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Review: African Anarchism: The history of a movement

category west africa | anarchist movement | feature author Friday March 04, 2005 23:13author by Deirdre Hogan - WSM Report this post to the editors

Review of a book is written by two members of the Awareness League, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation in Nigeria

Review of a book is written by two members of the Awareness League, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation in Nigeria

Review: African Anarchism:
The history of a movement

by Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey
See Sharp Press £6.95

Few people would associate anarchism with Africa. However, it is certainly beginning to take root in there. This book is written by two members of the Awareness League, a 1000-strong anarcho-syndicalist organisation in Nigeria. Starting with a good introduction to anarchism, the authors outline its relationship with Africa in an attempt to "enrich anarchism and anarchist principles with an African perspective and to carve a place for Africa within the framework of the worldwide anarchist movement".

Although anarchism as a conscious social movement is relatively new in Africa, pre-colonial African societies contained many "anarchic elements". This book presents a very interesting study of anarchist tendencies in traditional African societies. While certainly not anarchist, these societies, based on communalism, were self-governing and independent where "every individual without exception takes part, either directly or indirectly in the running of community affairs at all levels."

Mbah and Igariwey go on to illustrate their point by giving three case studies of stateless societies in pre-colonial Africa: the Igbo, the Niger Delta people and the Tallensi. Some common characteristics in the structure of such societies were the lack of centralisation, the communal mode of production, and the general absence of social stratification.

Capitalism arrives

Capitalist influences were first introduced to Africa during the push for economic expansion that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The slave trade and other European foreign business interests along the coastal regions of Africa facilitated the gradual breakdown of the communal mode of production in Africa. Then the Berlin conference and the subsequent partition of Africa ensured the "enthronement of imperial interests over those of traditional societies".

Wage labour, taxation, the introduction of money, trade, investment and the social institutions and bureaucracy built to maintain the imperialist system are cited as some of the weapons used to incorporate Africa into the world capitalist economy.

The authors discuss how Africa's incorporation into the global economy was peripheral in that it "did not give rise to a fully capitalist economy; the end result was, rather, a distorted, unbalanced capitalist structure". This created Africa's culture of dependence on the advanced capitalist countries so that profits were (and still are) constantly being transferred from Africa to the advanced capitalist countries.

Another major effect of colonialism was the formation of new social classes. For example, due to the new taxation laws imposed on the indigenous people, a new group of migrant wage-earners emerged.

In response to the inferior socio-political and economic status imposed on the vast majority of Africans, trade unions began to emerge. Mbah and Igariwey offer a detailed analysis of the trade union movements in Nigeria and South Africa, criticising their hierarchical structures. The lack of a revolutionary perspective and the self-serving political ambitions of the leadership are some of the reasons why the trade union movement has failed to maximise its potential.

An African road to socialism?

Nor did "African socialism" - for the most part based on the Soviet/Eastern European model - succeed in changing the status quo. Most post-colonial African states see strong governments as of vital importance. Rather than believing the African people capable of organising their own lives, the ruling party or government must lead the people. "Some of the most backward, most reactionary regimes that ever set foot on African soil were socialist ones, some led by military officers who shot their way to power."

Mbah and Igariwey go on to discuss the present crises in Africa: the abject poverty of about 90% of African people side by side with the vast wealth and decadence of the political leaders, the appalling human rights records of the ruling elite, the huge foreign debt of underdeveloped and dependent African economies and the political corruption and social instability throughout Africa. The authors come to the conclusion that the only way out of Africa's crises is anarchism.

"For Africa in particular, long-term development is possible only if there is a radical break with both capitalism and the state system - the principal instruments of our arrested development and stagnation". They see a return to the traditional "anarchic elements" in African communalism as the inevitable next step. "The goal of a self-managed society born out of the free will of its people and devoid of authoritarian control and regimentation is as attractive as it is feasible in the long run".

This well-structured and informative book provides a unique anarchist analysis of Africa. The authors give an in-depth study of the causes of Africa's current crises, outlining clearly the revolutionary potential of Africa and the many reasons why anarchism is indeed Africa's only way out.

Deirdre Hogan

author by Michael Schmidt - ex-ZACFpublication date Tue Feb 20, 2007 21:29author address author phone Report this post to the editors

This is an epilogue (below) written in English for the German version of the book African Anarchism, which should be published in July 2007.


This book, African Anarchism, has ably described the libertarian elements of some traditional African societies that existed before colonisation, and is a good starting point for those interested in learning about African libertarian communism, but is limited because the anarchist movement only really resurfaced in Africa in the decade prior to the book being published, and the socio-political climate has changed quite dramatically across the continent since then.

The collapse of apartheid and the end that brought to cross-border conflicts in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique in particular, the defeat of the old US client regimes like the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) and proxy forces (like UNITA in Angola), and the exit of dictators like Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya and Hastings Banda of Malawi has brought the Cold War in Africa to an end.

But the raping of the DRC by trans-national corporations, under the cover of military conflict between nine countries, the exposure of the fraud of electoral politics through the corruption of new "democratic" regimes like that of Frederic Chiluba of Zambia, the rise of murderous neo-fascist ethnic parties in Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi and the Great Lakes region, the militarised expansion of US and Chinese oil interests in the Sahel and West Africa, and the last-ditch scorched-earth stance of "socialist" dinosaurs like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe have kept tensions high.

Adding to this is the smooth sub-imperialism of South Africa's Thabo Mbeki and his neo-liberal "New Partnership for Africa's Development", the expansion of Structural Adjustment Programmes by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the rise of a "new generation of African leaders" such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda's "no-party democracy", and the slaving of the African Union and individual African states to Western imperialist interests under cover of the so-called "War on Terror" that have ushered in a whole new era of struggle on the continent.

The greatest strength of African Anarchism is its critique of the monster that was African socialism and of the current obstacles - and opportunities - presented for the development of anarchism by the thug rule and chaos that is governance and business on the continent.

Its greatest weaknesses are, however: firstly an exaggerated over-emphasis on the libertarian traditions of some tribes which makes it seem to look in a primitivist direction for its anarchist inspiration (although such traditions are vital to re-establishing a culture conducive to anti-state socialist organising, the authors seem to lack knowledge about many African anarchist and syndicalist antecedents); and secondly a lack of a proper analysis of and description of at least the Awareness League itself, if not of other current African anarchist movements where its knowledge is understandably more slender. Much has changed since it was first published in 1997.

Long under the whip of hyper-extractive colonial regimes, the development of the entire spectrum of left-wing revolutionism in Africa has been slaved firstly to the late or very narrow development of an industrial working class in a handful of countries - and secondly to the development of national liberation struggles.

In the first case, it was only countries such as South Africa, Mozambique, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt where colonialism established significant settler populations (many of them labourers from Europe, and the Middle East, or indentured labourers from India and Asia) to run sophisticated economies based on mining, commercial agriculture and their associated infrastructure.

It is no accident that it is in these countries that anarchism first gained a foothold more than a century ago, finding its initial expressions in the Egyptian Federation that helped found the feared Black International in 1881, an Algiers section of the French General Confederation of Labour (CGT) founded in 1898 in Algeria (the city became an anarchist stronghold), the Socialist Club, founded in 1900 in South Africa by Henry Glasse, the Free Popular University founded in Egypt in 1901, and the Revolutionary League of Mozambique, founded in the early 1900s by exiled Portuguese anarchist José Estevam.

Anarchist organisational methods saw the multiracial International League of Cigarette Workers and Millers of Cairo founded in 1908, the operation of an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) section in South Africa in 1910-1913, and, in the period of the Russian Revolution, the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA, founded 1917), the Industrial Socialist League (IndSL, 1918), and Indian Workers Industrial Union (IWIU, 1919) in South Africa.

Later, in the 1930s, an "Indigenous Algerian Section" of the French General Confederation of Labour - Revolutionary Syndicalist (CGT-SR), was established by militants such as Saïl Mohamed, while in the Spanish-occupied Canaries, anarchist organisations linked to the famed National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) were established.

In Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, where it appears that an anarcho-syndicalist tendency influenced by the powerful Portuguese General Confederation of Labour (CGT) flourished into the late 1920s in the complete absence of a domestic communist party. The situation in the other main Portuguese colony of Angola is likely to have been similar, given the dominance of the CGT among Portuguese workers (a possible contributing factor to the choice of a red-and-black post-colonial flag?), but this is a largely unstudied history.

Two factors contributed to the decay of this initial upsurge of revolutionary syndicalism & anarcho-syndicalism in Africa. Firstly, as with other Anglophone countries (former British colonies), the lack of a specific anarchist organisation crippled revolutionary syndicalist organisations in meeting the challenges of Bolshevism and of emergent petit-bourgeois black nationalism (the ANC for instance), so the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU, founded 1918) that the IWA and IWIU gave birth to spread as far afield as British-occupied Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as well as German-occupied South-West Africa (now Namibia). But the ICU peaked in 1927 - and collapsed in ideological confusion thereafter.

Secondly, from the early 1930s, much of Africa started to fall under a particularly virulently racist form of fascism: Mozambique, Angola and other Portuguese territories under Salazar's regime after 1927; Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea under Mussolini in the late 1930s; Morocco and Spanish Sahara under Franco's Spain from 1936; Algeria, French West Africa (and briefly Madagascar) under Vichy France during the war; and Belgian Central Africa under Rexist Belgium during the war.

The post-war acceleration of national liberation struggles thus took place largely in an anarchist vacuum - with the exception of cities such as Oran in Algeria which was a stronghold of Spanish exiles and where a North African Delegation of the exile CNT-FAI was based, anarchist and syndicalist detainees in prison camps in the Azores and Angola, and the emergence of tiny, ephemeral "libertarian Marxist" tendencies such as the Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC) in South Africa in the 1950s. Conditions of social struggle were also heavily distorted by Soviet, Chinese, French, British and US seduction and patronage, while parts of Africa remained under fascist control into the mid-1970s (Angola, Mozambique, the Azores, the Canaries and some Moroccan ports).

It is incorrect, as stated in African Anarchism, that the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) of France that initially backed the Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG) in its struggle for power against the French colonialists in the 1950s was "syndicalist": the CGT is in fact allied to the French Communist Party (PCF). But the question posed by the authors, of whether or not there exists "a systematic body of thought on anarchism that is of African origin" is crucial, even if restricting their analysis to Nigeria's Kibbutz-style agrarian programme of the 1960s, and "anarchic elements" in Muammar Gaddafi's jamarrhiriryah and Julius Nyerere's ujamaa systems makes it seem that they are clutching at straws.

In our view, the authors should rather have examined specific African anarchist organisations in greater detail to find an authentic African anarchism, rather than trying to squeeze a scent of social libertarianism out of stale statist policies where the fundaments of capitalist exploitation are left unchanged.

The bite of neo-liberalism in the 1980s saw the emergence of anarchist organisations in virgin territory, such as the Anarchist Party for Individual Rights and Freedoms (PALIR) in Senegal in 1987. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the winding down of several struggles (notably against apartheid), revolutionary syndicalism resurfaced in the Awareness League of Nigeria, a formerly libertarian Marxist grouping that became fully anarcho-syndicalist by 1990 and whose militants include this book's authors, the anti-apartheid anarchist movements that lead to the formation of the Workers' Solidarity Federation (WSF) in South Africa in 1995, and the 3,000-strong IWW of Sierra Leone, founded among miners in 1997.

More recently, the Anarchist and Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM) was founded in Zambia in 1998, rank-and-file trade union networks linked to southern European aanrcho-syndicalist unions have arisen in Morocco and Burkina Faso, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence of Kenya (ACCK) was started by anarchists and socialists, and the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) of South Africa was built in 2003 on the foundations of the earlier WSF.

The concept of "African socialism" as defined by continental so-called liberation leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Eduardo Mondlane, Ahmed Ben Bella and others (including interested outsiders like Frantz Fannon) has been hugely influential in the mal-development of the continent, both ideologically and economically. As noted by the authors, some post-liberation countries experimented initially with a form of statist decentralisation, notably Libya under Gadaffi and Tanzania under Nkrumah while we would like to point out that on the opposite side of the spectrum were the hyper-authoritarian Marxist regimes of the likes of Mengistu Haile Mariam's Ethiopia or the outright neo-fascism of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt (Nasser was a former Nazi Abwehr agent who recruited hundreds of Nazi killers and technicians after the war to defend his state).

The primary external "socialist" influences (based on direct military/political/economic investment) were the old USSR and to a lesser extent Cuba, China, North Korea and East Germany. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc had a big impact on the sustainability of the fascade of "socialism" across much of the continent. Some regimes, like that of Mengistu, have collapsed, while others such as Mugabe's Zimbabwe (which is propped up by China) are teetering on the brink.

Others like Frelimo in Mozambique, have transformed themselves into bourgeois-democratic regimes. Still others like Zambia under Chiluba have capitulated wholesale to neo-liberalism. The evaporation of funding from foreign "communist" states was instrumental in provoking the collapse of unsustainable African "socialism". Lacking sustained anarchist/libertarian/syndicalist mass organised traditions, the continent has not proven a rich environment for the revival of anti-authoritarian organisations.

Where they have arisen, it has perhaps been only in part because of the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the validity of "socialism", and perhaps more because of specific local conditions: in Sierra Leone, it was the pitiful working conditions in the diamond mines that gave rise to the IWW section there (and the brutal civil war that destroyed the union); while in Nigeria, leftist oppisition to military rule helped forge the Awareneness League.

In South Africa, the legitimacy crisis of the reformist SA Communist Party (SACP) and the erosion of worker gains by neo-liberalism have helped spur some interest in anarchism. But levels of interest and involvement in anarchism on the continent are extremely low (by comparison to Latin America or Eastern Europe, for example) and should not be overemphasised. In Nigeria, the Awareness League, which boasted 1,000 members in 18 provinces at the time of the writing of this book, and its own radio station in the city of Enugu, is believed to have suffered a membership decline in recent years, ironically as a partial result of the end of the military dictatorship.

Times are changing, however. According to a bilateral agreement reached at the French CNT's Autre Futur anarchist congress in Paris in 2000 at which the Free Workers' Union (FAU) of Germany was unofficially represented, two sister journals were later established: Zabalaza (Struggle) by the ZACF to cover Anglophone Africa; and Afrique XXI (Africa 21) by an editorial collective headed by the CNT to cover Francophone Africa. Never before has the continent been subjected to such sustained anarchist analysis - much of it fresh and originating from within Africa itself.

We have also seen the founding in the new millennium of anarchist cells in countries as diverse as Kenya, the Canaries, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, the rise of a new slew of radically democratic, anti-party trade unions in countries such as Burkina Faso, the DRC and Djibouti, and the establishment - against much state opposition - in 2005 of the Libertarian Centre for Studies and Investigation (CLER) in Ouarzazarte, Morocco.

Africa, the poorest continent, ridden with HIV/Aids, starvation and conflict, remains at the margins of the resurgent global anarchist movement. The rapidly changing conditions and collapse of states such as the former Somalia have so far proven more dangerous than fruitful for anarchist working class organising (news reports in 2000 of an attack on a Ugandan police station by an "Anarchist Democratic Forces" militia remain unconfirmed).

But the very extremity of Africa's socio-politico-economic challenges has seen some remarkably brave movements emerging. Centuries ago, Pliny the Elder said there was "always something new out of Africa". Sam Mbah himself told us that they had initially wanted the subtitle of their book to be Prospects for the Future. To hear new voices from Africa speaking about that future, stay tuned to these websites: (mostly in English) (en Français)

- Michael Schmidt (former International Secretary, ZACF, Johannesburg, 2006. With input by black and white ZACF members)

Related Link:
author by mitch - WSA (personal capacity)publication date Wed Feb 21, 2007 11:59author email wsany at hotmail dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Interesting stuff. As some of you may be aware, the Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) was the first anarchist group to develop relations with the Awareness League. So it is with great interest I read the ZACF piece.

On a personal note, I have some very grave doubts about some the membership numbers used. In particular on the IWW in Sierra Leone.

I've seen this number of 3000 thrown about many times, but I've never seen it substantiated. I've personally haven't seen any on-the-ground reports, perhaps the ZACF comrades have. I would like to learn more about this.

As for the AL's 1000 members, I suspect the total number probably included both members and supporters. But I have some doubts the AL may have been greater than 600 to perhaps 800----I think many of us would love to have even those numbers. Of course I could be dead wrong. My guess is based on my face-to-face conversations with Sam Mbah; sort of reading between the lines.Also the reportage by the former IWA Secretary, Pepe Jimenez, who visited Nigeria proper.

The Ugandan Anarchist Democratic Front is quesionable in my mind. I readily admit I'm skeptical based on the scants of information But this seem liked some sort of hoax to me.I've seen. I stand to be absolutely corrected by those with more direct knowledge/contact.

One last unsolicited comment. I wonder with the advent of the internet and the wealth of contacts it brings and the ability to access lots of information, if the authors might not have been able to fill the gaps in their coverage? Perhaps, but we may never know.

Without ending on a sour note, I think it's important for comrades to continue to work towards and support the building of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups, movements and other such expressions in Africa and Asia. I can say that as long as we are able, the W.S.A. will continue to do its part.

author by mitchpublication date Fri Feb 23, 2007 11:23author address author phone Report this post to the editors

For clarification: On the Sierra Leone numbers, I meant to say that other than the stuff printed on A_infos and the IWW's newspaper, I've seen no other supporting information or detailed reports.

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