On a gray Washington morning this February, President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke to a packed room at the Atlantic Council. The subject of his talk was “The Future of the U.S.-Kenya Strategic Partnership,” and as a researcher of the U.S.-led War on Terror, I attended to hear what the president might say about U.S.-Kenya military collaboration in a conflict spreading across the continent with no end in sight. I was especially interested to see if Kenyatta would talk about the attack on Kenya’s Manda Bay military base by Al-Shabab fighters just weeks prior in January, which killed three American personnel. (This came shortly after the group carried out a catastrophic bombing in Mogadishu, killing eighty Somalis.) Though largely eclipsed in the U.S. media by the American assassination of General Qasem Soleimani and a near-eruption of armed conflict with Iran, the attacks in East Africa cast severe doubt on the success or utility of operations in the Horn of Africa that the United States has been conducting and leading with its allies for two decades.
Africans of Kenyatta’s generation found seats or perched beside the wall of the Atlantic Council conference room, which was largely filled with employees of development NGOs and other Americans who, as the Beltway lingo goes, “work on Africa.” In his introduction, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council Frederick Kempe lamented “unprecedented instability across much of the Horn,” but celebrated the fact that “Kenya has emerged as an economic, a commercial, and logistics hub” in the region. He concluded by noting that Kenyatta was the son of Jomo Kenyatta—the first president of Independent Kenya—and that his first name “Uhuru” translates to “freedom.”
In his remarks, Kenyatta announced that Africa is the “world’s greatest opportunity,” and called upon Americans and others to invest, but with the note that “to grasp this opportunity you will need to listen and engage with what we in Africa want and we in Africa need.” He affirmed the need for the ongoing fight against terrorism, though he did not mention the raid in Manda Bay.
The event at the Atlantic Council carries forward a narrative about decolonization in Africa that those of us in the present have inherited: former colonies achieved independence and then embarked on the mission of developing flourishing nation-states in a post-colonial world. The journey has been beset with obstacles and dangers—corruption, dictatorship, war, poverty, and unrest—but the continent’s success stories may portend strong states that boast robust democracies, modeled after, economically integrated with, and working in partnership with countries like the United States.
In the scene that opens Getachew’s book, Martin Luther King Jr. is present—along with Coretta Scott King, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, and Adam Clayton Powell—at Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration of the newly independent Ghana. Marking the nation’s freedom at midnight on March 6, 1957, in the capital Accra, its first president declared that Ghanaian independence is “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
The full inheritance of the pursuits and lessons of decolonization, however, is immensely richer than this uninspiring picture. In Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, Adom Getachew returns to the sunrise of African and Caribbean decolonization in the twentieth century. Far from portraying the neoliberal African state as the fulfillment of the freedom dreams of the Black Atlantic’s architects of decolonization, Getachew excavates a vibrant set of histories that show us that those visions were quite different.
In his landmark essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. says in both wonder and frustration that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” For King, the inspiration of the decolonizing world was not only something to behold from a distance, through the bars of southern jail cells. In the scene that opens Getachew’s book, King is present—along with Coretta Scott King, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, and Adam Clayton Powell—at Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration of the newly independent Ghana. Marking the nation’s freedom at midnight on March 6, 1957, in the capital Accra, its first president declared that Ghanaian independence is “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
Nkrumah’s expansive vision—and that of his comrades in that era—was a far cry from the narrow pursuit of a secure nation-state with affluent citizens. It was rather a remaking of the world after colonialism. Figures like King both had a front-row seat to that world at its dawn and participated in constructing the same, transnational project on the other side of the Atlantic.
Following this heady introduction, Getachew embarks on a vast project with great effectiveness. She critiques conventional notions of decolonization that represent the project as simply expanding membership of the world’s democratic, international community to include formerly colonized nations. Getachew argues, rather, that colonized peoples were included in the schemas that European colonial powers devised and presided over from the start—but as disenfranchised subjects. This “unequal integration” was present in early colonial legal understandings as Europeans pondered the place of Indigenous peoples of the Americas in the world that they were building; it was cemented centuries later in international arrangements such as the twentieth century’s League of Nations.
Borrowing from Saidiya Hartman’s notion of “burdened individuality”—which describes the condition of newly emancipated American Blacks who are nominally citizens but cannot enjoy the benefits of their formal status—Getachew writes that nations are included in international society with “burdened membership.” They face the responsibilities of that community, while the rights they enjoy therein are “limited and conditional.”
Moreover, rather than seeking a seamless transition into the community of nations, the vanguard of the Black Atlantic’s decolonial struggles pursued revolutionary rupture that would end systems of domination. The point was not to gain access to the club of states that could enjoy Westphalian sovereignty, but to destabilize it by revealing that such sovereignty was never universal; its proponents matured as states through their colonization of others.
Getachew critiques conventional notions of decolonization that represent the project as simply expanding membership of the world’s democratic, international community to include formerly colonized nations. She argues, rather, that colonized peoples were included in the schemas that European colonial powers devised and presided over from the start—but as disenfranchised subjects.
In her book, Getachew also offers a roadmap to guide readers through an exploration of that vanguard. We see the trajectories, lives, and work of Africa’s Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, the Caribbean’s George Padmore, Eric Williams, George Padmore, CLR James, Michael Manley, and W.E.B. Du Bois of the United States. We read about centers of Anglophone Pan-African thought in the early twentieth century, from London, to Historically Black University campuses in the United States, such as Howard and Lincoln. We trace the maturation of international revolutionary visioning and organizing, from Marx’s First International, to Lenin’s Communist International, to the post-World War Two decolonial moment. And we see the evolutions of leaders like Du Bois and James against this backdrop: as they shed their illusions in capitalism’s potential to uplift the colonized and formerly enslaved, as they are moved by the revolutionary wave sparked by 1917’s Russian Revolution, and as their minds are clarified by the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
The central point of the book though, is that the post-colonial aspirations of this generation could not be confined to the container of “nation-building”—even if retrospective histories frame them as such. Rather, a more accurate heading for their various projects of self-determination is “worldmaking.”
That project involved a number of efforts that pushed the boundaries of the state and reached for solutions to the advancement of formerly colonized peoples beyond their individual national borders. One such effort transformed the United Nations into a site to contest imperialism and colonization rather than simply enshrine those things like Wilson’s League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, did.
Another was the construction of regional federations of postcolonial nations. So committed to the notion that the project of Pan-African freedom required a political form that extended beyond Ghana’s borders was Nkrumah that he won a clause in the newly independent nation’s constitution empowering the parliament to surrender “the whole or any part of the sovereignty of Ghana” upon the formation of the Union of African States. Similar measures were outlined in the constitutions of newly independent Guinea and Mali, as the Union was formed in 1958. Across the ocean, Trinidad’s Eric Williams and others led the creation of the West Indian Federation, which involved ten Anglophone Caribbean islands that were colonized by the British and pursuing independence.
Lastly, worldmakers created the New International Economic Order (NIEO)—an attempt to escape the international economic systems that the United States and Western Europe fashioned after World War Two, which trapped Third World nations in intractable dependency. The NEIO sought a sweeping re-ordering, through which newly independent nations could negotiate the terms by which multinational corporations operated in their territories, exert control over natural resources, pursue centralized planning rather than free markets, and leverage power through collective bargaining. Moreover, it provided for a redistribution of wealth on a global scale, in what Getachew calls the “Welfare World.” The Order’s framework contained variation in different places as post-colonial governments grappled with the realities of their economies and particular, local legacies of slavery and colonization. Whereas Ghana’s Nkrumah pursued policies that favored industrialization on Ghanaian terms as part of self-determination, Tanzania’s Nyerere advanced the concept of ujamaa, which rejected industrialization and centered collective farming and independence at the village level. Jamaica’s Manley sought the integration of his country’s laborers into the world economy on the most democratic and advantageous terms.
The central point of the book is that the post-colonial aspirations of this generation could not be confined to the container of “nation-building”—even if retrospective histories frame them as such. Rather, a more accurate heading for their various projects of self-determination is “worldmaking.”
Unfortunately, we know how these stories end. The legacies of centuries of colonization, slavery, and other forms of domination were monumental obstacles to try to overcome in a matter of years. The color line—the racial hierarchy that W.E.B. Du Bois identified in 1900 as the problem of the twentieth century, and which differentiated the incorporation of nations and peoples into global society—did not disappear after independence. Through economic pressure and coups, the United States, European colonial powers, and other entrenched institutions and classes of people exerted power to bend the circumstances of history in ways that favored the reproduction of old, familiar conditions rather than allow for new ones to bloom. Institutions like the UN, had their own limitations when it came to advancing self-determination, as did the states that shaped them. State power retained more ability to violate human rights—which came to be seen as liberal, individual ones—rather than secure them.
The various worldmaking experiments that Getachew revisits were short-lived. But they were not for nothing. Beyond what these pursuits represented and achieved in their time, their histories retain relevance today. After all, the contemporary world remains one of violent and oppressive stratification. The lessons that Getachew outlines: that hierarchy—rather than sovereignty on a level playing field—is what structures international relations; that non-domination is the principle that must guide the construction of a new world; and that a commitment to that principle is what enhances internationalism, are offerings for today’s efforts of worldmaking. Returning to these imperial pasts as we grapple with our imperial present, Getachew concludes, serves us in “imagining an anti-imperial future.”