/ 22 May 2014

African unity still a pipe dream

Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie
Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie


In 1978 Jamaican reggae artist Hugh Mundell had a hit single called Africa Must Be Free by 1983, with its chorus saying: “I think it’s time/ For us to live a better life, yeah/ Freedom is what we want in Africa.”

If the “freedom” he had in mind included a united Africa free of war, he never saw it – ironically, Mundell was shot and killed in 1983 at the age of 21. Decades on, there is still no sign of his high hopes coming true.

This weekend the continent celebrates Africa Day, 51 years after the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, or OAU (later the African Union, or AU), on May 25 1963. African unity is still far off; the AU’s current initiative for continental unity is unambitiously called Agenda 2063.

To celebrate Africa Day, more than 100 academics and scholars from around the continent are gathering in Pretoria this weekend for a three-day discussion on all aspects of African unity – from the well-known “African solutions to African problems” and economic integration to preserving African culture.

Former OAU secretary general Salim Ahmed Salim will deliver the fifth annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day lecture on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the founding of the OAU.

Last bastions
The founding fathers of the OAU – the likes of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere – aimed to unite Africa and destroy the last bastions of colonial rule.

Yet, although a lot has been done, analysts lament the lack of real progress towards a united Africa. The huge economic injection from average gross domestic product growth rates of 5% and 6% over the past few years, which some label “Africa rising”, is not being used effectively to integrate the continent.

In addition, African leaders are accused of being too focused on staying in power in their own countries to forge strong continental partnerships.

Some recall the solid working relationships that existed between leaders at the start of the AU in 2002, notably between Mbeki and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. The pair was the driving force behind the now near-defunct New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

Talk at the AU is now focused on the organisation’s Agenda 2063, spearheaded by AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Some say the plan pushes the deadline for integration too far into the future.

“Efforts to create real African integration have not at all measured up, given the promises made,” says Cameroonian writer and scholar Professor Achille Mbembe.

‘Freedom of movement’
For Mbembe, of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, African integration means “freedom of movement of people, goods and ideas to constitute a truly pan-African public space”.

“For Africa to really have an impact and play its rightful role in the world, we have to get rid of colonial borders,” he said. “Otherwise we will forever sit with these small, fragmented and parcelled-out little states that don’t have any impact at all.”

Mbembe admits integration won’t happen overnight. “These things are the result of battles over long periods of time,” he says. “We have to open up the continent by stages [and] open it up to itself, but also to the rest of the world. We should favour immigration from within Africa, but also make it attractive to immigration from the rest of the world: the Chinese, the Indians and others.”

He believes integration will be the only way for Africa to get out of the current crisis, marked by “economic wars” and new conflicts such as the terror threats in Nigeria and Kenya.

“There is an arch of instability all the way from Nigeria through to the Red Sea,” he says. “We also have the Central African Republic that has imploded, Mali that struggles to stay afloat, the Democratic Republic of Congo that is the soft underbelly of the continent and the painful birth of South Sudan.”

Unnecessary tragedies
Africa is a large continent blessed with ample natural resources, yet young Africans risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean to live as illegal immigrants in Europe. “Tragedies like Lampedusa shouldn’t be happening,” Mbembe says, referring to the Italian island off Sicily where thousands of migrants are stranded annually after failed attempts to enter Europe clandestinely. Last year more than 300 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea died when their boat capsized near Lampedusa.

Africans must mobilise among themselves to realise unity, he adds. “African men and women should take responsibility and not leave their future in the hands of leaders or foreign powers,” says Mbembe.

Like many other commentators, he laments the attitude of African leaders who turn to outsiders for help.

He says it was almost “surrealistic” to see heads of state travelling to Paris this past weekend to try to solve the issue of militant group Boko Haram. Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan “appeared like a preacher on the steps of the Élysée Palace in Paris” after he had cancelled a visit to Chibok in northeastern Nigeria where more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped last month. This was shortly before he travelled to France.

Hardly anything has been heard from the AU on the Boko Haram threat. Mbembe says one cannot blame France for meddling in African affairs. France steps in where there is a need and a “moral and intellectual vacuum”, he says. “This is a leadership corroded by corruption.”

Tourist presidents
He also criticises the attitude of Cameroonian President Paul Biya, who, he says, spends most of his time in Europe and “visits Cameroon every now and then like a tourist”.

Professor Mammo Muchie, one of the organisers of the Africa Day celebrations, says African scholars agree the “scramble for Africa” was a mistake and that current borders were cynically drawn by outsiders at the 1884 Berlin Conference.

“We would have expected leaders, when they formed the OAU in 1963, to reject these borders and unite the continent, but now we have rules and laws that legalise these mistakes,” says Muchie, of the Tshwane University of Technology’s Institute for Economic Research on Innovation.

“Africa has gone through what no other continent has gone through. For Africa to recover its freedom, force and dignity, it [will] also give back the dignity to all of humanity.”

He believes leaders are dragging their feet on integration. In 2007, when Ghana celebrated 50 years of independence, the main issue on the agenda was of a United States of Africa. “What the AU is now saying is we want unity in 2063. They can’t use the jubilee [the 50th anniversary of the OAU/AU celebrated last year] to postpone it,” he says.

Good example
Muchie says South Africa’s peaceful transition after the end of apartheid should be an example to the rest of the continent. “You just had an election with a lot of battles, but they were all fought verbally,” he says.

As an Ethiopian, he is proud of South Africa’s moral and spiritual achievement, he says. But South Africa should play a greater role in stimulating integration in Africa. “We need powerful ideas.”

Muchie is, like Mbembe, disappointed by Nigeria’s decision to hold talks about Boko Haram in Paris. “Why don’t they come to Pretoria? Instead they go to Europe to talk.”

Muchie believes a united Africa should put human rights first, including gender, race and language rights. Much more should be done to educate Africans about the continent’s potential and why it is crucial to work together, he says.

M&G launches pan-African platform
M&G Media launched Mail & Guardian Africa in Kenya this week. M&G Africa aims to be the leading contemporary voice on African issues, with news analysis, insight, commentary and investigative journalism as its hallmarks. Its digital news and information portal, mgafrica.com, was launched on May 1 and the M&G Africa head office in Nairobi was officially opened this week. From the Nairobi office, editor Charles Onyango-Obbo will lead a team of African journalists and editors operating across the continent.