Pan-Africans versus Afropolitans – An identity crisis?

Is a crisis of identity emerging among African academics in the diaspora as to whether they are an offshoot of Pan-Africanism or a breed of emigrant elites, the Afropolitans? Therese Assie-Lumumba, professor of African studies at Cornell University in the United States, says there is growing interest in the concept of Afropolitanism – a school of thought loosely embedded in elements of geography, territoriality and location.

Unlike Pan-Africanism, an ideology that has political agenda in its quest for solidarity between Africans globally, Afropolitanism is geared towards social progress on the continent.

“Afropolitanism has potential benefits for the continent and its peoples when envisioning and actualising national and continental projects for social progress,” says Assie-Lumumba in a theoretical analysis of the concept in the current issue of the Journal of African Transformation, a joint publication of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – CODESRIA – and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Since the late 1950s, when African countries began to become independent one after the other, Africans in the diaspora have advocated for higher education development on the continent.

But what is new is that in recent years, some African diaspora elites have been associated with the search for the revitalisation of academia and socio-economic attainment in Africa. The Afropolitan group also sees itself as a technically savvy cohort that could bring Africa closer to cyberspace.

The Afropolitans

Reminiscent of rising urban elites during the late stages of colonialism in Africa, who regarded themselves as an emergent social class, away from rural parochialism, Afropolitans look upon themselves as an offshoot of different countries and divergent cultural identities.

“You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss,” writes Taiye Selasi in “Bye-Bye, Babar”, the original 2005 article that described Afropolitans.

Selasi, a writer of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent who was born in London and raised in Massachusetts, simply defines Afropolitans as not citizens – but Africans – of the world, where they are not bound together by any specific language, mother tongue, religion or culture.

The only association among them is that there is at least one place in Africa to which each is tied. “Then there’s the G8 city or two or even three that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus,” says Selasi.


While the concept of Afropolitanism has supporters inside and outside the continent, especially for its support for the rejuvenation of African universities and mobilisation of financial assistance through monetary remittances, critics see the movement as a phalanx of foot soldiers for the scramble for Africa in the 21st century.

Not all diaspora elites are roped into Afropolitanism, as some are diehards of Pan-Africanism, the ideology that embraces the holistic historical, political, cultural, spiritual, artistic, scientific and other philosophical legacies of Africans from past times to the present.

For instance Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina describes Afropolitanism as a crude and cultural product, designed and potentially funded by the West. “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan,” says Wainaina.

Such views are also held by a raft of African social critics that include Emma Dabiri, a teaching fellow at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, who argues that there is nothing enterprising in producing African flavoured versions of Western social milieu.

“In essence, the whole Western lifestyle of sex and city feminism, cocktails, designer clothes, handbags and shoes is not particularly liberating in an Anglo-American context, so I see no reason why we should transfer such models to Africa and declare it progress,” says Dabiri.

According to Marta Tveit, a former researcher at the Oslo-based International Law and Policy Institute, Afropolitanism is little more than a platform for self-congratulatory elitist groups trying to wage a war against massive brain drain in Africa with outdated and inefficient weaponry.

“A call to arms of the African intellectual diaspora, of a certain socio-economic class, educated in the West and ready to charge off and save Africa from its shortcomings in higher education, is not going to work,” says Tveit, who is of Tanzanian and Norwegian descent.

Drawing heavily on Franz Fanon’s theory of liberation, Tveit sees Afropolitans as a disguised posse of collaborators in the new scramble for Africa.

“Efforts to overcome Africa’s development problems need to be precise, concrete, thought out, sustainable, collaborative and divorced from racial determinism, and lofty and vague rhetoric," says Tveit.

The supporters

Apart from such hard positions taken by supporters of the Pan-African school of thought, Afropolitans have backers among a group of less stringent diaspora intellectuals that look to Afropolitanism as a genuine African space in contemporary African discourse on development.

In South Africa the notion is embodied in the vision of the University of Cape Town to be an Afropolitan university – a vision introduced by Vice-chancellor Max Price in 2008 and providing a cosmopolitan and metropolitan view of a continent that is developing fast and is involved with the future.

According to Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan scholar who is professor of English at Princeton University, to be Afropolitan is to be connected to knowable African communities, nations and traditions and to live a life divided across different cultures, languages and states.

“To be an Afropolitan is to experience a new phenomenology of Africanness and a way of being African in the world.”

For Gikandi, Assie-Lumumba and other like-minded African diaspora scholars, Afropolitanism is intrinsically defying the imaginations of belief that the African continent and its population is helplessly imprisoned in its past, trapped in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment.

According to Assie-Lumumba, there is urgent need for Africans everywhere to develop new models of engagement with the rest of the world in support of Africa’s development agenda. “Even then, the expectations and nature of the engagement by the 20th century Pan-Africanists cannot be realistically similar to those of the 21st century Afropolitans,” says Assie-Lumumba.

Notably, a key element is that people of African descent located in the diaspora can articulate and actualise their engagement for social progress on the continent.

Looking forward

As the debate rages as to which way forward is best to deal with Africa’s development crisis, there is nothing to suggest that the migration of Africa’s best brains to developed countries will end any time soon.

It is also not looking likely that large numbers of Africans in the diaspora will return to the continent on a permanent basis.

Taking this into account, Assie-Lumumba argues that the best alternative is for Africa to tap into all potential resources and turn some of its problems into assets. No doubt that is a hard call – especially as ideological shadow-boxing between its different schools of thought continues.