Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Ready for Renaissance

By Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal NkrumahThe three-day Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit meeting that took place from 3 to 5 July in the Togolese capital Lomé is far more than a peg on which to hang a news story. African heads of state meet with monotonous regularity to produce final communiqués and churn out some warm, maybe even heated, words -- and nothing else. But I must say at once that the OAU's very survival, against all odds, is a triumph in its own right -- the thread of contextual, historical continuity is an important theme too.

But mere existence is no longer sufficient to keep the wheels of Pan-African unity turning. Instead of going over old ground, Africa's leaders must now face with brutal honesty the full import of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's call to launch the federal United States of Africa by 2001 -- an idea he raised at the extraordinary OAU summit in September 1999, held in Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace. The idea of African continental unity was first mooted by Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah at the very inception of the OAU in 1963. Almost four decades later, such unity would indeed be an authentic African miracle. Short of such a dramatic turnaround, the continent is quite frankly doomed.

The signs are that this cobbled-together annual exercise will cease to have any meaningful relevance to Africa's advancement if African leaders continue in their sheep-like refusal to muster the political will to unite. The founding fathers deliberately chose to use the word "unity" in the organisation's appellation. If anything is wrong today, it is emphasis rather than principle -- and that, of course, can be changed.

The challenge is enormous, but Africa must not allow this opportunity to slip. Africa is in the throes of a thorough-going change -- not always for the better. Well-meaning, but weak-willed resolutions will not do. The hideous whirl of dramatic events shaking the continent -- the AIDS pandemic, abject poverty, under-development, mass illiteracy, and armed conflicts -- must be resolved.

One wonders if the quest for the United States of Africa will ever evolve out of being an ideological holy grail. Many of Gaddafi's supporters admit that African unity is a very tall order. "The principle has been adopted, but we think that we must go step by step," declared Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Huge hurdles remain to be crossed, but it is at least theoretically possible for Africa to unite. Yet there are those who secretly wish that the clarion call for African continental unity has run its course and will cease to dominate proceedings at OAU summits.

No other continent in recent times has so frequently suffered bone-chilling catastrophes and such a string of debilitating setbacks and disappointments. No other continent is so shackled by its horrendous past and yet this same continent, markedly more than any other, has also amply demonstrated the tough resilience of its long-suffering people. And never has this strength been so inspiringly and symbolically embodied in the person of former South African President Nelson Mandela and his resounding triumph over racism, injustice and apartheid.

Poverty remains Africa's Achilles heel. There is bound to be political instability as long as grinding poverty grips the continent. "The world's biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering across the globe, including South Africa, is extreme poverty," said South African President Thabo Mbeki at the opening of the 13th International AIDS Conference, taking place this week from 9 to 14 July in Durban, South Africa. Mbeki, who travelled from Durban to Togo to attend the OAU summit, was one of a handful of African leaders to turn up in Lomé for the OAU summit.

Many African leaders, such as Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Namibia's Sam Njoma and Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, boycotted the OAU summit, ostensibly to snub its host. Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema tops a recently-released name-and-shame report sponsored by the United Nations implicating some African leaders as profitting from the illicit diamond trade that has stoked the flames of African civil wars. Still, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo -- a shining example of Africa's rising democratic environment -- came to the Lomé summit. A former military ruler, Obasanjo stepped down and did an about face last year, when he ran as a civilian presidential candidate.

Other African leaders who chose to stay away from Lomé were Liberia's Charles Taylor (also named in the UN report), Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and General Robert Guei, military ruler of the Ivory Coast. In an unprecedented remark, OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim said that Guei would not be welcome in Lomé. Former Ivorian President Henri Konan-Bedie, whom Guei ousted in a military coup on Christmas Day 1999, now lives in exile in Lomé.

Abject poverty systematically engenders extreme political instability. It is naive to expect countries plagued with social and economic ills on the scale experienced in Africa to run as smoothly and efficiently as Western-style democratic systems. It would be childish to insist that they do so.

In any case, Africa, in spite of its many challenges has come a long way since the heady days of dictatorships. If anything, Africa has a serious image problem. Few Western governments are willing to recognise that barely a handful of the despised and megalomaniac leaders, largely created by Cold War superpower rivalries, survive today. Which is not to deny that a good number of African leaders who claim democratic legitimacy through the ballot box first came to power through the barrel of the gun. But the vast majority of African leaders today can claim a vestige of electoral legitimacy, even if their democratic credentials are questioned in Washington, London and Paris.

There is only one African country south of the Sahara that is still a one-party state: Eritrea. There is also a non-party state -- Uganda, which just happens to be one of the United States' staunchest allies and a favourite of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The vast majority of African leaders are today democratically elected. The exceptions to the rule are Burkina Faso, Chad, the Comoros, the two Congos, the Ivory Coast and Somalia, which has not had a central government for over a decade. As the cases of Liberia and Zimbabwe clearly illustrate, however, being democratically elected does not necessarily endear an African government to the West. Serving Western interests most certainly does.

It is preposterous for Western governments to habitually measure African politics by Western yardsticks. Western observers and officials should put themselves to the rigour of adducing evidence in support of their more risible theories concerning the continent's predicament before they pronounce sweeping judgements.

"One of the greatest mistakes which has been made by political commentators today is to judge us [Africans] on the same basis by which you [the West] judge opinion makers in advanced industrial countries," former South African President Nelson Mandela said during a trip to Britain earlier this year. Madela spoke of "poverty" and the "hardness of existence", and when an African leader of Mandela's stature singles out another African leader, Gaddafi, with unbridled acclaim, the world ought to take heed.

Sporting billowing African robes and arriving at the head of a convoy of over 300 buses and four-wheel drives, Gaddafi pitched his tent at a beachfront hotel in the Togolese capital overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The Libyan leader had taken the overland route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, passing through Niger, Burkina Faso and Ghana before triumphantly entering Togo with much aplomb. The Togolese received him warmly, with much dancing and festivities -- after all, he was the one footing the bill of the Lomé summit, just as he did with the 1998 Ouagadougou OAU summit. The question now uppermost in Africa-watchers' minds is whether Libyan largesse is sufficient to stitch together the patchwork of disparate states we call Africa.

All wrapped up in the armoury of the past, Gaddafi has set his eye on the future of the continent, while still fighting in the battlefields of today. "Africa must unite," he declared, echoing Nkrumah in African gatherings past. Famous Gaddafi expletives aside, he is a skilled networker who does his best work behind the scenes. Still, it is far too early to tell whether he can pull this one off.

Nay-sayers argue that it is too late for an African federation of the kind envisioned by Nkrumah in 1963. But Italy and Germany did not exist as unified nations until the late 19th century and today, Europe is seriously talking about consolidating its economic and political union.

Gaddafi has now become indelibly associated with the simple injunction: Africa must unite. With exquisite timing, he raises the urgent issue of African unity and it has immediately made itself a matter of controversy. Gaddafi's single-mindedness is both extraordinary and a refreshing change from those who cringe and cower at the prospects of a real bid for unity.

The OAU's tendency to take fright at shadows must be redressed. African leaders in Lomé politely listened, as they have before, but Gaddafi's call for African unity has unfortunately unwrapped political bandages and exposed ghastly, suppurating old wounds. The ideological disciples of the leaders who thwarted Nkrumah's dream of African unity now want to ruin Gaddafi's plans.

It's every African leader for himself at the moment. Differences between African leaders arise over major principles and not only over minor plans or programmes. Alongside his hard-nosed and dogged determination, Gaddafi has clearly taken to Mbeki and Mandela's notion of an African Rennaissance, arguing that African unity is the only milieu in which it could blossom and bloom. It has taken him a little time to get into the stride of this new African-centred role, but he has seized it with both hands and shouted louder than many African leaders before him.

As Mandela recently explained, "The vision expressed in the idea of the African Rennaissance is that of the reconstruction and development of an Africa in which people's lives are constantly and rapidly improving toward standards broadly in line with the best in the world." In making his pragmatic shift from Arab nationalism to Pan-Africanism a couple of years ago, Gaddafi must have made at least an informed guess as to where the continent is headed.

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