/ 3 February 2008

Who will be the Washington, DC, of Africa?

The United States of Africa is one of few concrete plans on which African leaders agreed as they struggled with issues of peacekeeping and political disputes at this week’s continental summit.

The problem is, so many countries want to be Washington, DC.

African leaders have been pushing for a continental government for years, and the plan continued to garner widespread support from the 40-odd delegations at the African Union summit that ended on Saturday in Ethiopia’s capital.

Yet even countries facing disputed elections and conflict at home were loath to suggest they would be anything but a leader of the group — even given the lighthearted question of what US state they most resemble. Their responses highlight pecking-order positioning that could keep a federally unified continent from ever becoming a reality.

”Sudan is something like Washington, DC,” said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations. ”Sudan is always a leader. So we want to have the White House of Africa, the Pentagon of Africa.”

Not so fast, Sudan.

Bamanga Tukur, a native of Nigeria and chairperson of the AU’s New Partnership for African Development, gave the honour to Ethiopia, the only African nation to have never been colonised.

”Ethiopia can be Washington,” he said. As for his own, oil-rich nation, Tukur said: ”Nigeria can be Texas. Isn’t that nice?”

But, asked if Addis Ababa — the headquarters of the AU — might some day become the African Beltway, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was similarly cagey. ”That’s in the future,” he said.

Any such future is far away. Everyone agrees that a unified African government could take decades, and would require many nations to make drastic improvements to governance, infrastructure, poverty and education.


But the stickiest issue is power, so most leaders advocate a slow approach that will let them cement their regional ties and position, analysts say.

Others — notably, formerly isolationist Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade — have called for quicker integration, which might favour their more established governments.

”Obviously, power politics are taking place throughout the continent,” said Kenneth Mpyisi, director of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank in Addis Ababa. ”We have various regional powers in different parts of the continent. … They would obviously want to retain a certain amount of power in their sphere of influence.”

Still, presidential candidates are already rumoured. Libya’s Gadaffi, a regional leader with a huge, oil-rich country and aspirations of global statesmanship, passionately argues for bringing Africa together immediately, and recently canvassed West Africa.

While no immediate union came from this week’s summit, Gadaffi did push successfully for a presidential committee that will lay out proposals at a Cairo summit in June. ”I am satisfied,” he said. ”We have reached an agreement today.”

But asked if he aspired to one day be president of the United States of Africa, Gadaffi simply laughed and walked away.

Others were more forthcoming.

Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet, Gabon’s ambassador to the AU, had big dreams for his small, oil-rich coastal nation. Gabon’s foreign minister, after all, was selected as the AU’s new operating chief during the Addis Ababa meeting.

”If we finally reach the goal of the United States of Africa, Gabon will be like California,” he said. ”Why not?”

When it was pointed out to him that, geographically, California would dwarf the West African nation, he smiled.

”Maybe like Los Angeles, then,” he said. — Sapa-AP