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Africa’s quest for El Dorado

COUNTERPOINT: Also read Adekeye Adebajo’s ”Africa’s quest for El Dorado”

In the grasping imagination of 19th-century European explorers, Mali’s Timbuktu was a fabled city of gold. This week’s African Union summit in Ghana evokes images of a similarly elusive quest for an African El Dorado.

A ”grand debate” has been planned between Africa’s leaders that revives some of the early battles of continental diplomacy in the 1960s. This historical battle was waged between a ”radical” Casablanca minority bloc, led by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and the majority of African leaders — under the Brazzaville and Monrovia blocs — who favoured a more gradualist approach to unity.

Nkrumah’s rejected vision of a Union Government of African States involved common economic planning (including a common currency and monetary zone), an African defence command and a common foreign policy. The Ghanaian leader was widely distrusted by his fellow African leaders for backing armed dissidents, and even his union with Guinea and Mali of 1958 proved to be short-lived.

Paradoxically, at independence, this prophet of pan-Africanism dismantled common West African institutions inherited from British colonialism that could have served as building blocks for wider integration.

Today, the gladiators have changed but the issues have not. Libya — under its mercurial leader Moammar Gadaffi, whose ambitions, like Nkrumah’s, are questioned by many continental leaders — launched the vision of an AU loosely modelled on the European Union in 1999. Since then, Tripoli has since called for a ”United States of Africa” with an appointed president and ministers, as well as a central bank.

Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade has come closest to backing this vision, advocating a limited continental government, with the AU serving as an embryonic federation with a common currency, appointing its own ministers. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has pushed for a sub-federalism that would eventually culminate in a political federation with Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda under a revived East African Community.

This contemporary debate seems ahistorical, quixotic and impractical. The lessons of the divisions of the 1960s must be learnt before progress can be made today.

As the sun set on Europe’s African empires, there were three key regional initiatives in North Africa, French West Africa and British East Africa. All three failed dismally to achieve their goals.

Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were unable to unite North Africa owing largely to rivalries between Rabat and Algiers, which have seen the Arab Maghreb Union becoming effectively dormant today. Further afield, Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba accused Egypt’s Nasser of ”pharaonic imperialism”. Much of black Africa also criticised what they saw as the cultural prejudice and weak allegiance of the Arabs towards African unity.

French West Africa’s efforts at integration were wrecked by French-backed Ivorian leader, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who subverted efforts by Senegal’s Léopold Senghor, Guinea’s Sékou Touré and other francophone leaders to unite, so as to maintain Côte d’Ivoire’s position as the economic powerhouse of the Francophonie. Oil-rich Gabon’s Léon Mba played a similar ”spoiler” role in Central Africa.

The federalist dreams of the East African Community — involving Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — were shattered in 1964 amid mutual recrimination, political differences and complaints of disproportionate Kenyan economic benefits. At its demise in the 1970s, the organisation was not even given a decent burial.

African leaders in Accra are to be presented with three options next week: first, to strengthen the AU and existing regional groupings; second, to create a union government by 2015 with executive powers in specific areas as a transitory phase towards a ”United States of Africa”; and third, to proceed immediately towards a ”United States of Africa”.

Pretoria appears to favour the second option. As in the days of Nkrumah, however, the more federalist vision of Africa (in the second and third options) should be rejected. This is an idea whose time has not yet come.

Where Nkrumah had urged his fellow leaders to seek first the political kingdom and assured them that all other things would be added on to it, African leaders today must seek first the socio-economic kingdom. There appears to be a lack of priority, sequencing or reality in these federalist schemes. Putting old wine in new bottles will not integrate Africa.

African leaders must adopt the first option and focus on the hard work of strengthening and funding fledgling institutions that they have created. They must get their domestic houses in order and build strong economies and stable democracies.

After all, for integration to succeed, there has to be something to integrate. Otherwise, this ”grand debate” will turn out to be another grand distraction. A ”big bang” approach to African unity by our latter-day alchemists will not turn lead into gold.

Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town

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