Identity – a triple-headed conundrum

Identity – a triple-headed conundrum
  • PublishedAugust 21, 2018

Why is it considered appropriate to discuss some aspects of African identity – such as nationality and pan-Africanism – but shun discussion of ethnic group identity? Thoughts by Onyekachi Wambu.

Moving around the continent and talking to different Africans, three broad levels of identity and belonging emerge. The first level is ethnic or language identity; the second is the national identity, which invariably means the boundaries established by the Berlin Conference of 1884, a legacy of European colonialism; and finally, there is the pan-African continental identity that emerged in the diaspora (from Sylvester Williams and Marcus Garvey, before being articulated by Nkrumah and others) and which is still being constructed by the AU.  

Different Africans process these three levels in different ways. Black Africans, with an ethnic and language identity which evolved solely in the context of the continent and is therefore exclusively rooted on the continent, are generally very comfortable with their ethnic/language identity (Igbo, Zulu, Wolof), alongside the Pan African continental identity, but sometimes have a profound problem with the national Berlin-state identity – hence the many civil and secessionist wars that have impacted Africa (Nigeria, Congo, Sudan etc).

For others without this historic ethnic or language identity (i.e. white. Asian and Arab Africans), what emerges is ease with their ethnic and language identity, as well as the national identity (South African, Kenyan etc), while having a general problem with the continental identity, which is sometimes viewed as a racialised identity, synonymous with black people. 

Ergo I am not black so I cannot be African – a point raised by a North African Arab brother at a recent diaspora conference on African Identity, who challenged those who spoke interchangeably of blackness and Africanness, while refusing to accept that there was also some ambiguity about Africanness on the north side of the Sahara, despite Nkrumah’s attempts at creating an African identity that included both sides of the desert. 

It is often referred to as the great issue few people want to discuss. There is obviously work to be done in getting all these levels of identity discussed above to align for all Africans.

However the North African identity is not the only taboo. While people are comfortable having discourses about the ‘Berlin 1884’ national  state and pan-African identity, having a discussion about ethnic and language identities in Africa is always difficult – and people believe that dwelling on it opens them up to charges of ‘tribalism’. But how can identities that predate the national ‘Berlin 1884’ states by thousands of years, and which give so many their undeniable sense of Africanness, be considered so problematic? 

The British High Commissioner has advised Nigerians against discussions that might fragment the country to its core ethnic/language units which have been around for thousands of years, while his country could hold referendums on fragmenting the UK ethnically, after a 400-year-plus union with Scotland. 

African ethnic/language identity is obviously difficult for so many people, inside and outside Africa. This despite the fact that our human rights instruments are unique from others in that they recognise individual, as well as collective or group rights, which is prominently reflected in their title – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. 

The reasons why the AU Charter has focused on these group rights is obviously linked to African history, culture and the realities and experience of the liberation battle against colonialism, where the concept of group self-determination was important. 

Despite being enshrined in our Human Rights Charter, group rights  are generally ignored in a real sense. One suspects this is because of a fear of admitting to any possibility of ethnic/language groups being seen as the federating units for the AU, rather than the national states. 

But this possibility is indeed implicit in a number of the Charter Articles (see 19-24) where ‘Peoples’ are given the right of self-determination and control of their resources.  However, this is then undermined by duties imposed on individual members of those ‘Peoples’ such as specified in Article 29.5, which imposes a duty on the individual: ‘To preserve and strengthen the national independence and the territorial integrity of [their] country and to contribute to its defence in accordance with the law’. 

We are embarked on creating a continental African identity and union – but we seem uneasy about a key part of what makes most of us African. NA

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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