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African Unity; A Distant Dream?


As they gather in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the African Union, one has to wonder if our political leaders will ever achieve the increasingly elusive dream of uniting the continent and realizing the Union’s hopes of a united Africa by 2028.

Why has integration been a challenge to African leaders? Is it the effects of colonialism, petty ideological struggles and a clash of personalities?

It is all of the above. Genuine attempts at forging a single political and economic behemoth capable of competing in the international arena were initiated most notably by our leader, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and his ideological soul mates, in the post-independence era.  That nothing concrete emerged from their proposals were largely due to the intransigence of Nkrumah’s ideological foes.

Over the last 50 years, however, we have witnessed a gradual softening of attitudes towards the notion of continental integration. Our leaders have realized, however belatedly, that integration of any kind is crucial towards the reduction of poverty and the promotion of prosperity for millions of Africans.

Failure to unite has meant that in international forums and in trade negotiations, Africa speaks with numerous voices much to its disadvantage. Take the case of Africa’s trade relations with China; it has been asserted in several circles that China always has the upper hand in trade negotiations and business deals. However, lost in this discussion is the painful fact that Africa doesn’t go into trade deals with China as a single partner.  Instead, there are numerous partners all purporting to represent Africa, an obvious setback.

Economic integration invariably became a first step towards that noble goal; regional economic groups such as the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Economic Development Community (SAEDC) were created to promote bilateral trade among member states. And the results have been a significant reduction in tariffs and increased growth in cross-border trade.

While economic integration continues to expand opportunities for structural transformation in Africa and a chance for the continent to achieve international competitiveness, political integration remains fleeting for reasons that lie in the political systems inherited from colonial rulers.

In 1963 when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was created, it heralded a pragmatic shift from our colonial past when decisions were made in European capitals and signaled a move towards a future where we could make our own decisions without unwarranted interference from our erstwhile rulers.

However, getting rid of colonialism did not mean we shook off our attachment to its practitioners. At the very least, our Francophone brothers did not jettison their fondness for everything French. And that, frankly, has been the bane of our unity.

Though they won’t readily admit it, French speaking African nations seem to take their marching orders from Paris and this, sadly, has disrupted efforts on numerous occasions to forge political unity. The French eager to exert control over their former colonies oftentimes threaten renegade countries by withholding financial assistance.

Compounding the problem is the seemingly detachment by our North African brothers from any notion of African unity. For one thing, our Arab brothers hardly consider themselves Africans (racism, some say), their geographical location notwithstanding. Not surprisingly, their alliances and loyalties are divided between the Arab League and the African Union.

Of course, there is an immense appetite for unity among our political and economic leaders; the advantages of coming together are just too numerous to ignore. The path towards complete unity is strewn with difficulties, the first of which is the continuous failure of Africa to look pass its colonial era and take decisions that will certainly upset its foreign benefactors. Until our leaders make that bold move, political unity will continue to be a mirage and never attained.




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