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ThoughtWorks has had for some years an ambition to support the establishment of a Pan-African institute. The problem with the word ‘institute’  is that it has too many connotations of academia and elitist think-tanks. It’s as if the development of thinking and envisioning that is needed in Africa is the sole remit of academics.

After some discussion, we decided to call it the Pan-African Baraza — baraza means a community meeting or forum or place for organizing. This was more than just a change of names: the idea is not to set up yet another Pan-African institution, but rather to establish a formation that is a convenor, forum and organiser, a safe place where activists, intellectuals and social movements can interact and debate and organise around key strategic issues facing the continent. Far from being in competition to other Pan-Africanist institutions, it is in many senses a complement to those institutions. The Pan-African Baraza will be an independent institution, with sponsorship and active participation from ThoughtWorks.

Let me explain why I think such a baraza is needed.

I believe we are living in a period of growing discontent and dissatisfaction with the conditions that people across the continent are facing — a discontent arising from the reversals of many of the gains of independence, primarily as a result of decades of neoliberal economic and social policies.

As a consequence, the continent is facing a series of dispossessions: dispossessions of livelihoods with the growth of unemployment and decline in living standards; dispossessions of land and natural resources accompanied by destruction of the environment and the consequent effects on climate change; political dispossessions in the sense that our governments are increasingly becoming more accountable to international corporations, banks and international financial institutions than to their own citizens; and dispossession of memory—a loss of understanding of our histories, our struggles, the writings of leading thinkers and revolutionaries, of pan-Africanism, even memories of productions and reproduction of indigenous seeds— all of these are the outcome of the consequences of neoliberalism.

Critical in terms memory losses is the fact that the history of Pan-Africanism has been dominated by perspectives that focus primarily on the role and writings of men, with women as usual 'hidden from history', or documented solely as having roles that only serve to emphasize patriarchal perspectives about the role of women.

Many, especially the young, are struggling to find a way forward; a way of making sense of what is happening. It is a period when many different forces are organizing and engaging in struggles.  However, there are few institutions where the experiences of these women, peasants, homeless, landless, precarious workers, and people affected by environmental destruction and climate change are  shared, and where cross-fertilization, can take place.

The formal pan-African movement is fragmented. This year alone there are at least three separate meetings each proclaiming itself as the ‘8th Pan-African Congress’. Many of those who are organized around the ideas of Pan-Africanism have tended to look backwards and almost create a religion based on the past instead of drawing on history in order to define what pan-Africanism could be in the future — what we want it to be!

The African Union is perhaps the largest and long-standing pan-African institution, yet operates primarily as an intergovernmental structure rather than an embodiment of any pan-Africanist philosophical, political or intellectual tradition. At the same time, there are many organizations and institutions in Africa and around the globe that aspire (explicitly or implicitly) to advancing pan-Africanist visions and agendas.

I believe there is a need for a pan-African institution that is able to convene forces across the continent and the African diasporas to forge alliances for advancing the condition of African people.

The Pan-African Baraza will be structured around three themes that arise from the above analysis:

  • Reclaiming the past: Popularizing pan-Africanism and pan-African history (including written, cultural, artistic, musical, poetic etc. forms); popularizing and restoring understanding of the history of women in Africa and their struggles for emancipation; enabling people who make history to speak of that history themselves
  • Contesting the present: Convening of meetings and actions on critical issues facing African people on the continent and in the diasporas (patriarchy, environmental injustice, exploitation, and racism; religious, economic and political fundamentalisms; heterosexism, homophobia, trade, economic policies, freedom of the internet etc.); publishing via a range of media – print, electronic, audiovisual, webinars etc.
  • Inventing the future: Convening meetings to deliberate on creative alternatives for economic and social policies, stimulating debate on the future strategies for emancipation

It’s important to recognize that when we refer to Africa, we should not simply envisage a physical geography that comprises the continent. It is much more than that. We should think of it as a spatial geography of people who have moved in an out of the continent – involuntarily in the slave trade as well as voluntarily migration. So that means the Pan-African Baraza has to concern itself with the struggles of the many African populations in the Americas, Europe and elsewhere, as well as those living on the physical continent.

The great challenge will be to look at how technologies can be harnessed to enhance the voice of African people internationally and regionally as well as domestically. What can we do to enable African people to learn of each others struggles and ambitions, and how can solidarity between African peoples be facilitated using the new technologies? There are many organizations and movements doing excellent work on critical issues of importance: how do we amplify their voices?

And how can we build social solidarity across the Global South, with peoples with whom we have much in common? How do we help a whole new generation of young people recapture their own histories and in so doing, develop their ability to invent the future?

Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of the Burkina Faso revolution who was brutally assassinated in 1987, put it this way:

You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from non-conformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen!