‘Hands off Africa’, The first All-African Peoples’ Conference, held in Ghana in December 1958, had a tremendous impact on the African independence movement. Dr Mandy Banton, David Wardrop and Dr Susan Williams report on ‘Hands off Africa!!’ The 1958 All African People’s Conference: its impact then and now’, a one-day event held by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) to mark the 60th anniversary of this watershed moment in the history of Africa’s liberation from colonial rule and white supremacy.
The All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC) was inspired by Dr Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of newly-independent Ghana, and George Padmore, Nkrumah’s adviser on African affairs, to advance the ideology of Pan Africanism. Its main themes were non-alignment, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and African unity. More than 300 political and trade union leaders responded to the call, representing some 65 organisations from 28 African territories.
Tom Mboya, the AAPC chair and a prominent Kenyan trade unionist, drew a contrast between the conference in Ghana and the Berlin conference 74 years earlier, when the European powers had partitioned Africa. That meeting, he said, was known as the ‘scramble for Africa’. But, as of 1958, he said firmly, those same powers ‘will now decide to scram from Africa.’
Other delegates at the AAPC included Patrice Lumumba (representing the people of the Belgian Congo), Frantz Fanon (Algeria), Sekou Touré (Guinea), Kenneth Kaunda (Northern Rhodesia), Joshua Nkomo (Southern Rhodesia), Holden Roberto (Angola), Ezekiel Mphahlele and Alfred Hutchinson (South Africa), and Michael Scott (South West Africa). Fraternal delegates and observers also came from countries beyond the African continent, including Canada, China, India, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US. There were a number of African Americans, some of whom represented civil rights groups.
The conference organisers stressed the importance of pacifism in achieving independence, but this was challenged: Fanon argued that Algeria could not achieve freedom from France without armed resistance. An impassioned ‘violence versus non-violence’ debate reverberated through the AAPC and through the subsequent years of the struggle for liberation.
Celebrating the anniversary in December 2018
Professor Philip Murphy, ICWS director, opened the 2018 anniversary conference in London. He expressed his pleasure that the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana was also marking the 60th anniversary by holding a major three day conference in Accra – the venue of the first AAPC. This event, which was taking place in the same week as the London conference, was shining a spotlight on issues relating to youth, women and the future, under the title of ‘Revisiting the 1958 All-African People’s Conference – the unfinished business of liberation and transformation’. The organisers of the London and Accra events hope to build on their shared interests and explore the possibility of future collaborations.
Professor Murphy then introduced the former Commonwealth secretary-ceneral Chief Emeka Anyaoku, whose keynote speech, ‘Pan-Africanism and relations today between Africa and the Commonwealth’, eloquently explored the impact and significance of the AAPC and its role within the framework of the Pan African movement.
Reuniting participants after 60 years
It as a unique opportunity for those attending the London event to hear about the 1958 conference from three people who were actually there: Bereket Habte Selassie, Cameron Duodu, and Zambia’s first president, Dr Kenneth Kaunda.
Bereket Habte Selassie was a delegate from Ethiopia, which was one of only eight independent nations at that time on the African continent. ‘To young Africans like myself at the time,’ he said, ‘it was a moment at once defining and awe-inspiring.’ Selassie went on to become a leading scholar of African and Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina, as well as an activist for political reform in Eritrea and the principal author of Eritrea’s constitution. In 2011, he gave a lecture in the Distinguished Mwalimu Nyerere Lecture Series on ‘Reimagining Pan-Africanism.’
Cameron Duodu was then a young radio journalist, who reported on the conference for the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. His nation, Ghana, had become independent from Britain as recently as 1957, the year before the AAPC. These were ‘heady days’, said Duodu, ‘The atmosphere in our part of Africa was quite intoxicating.’ Following the AAPC, he took on senior editorial roles in Ghanaian newspapers, magazines and broadcasting, and now writes as a freelance journalist for British and international newspapers and magazines.
Kenneth Kaunda had recorded a special message for the 2018 conference in London. Speaking about the importance of the AAPC in Accra, Dr Kaunda while holding a cherished photograph of Kwame Nkrumah, he said that at last ‘we could see Africa as one. We left Accra very inspired and refreshed’.
There was yet another compelling personal connection between the AAPC and the London conference. Paul Boateng, who chaired the roundtable at the end of the day, told the audience that his father, Kwaku Boateng, had not only attended the AAPC but had also been involved in its organisation. Boateng recalled the impact of the AAPC on his own life as seven-year-old living in Accra. He also vividly remembered drinking Coca-Cola with George Padmore.
Themes emerging from the conference
Marika Sherwood (ICWS) outlined the importance of George Padmore who, utilising his international contacts, ensured that intellectuals of the day and African leaders of the future were invited in 1958. The role of Tom Mboya in the AAPC was examined by Dan Branch, who teaches African History at the University of Warwick, who went on to explore Mboya’s backing by America’s CIA. Dr Susan Williams (ICWS senior research fellow) took up this theme in her paper on the infiltration of the AAPC by foreign intelligence organisations.
David Wardrop noted that UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, in recognising the strength of the decolonisation movement in Africa, set up the UN Economic Commission for Africa in 1958, along with similar initiatives on other continents. Hammarskjöld was to lose his life in the search for peace in the Congo in 1961. Knox Chitiyo (fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs) gave an analysis of African defence and security, from the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union. It offered a fresh perspective within a Pan African context.
Joseph Godson Amamoo spoke about the ‘African personality’, which Nkrumah had asked Ghanaians to project on the world scene, to challenge racism against people from the African continent. Amamoo said that he had taken this instruction very seriously as Ghana’s first public relations adviser to the Ghana High Commission in London, and then as the country’s first ambassador to Hungary and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
There was animated discussion about the impact of the participation of Franz Fanon, who represented Algeria at the 1958 conference. It was generated by presentations by Leo Zeilig, an editor of the Review of African Political Economy and whose books include a study of Frantz Fanon, and Salem Mezhoud (African Leadership Centre at King’s College London). They explored Fanon’s advocacy of violence as a necessary element in the fight for African independence and for perceptions of African unity.
Dialogue between the generations
The conference’s closing session chaired by Boateng, included Cameron Duodu, Bereket Selassie, Joseph Amamoo, and Hakim Adi, whose latest book is Pan-Africanism: A History. The panellists offered thoughtful reflections on how the 1958 conference had contributed to the path taken by African countries over the subsequent 60 years.
A lively debate followed concerns voiced the some students that, very often in the UK, white people dominated these kind of events. The panellists argued that there should be no colour bar – only a determination to bring about justice and to make the world a better place. Amamoo, whose most recent book is Racism: A Global Problem, recalled that Nkrumah had opposed racism and that the AAPC had been non-racial in its attendance.
There was keen interest when Trevor Mwamba, formerly Bishop of Botswana, and now Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Chelmsford and Vicar of Barking, identified the spirit behind the AAPC as the African philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’ – that a person is a person through other people. This meant, he said, that independent nations were morally compelled to help to liberate countries from colonial rule. He reminded the audience of Kwame Nkrumah’s 1957independence speech: ‘Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.’
Koffi de Lome, founder of AfricanLivesMatter, shared his concern that today’s young Africans know too little about the struggles of those who had fought for the independence of their own country. He was worried about the lack of continuity between the different generations and welcomed the opportunity for them to come together at the London conference. His final words were: ‘No nation, no civilisation has come to the fore without new organisation, without thinking new thoughts, the struggle for the hearts and minds of our people must be fought for complete and total liberation of Africa! HandsOffAfrica! AfricaMustBeFree!’
About the authors
Dr Mandy Banton is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), David Wardrop is chair of the United Nations Association Westminster branch, and Dr Susan Williams is also a senior research fellow at ICWS.
A full version of this article is available on Review of African Political Economy