Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Time for African unity

By Gamal Nkrumah

African leaders have no time to play nice, polite parlour games. Anything short of single-minded determination and an uncompromising political will simply perpetuates the underdevelopment of the continent, the denigration of the African, and all the other evils accumulated during centuries of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. Half-hearted resolutions, hypocritical posturing and mild reforms of the charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) are no longer enough to pull the wool over people's eyes. For most, the moderate and tortuously slow path hitherto adopted by the majority of their leaders who claimed to be dealing with the continent's horrendous socio-economic and political problems is no longer acceptable.

The stakes of the game are high: if Africa fails to unite, it faces continued subjection to the forces of globalisation. The industrialised nations have no intention of willingly giving up the privileges and powers they enjoy under the present global economic and political order. Even now, they are cementing their already formidable might by closing ranks to create ever larger and more integrated regional economic blocs. In this new scheme of things, Africa will inevitably be pushed even further towards the periphery, reduced to an utterly dependent appendage of Europe and/or America.

Yet by uniting, the continent can exercise increasing control over its destiny, effectively harness the potential of its vast resources to the benefit of all its peoples and thus fulfil the aspirations of the long-suffering African masses. This was the message which Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gaddafi was eager to impress on his colleagues who gathered for the extraordinary OAU summit meeting in the central Libyan seaside city of Sirte on 8-9 September 1999. The summit coincided with celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the Fateh Revolution that toppled the Libyan monarchy, nationalised the country's oil industry and closed down British and American bases on Libyan territory -- at the time, the largest such military facilities in the Mediterranean basin.

OAU summit
African leaders pose for a family picture at the start of the extraordinary session of the OAU summit
No fewer than 45 African heads of state attended the Sirte Summit. Most, one sensed, instinctively knew that Gaddafi had a point. Many came to pay tribute to his long-enduring fortitude in the face of American attempts to humble his country through seven years of international sanctions. It was the African countries which led the way in ignoring those sanctions, and over the past couple of years Tripoli has played host to an ever increasing number of visits from regional heads of state, as well as economic and trade delegations.

Despite this familiarity, most of his fellow leaders seemed utterly bewildered as Gaddafi made it crystal clear that he had no intention of engaging in the "outdated and meaningless language" so common at OAU summit meetings. "Granted, things are bad, but we cannot move hastily. Unity is best built gradually," the moderates say. But Gaddafi has no time for such procrastination, and instead urged his colleagues to opt for a fast-track to continental union. "Time is running out," he warned.

Like my father Kwame Nkrumah before him, Gaddafi rejects the language of moderation and compromise. He knows that the go-slow rhetoric is dangerous. In Sirte, he lashed out against those who profess to favour African unity and yet deprecate any moves to bring it quickly about, on the grounds that the national sovereignty of individual states would have to be sacrificed.

Gaddafi says that his aim is to offer a framework. He is calling for broad experimentation in the context of unity as a guiding concept. Yet he did not hesitate to state his objective as defining and encouraging a new consciousness among Africa's decision-makers which will make it possible for the continent to proceed swiftly toward real effective unity. For the Libyan leader, African unity has clearly become a blueprint for survival.

Gaddafi called for the creation of the United States of Africa, or at least an African Union similar, but not identical, to the European Union. "No, we do not want to catch up with anyone. What we want to do is go forward. Always forward, as your late father so eloquently put it," Gaddafi told me.

Gaddafi wants to see Africa carve out a place for itself in the new world order. Taking up the baton, he has made Nkrumah's old battle cry -- "Africa must unite" -- his own. Will the other African leaders now rise to the challenge? Judging from the radically-worded resolution issued by the summit meeting, Gaddafi would seem to have won the first round, with a majority of his colleagues -- including, notably, South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as the heads of a host of other smaller African states -- whole-heartedly backing his initiative. However, there was still a vociferous minority urging caution -- albeit behind closed doors. Some delegates complained that unity cannot be rushed through using arm-twisting tactics, arguing in favour of the "proper procedures". But, a majority supported Gaddafi's arguments. As a result, it was unanimously agreed in Sirte that the African Union be established by 2001. In addition, those present also vowed to establish an African continental parliament, an African supreme court, an African common market based on the principles already agreed upon in the 1991 Abuja Treaty, and a common African currency and monetary union.

Follow-up OAU ministerial meetings are now expected, with the possibility of another extraordinary summit next year. It is estimated that the Sirte summit cost Libya some $50 million. While most delegations averaged around 25 individuals, some like the Gabonese delegation totalled 75. Libya also pledged a $200 million grant to UNESCO to support 250,000 scholarships for African students.

It was an honour not only to be present at this extraordinary meeting, but also to be myself, for one brief moment, the focus of its attentions. That moment came when Patrice Lumemba's son, Roland, and myself were called upon to be decorated with Libya's new Africa Award. Gaddafi clasped our hands significantly, then stormed triumphantly out of the Conference Centre in Sirte, leading us out with him, one on either side. It was a deliberately dramatic and symbolic gesture, characteristic of Libya's charismatic leader. For it was at once his way of paying tribute to the OAU's founding fathers, and a reminder to all and sundry that he is following in the footsteps of our fathers and their revolutionary tradition. Who now could doubt that he espouses fully their vision of a free and united Africa?

   Top of page
Front Page