Read Part 3 Here

The theme of this three-part series is the significance of Nigeria: to Africa, to African Americans, and to the world in general. And no discussion of Nigeria’s significance can be conducted without a discussion about the political/philosophical movement known as “Pan Africanism.”

Pan Africanism is built around the idea that the well-being of people of African descent is predicated on increasing unity and cooperative efforts among Africans. It affirms a shared heritage, destiny, and mutual reliance among people of African descent. The practical Pan African agenda for action has long included inter-African projects in the domains of natural resources, economics, politics, and technical/educational development. More recently, an emphasis on good governance; accountability of police and military authority; and sustainability of the environment have become part of the Pan African agenda.

Pan Africanism was first formulated by Martin Delany, an African-American, after his journey to Nigeria in 1859-60, and the ideas were taken up by black Caribbean islanders, such as Marcus Garvey and Martin Delany in the early 20th century. In 1919, W.E.B. Dubois organized and convened the first Pan African Congress in Paris. Only a few years after the onset of African Independence in 1957, the President of the first independent colonial state, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, called for movement toward a United States of Africa. Nkrumah was clearly invoking the ideal of near continent wide unification, such as exists now in mid-North America. Since Nkrumah, heads of state of African nations have endorsed the idea of a United States of Africa. These include Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed in 1963 with its major mandate being the decolonization of all of Africa, as well as improving human rights, living standards, and serving as a mediator between African states. Acknowledging that its primary rationale for existence had been realized, in July, 2000, the OAU ratified the creation of the African Union (AU). The AU is a transitional organization toward establishing an a Continental Organization and an African Economic Community along the lines of the European Union. The AU intends to establish an African Union passport by 2018 and abolish all visa requirements for citizens of African countries to cross national boundaries.

The Great Black Hope?

Ethiopia, founded in the tenth century BC, carries the symbolic banner of an African state that has never been colonized. Ghana has the distinction of marking the end of the colonial era with its independence from Brittan. But for over half a century, Nigeria has been on-and-off the top of the charts as the most likely candidate for implementing the Pan African philosophy and becoming a superpower in Africa and a contending power on the world stage in economics, culture and militarily.

Although there are now other rising stars in Sub-Saharan Africa (particularly Botswana and South Africa) at the early dawn of Era African Independence (1960 to 1994), Nigeria was the Great Black Hope. Nigeria was big, had a strong administrative system, a well-organized military, and moved on the wheels of the world’s lingua franca, English. It had huge reserves of very high quality oil that was efficiently extracted and strategically placed for delivery to the US and Europe, making Nigeria an alternative for the West to Arab oil. The country had strong ties to the Muslim and Arab North and from the 15th century was part of the Atlantic World that linked Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Nigeria had several ancient high civilizations that were fully predicated on African sensibilities and worldviews. On size alone, its military and economy could pressure, and perhaps one day directly challenge the White Supremacist regimes to the south. The great hope was that a robust, economically successful, and culturally vibrant Nigeria would finally put to rest notions of scientific racism that were still being used to justify colonialism, White rule, apartheid and their variants.

During the Nigerian Civil war (19676-1970) the great hope sank in the quicksand of internecine ethnic conflict, political corruption, and military preemption of civil liberties. Foreign control over the country’s economy became further entrenched, setting Nigeria up to be another debt-oriented provider of natural resources and a passive market for foreign finished goods. Many of those finished goods were Nigerian commodities that were processed in Europe, providing jobs and wealth there, and further impoverishing the land where the commodities originated. Brands familiar to Americans and Brits that fit this pattern include Nescafe instant coffee from Nigerian beans, BP gasoline from “sweet”, nearly pure Nigerian crude oil, and Palmolive soap, made primarily from nut oil from Nigerian palm trees.

But in recent years, Nigeria has once again risen to the forefront of the Pan African movement. That’s why, as I pointed out in my opening article to this series, President Obama suggested that the future of Africa depends on what happens in Nigeria. Nigeria, it seems, is once again becoming a kind of “Great Black Hope.”

Any vision for the future must actualized through a series of projects. Most of these projects will be seriously flawed, some will be disappointing failures. Time will tell which category the experiment of Nigeria will fall into. But one thing is for certain, Nigeria is an important cultural and political entity as we move into a more connected, globally integrated world-society—and one that we must all pay attention to.