Tuesday,22 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Tuesday,22 August, 2017
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The dream of unity

As the African countries gained their independence from European colonial rule in the middle decades of the last century, efforts began to realise the dream of African unity, writes Mahmoud Abul-Enein

The dream of unity
The dream of unity

The dream of African unity was first voiced in the US at the end of the 19th century under the slogan “Africa for the Africans.” A succession of unity conferences and seminars were then held from 1900 to the end of World War II, bringing to the fore young leaders who would eventually be at the forefront of the African national liberation movements.

As the African countries gained their independence from European colonial rule after 1958, efforts were set in motion to realise the dream of African unity. These were spearheaded by such pioneering figures as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta and George Padmore at a time when they were studying in the European colonialist countries of Britain and France.

In 1963, Egypt under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Ethiopia under former emperor Haile Selassie, and other countries managed to overcome the problem of rival regional camps, rally the continent together and create the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). This nascent organisation preserved the independence of its member states while working gradually towards the goal of unity, even though the dream of the founder of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, to create a United States of Africa would remain out of reach.

Nevertheless, unification projects were intermittently advocated within the OAU. In 1963, for example, there was a proposal to create a High African Command in charge of a unified African military. Similar proposals continued to surface during the OAU’s 39-year lifespan; however, they did not materialise due to a lack of sufficient enthusiasm and of the necessary political will among the majority of member states.

But one important trend did ultimately prevail: The drive to African economic unity. This was embodied in the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community (AEC) in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. Entering into effect in 1994, the Treaty aimed to achieve economic unity in six stages over a period of 34 years ending in 2028.

These six stages were, firstly, the establishment of an organisational framework (five years), the creation of regional blocs (eight years), the establishment of a free-trade zone within each regional bloc (10 years), the establishment of a continent-wide customs union (two years), the setting up of an Africa-wide common market (four years), and finally the establishment of a common fiscal system including a single central bank (five years).

In 2002, the African Union (AU) was founded on the foundations of the former OAU, ushering in a new chapter in the history of the Continent. It was epitomised in the launch of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which has evolved into a programme for regional integration.

The Constitutive Act of the AU harmonised well with the international and regional climate at the time, especially with respect to the “new regionalism” that emerged in the post-Cold War era. Also known as the “third wave of regionalism,” this extends beyond economic aspects to embrace security, political and cultural dimensions and it brings on board in addition to national governments civil society organisations, private-sector firms and other non-governmental actors in pan-continental or subsidiary regional initiatives and activities.

In this context, it was also not long before Nkrumah’s dream of a United States of Africa was revived. At the AU Summit meeting in Gambia in 2006, the late Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi proposed the creation of an AU government. He proposed the idea again at the Addis Ababa Summit in January 2007 and at the Accra Summit in July 2007, during which a ministerial committee was created to study the project.

Some West African nations such as Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana enthusiastically came out in support of Al-Gaddafi’s proposal, urging its rapid implementation. Others, such as Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa and Botswana, favoured a gradual approach to unification that would not be bound to a particular timetable but for which certain benchmarks would be established to measure progress.

In the end, the majority of the African nations did not agree to the proposal. Instead, the discussions, including brainstorming sessions by prominent African figures in June 2008, reached a compromise solution that entailed strengthening the AU Commission and the Pan-African Parliament and stimulating efforts to create an African Central Bank, though this has not yet seen the light of day.

While discussions were taking place on an AU government, African leaders also launched another project to mark the golden anniversary of the founding of the OAU: The African social and economic agenda for 2013 to 2063.

Then AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that the Commission had completed its study of regional integration projects in the framework of a ten-year integration plan that put particular focus on certain priority areas including a unified air-transport system, a continental railway network, joint energy projects, a free-trade zone and continental Internet network, a common African passport and a unified strategy for agriculture, forestry, mining and industry.

The trend towards the realisation of the dream of comprehensive African unity has thus taken many steps forward. Prime among them are a new level of economic integration, progress in the reduction of customs duties, and AU efforts to coordinate between the eight main regional blocs during the transition from regional free-trade zones to a pan-African customs union.

The African Free Trade Zone (AFTZ) that was launched at a summit meeting held in Sharm El-Sheikh between the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) and that includes 26 states was another major step in the integration drive. There have also been initiatives aimed at promoting economic and fiscal coordination within the regional blocs, as well as an initiative to develop and promote trans-border trade.

In the area of security and defence, the AU has developed a common security and defence policy and has established mechanisms such as the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) that began work in December 2003. The PSC is supported by a Panel of the Wise (PoW), an African early-warning system, a peacekeeping force and a special Peace Fund to finance the PSC’s activities on the Continent.

The AU has also developed a Common African Defence and Security Policy (CADSP) based on the “Solemn Declaration on a Common African Defence and Security Policy” announced in February 2004 and the AU Non-Aggression and Common Defence Pact adopted in Abuja in January 2005.

Nevertheless, the nations and the peoples of Africa still have a long way to go in realising comprehensive African unity. This process requires a strategic plan that takes into account factors such as the need to realise economic unity first.

It should also be borne in mind that the AU has 55 member states, Morocco being the last to join. These countries cover an area larger than that of the US, Europe and China combined. Contrary to what some may believe, such a vast area cannot be placed under a single federal system, especially given the determination of the overwhelming majority of these countries to preserve their national sovereignty and independence.

But what these countries can do is to increase their Continent’s capacities in crisis and conflict management and above all its powers to combat terrorism. They should work together to coordinate their policies more closely and to place Africa’s interests and the well-being of its internal relations above all other considerations.

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