inspired not by “the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”


Suggested Citation: Munshya, E. (2015). Post-Africanist Theory: Deconstructing colonial narratives of African unity. Elias Munshya Blog ( 8 October 2015

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