It has been more than fifty years since the lofty ideal of a United States of Africa was mooted. In 1958, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, first introduced the idea of a continental union government, saying that the emergence of such a mighty stabilising force in this strife-torn world should be regarded not as the faraway dream of a visionary, but as a practical proposition which the peoples of Africa should translate into reality. ‘We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late,’ he declared.
It was the stuff of dreams, hatched just as Africa was beginning to come out of the shadows of its colonial past. The concept of a United States of Africa conjured up hopes of an awakening continent. Reality, though, got in the way, hampering the lofty ideals. Now Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has assumed Nkrumah’s mantle, tenaciously campaigning for a United States of Africa, saying it is the only way Africa can develop without western interference.
Picture this. The Eritrean city of Asmara is the dynamic federal capital of a prosperous continent. Business flourishes here and in every corner, billboards announce the presence of multinational corporations. McDiop fast-food restaurants and Sarr Mbock coffee shops jostle for the disposable cash of the continent’s carefree young folk as they stop for a Hadj Daas ice cream. This is the United States of Africa as described in Djiboutian novelist Abdourahman A. Waberi’s imaginary world.
But the United States of Africa is seen by many as just a political fiction. The plan is stalling because there are too many divergent motivations. The United States of Africa made sense right after African countries gained independence, because they were then part of a third world perspective. But today, most countries on the continent have converted to a market economy. So the whole concept needs to be reworked from scratch. Still, numerous African leaders like Gaddafi don’t see it that way and have pressed for an immediate constitution for the United States of Africa, with mixed results. Though Gaddafi was instrumental in transforming the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (UA) in 2000, better equipped, in his view, to accelerate the process of integration, he has come up against strong resistance from countries in the south of the continent – mainly South Africa – which favour a more gradual approach.
Their stance is persuasive. At the Accra summit in July 2007, southern African countries scuppered the thrust for African unity advocated by Gaddafi and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. The summit had planned to establish a calendar for the creation of a centralised African government. After three days of unruly debate and meetings the plan was postponed indefinitely. The ‘gradualists’ also wanted a regional approach to continental unity. The then South African president, Thabo Mbeki famously said, ’before you put a roof on a house, you need to build the foundations.’ They want to reinforce regional integration organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) or the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) which promote economic growth, peace, and stability all over Africa.
The conflict between the radicals and more moderate pan-Africanists is not a recent one. As early as 1963, the OAU’s painful start pitted radical leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré against the proponents of gradual change like Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
But the concept is definitely something to aim for. It is a worthwhile endeavour for the future. However, our leaders have a lot of work to do to get to that point. It took years for the European Union to be what it is today. But to turn the dream of a US of Africa into a viable reality, the key countries like Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa should be politically and economically strong, with the appropriate regional infrastructure projects in place. Until that momentum is gathered, we cannot talk about a proper union. There are signs for hope. Freedom of expression and freedom of movement have increased across practically the whole continent, and democracy is gaining an ever-increasing foothold.
From the sceptics’ perspective, the whole idea is a pipe-dream, given the tendency of the continent’s leaders to cling on to power. It would be nice to travel from Accra to any other African city without requiring a visa. ‘You know Africa’s leaders, they are so power-hungry and they don’t want to lose any of their privileges. I don’t feel they would feel secure having a continental president,’ a colleague of mine told me. But I feel strongly that in a world of increasing globalisation, where the small guys often get drowned out by the bigger players, especially on issues such as trade, the only way for the continent to prosper is to unite.
Former AU head Alpha Konare said in Accra in 2007, ‘the battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for our generation – the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa.’ And I agree. It is a battle worth fighting if Africa is to forge ahead, economically and socially and become a veritable player in the global village.