The US of Africa: a step-by-step trek

Godwin Nnanna
9 July 2007

One of the most fundamental questions that nation-states in the modern world have to address in every attempt to forge unity is the extent to which they are willing to cede sovereign powers. The next perhaps, is what institutional form such unity should take. These issues formed the nucleus of the deliberations at the Accra summit of the African Union (AU) on 1-3 July 2007.

The quest for unity on the African continent is not a new phenomenon. The dream of a united African has been alive since the days of struggle for independence. It's been an abiding yearning; even though the Accra summit failed to establish a timeline, leading the chair of the AU commission (the equivalent of Josè Manuel Barroso in the European Union) to say that "we shouldn't hide the fact that we ended up, after a difficult and sometimes painful debate, in a kind of confusion."

African unity is an aspiration that was first championed by Africans outside the continent during the colonial era. The pan-African movements in the United States, Britain and the Caribbean called and campaigned for one Africa; prominent leaders of that campaign included Marcus Garvey, Henry Sylvester-Williams and WEB du Bois.

Godwin Nnanna is the Accra correspondent of Business Day Nigeria. He was a 2006 gold medallist in the UN Foundation Prize for humanitarian and development reporting.

He has also contributed articles for ChinaDialogue.net and has at different times reported from New York, Dubai and South Africa

Also by Godwin Nnanna in openDemocracy:

"Ghana: fifty years of independence" (6 March 2007)

"Democracy in Nigeria: the road less travelled" (28 March 2007)

"Nigeria: the real democratic test" (20 April 2007)

The dream of unity

Most of Africa's freedom-fighters were schooled in Europe and America and eventually brought the campaign home to Africa. Foremost among them is Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah, who sought to put the idea of a united Africa on the agenda even as he struggled for the independence of Ghana. Nkrumah made Accra the rallying-point for both campaigns. That is one of the things that made the July 2007 AU summit very significant. Fifty years after Ghana's independence and forty-two years after a similar summit was held in Accra, the issue of a union government for Africa again resonates.

Kwame Nkrumah hosted the third summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, predecessor of the African Union), in October 1965 in Accra. In coordinating the first major debate on union government, Nkrumah anticipated that he might elicit strong commitment from his fellow African leaders. For him, all that was needed to give birth to such a union was political courage on the leaders' part. To demonstrate his own commitment to the ideal, his government left a proviso in Ghana's constitution that made for the full or partial surrender of the country's sovereignty to an all-African union.

However, only a few of his contemporaries were - as they are now - willing to embrace the idea of a continent-wide political union into which the various individual states were to be subsumed. Nkrumah argued in front of his fellow heads of state for speed and urgency: "Those who argue that the time is not ripe or that the difficulties are too great for the establishment of a continental union government are not recognising the imperative needs of the African continent or the overwhelming wishes and desires of the masses of the people of Africa."

One of those who came to share Nkrumah's sentiments was the president of Tanzania - Julius Nyerere. In an anniversary speech he delivered at Ghana's fortieth independence anniversary in 1997, Nyerere noted: "Unity will not make us rich, but it can make it difficult for Africa and the African peoples to be disregarded and humiliated. My generation led Africa to political freedom. The current generation of leaders and peoples of Africa must pick up the flickering torch of African freedom, refuel it with their enthusiasm and determination and carry it forward."

In light of such sentiments, it is clear that the clamour for a continental government has seen a generational shift. Today the leading voice behind it is Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. He left the Accra summit apparently a disappointed man as he was unable to garner the support of the "gradualist" school led by South Africa and Nigeria, two of the continent's leading economies, whose consent would be crucial in actualising the unity dream.

Gaddafi had begun his journey to Accra a week before the summit with a lengthy drive by road through the deserts. He toured five west African countries with one message - unity now or never. "At the Accra summit we are going to get straight to the point. Let those who are hesitating, get out of our way", he had told a rally in Conakry. "For forty years all the summits have failed. Our micro-states have no future without a united Africa", he said.

Gaddafi won strong support from Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and his Senegalese counterpart Abdoulaye Wade. The latter (according to his foreign minister, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio) came to the summit with a ready pen. "Senegal is willing to partially or totally abandon its sovereignty to become part and parcel of a pan-African government", Gadio said.

The reality of progress

But some observers see the contemporary driving-force of a United States of Africa as part of the problem. The credibility of the idea's key proponents, they argue, leaves much to be desired. Gaddafi, for example, is one of the world's longest serving dictators ("wrong salesman for a wonderful product", says Omar D Kalinge-Nnyago. The human-rights record of Mugabe is about the worst on the continent. Even the AU's incumbent chairman, Ghana's John Kufuor, whose predecessor Nkrumah pioneered the struggle, doesn't look so passionate about it though Ghana has always been favourably disposed to the notion.

Also on the African Union in openDemocracy:

Wilf Mbanga, "The African Union: what's in a name" (27 January 2006)

In addition to Nigeria's traditional gradualist posture, the new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, still has to face a credibility battle. He doesn't even seem to know how long his internal challenge would last, let alone the final result; so an aggressive foreign policy looks totally out of the question. Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, on the other hand, sees the whole idea as uncalled for. He believes "Africa is too diverse for one government" and instead prefers "economic integration".

The concerns of figures such as Museveni lead some heads of state to argue that the European Union model offers a better alternative for African than a federation in the nature of the United States of America. Gaddafi is adamantly opposed to this; he explicitly rejected the EU model of integration, stating that "for a hundred years now, we have been calling for the United States of Africa to be patterned on the United States of America and not Europe."

The diverse views voiced at Accra are difficult to reconcile, and reflect the fact that the complications in the journey towards "African union" go beyond the mere reluctance of some countries to join an established process. True, the idea looks attractive in a world that is increasingly witnessing redefinitions of the concept of sovereignty to meet the challenges of globalisation and integration, but the practical translation of the idea into a larger economic and political union involves a huge series of incremental moves that must each be carefully weighed.

For the foreseeable future, then, it seems that the continent is left with only one option: what the chief host of the summit, President Kufuor, called the "step-by-step approach". That approach is captured in the communiqué of the summit whose decisions include agreement to:

▪ accelerate the economic and political integration of the African continent

▪ rationalise and strengthen the regional economic communities, and harmonise their activities, in conformity with earlier decision, so as to lead to the creation of an African common market

▪ establish a ministerial committee to examine key practical areas of implementation of the union government concept in relation to states, regional blocs and funding requirements.

The agenda remains ambitious. It can only be furthered if the vital ingredient of shared political will is in place.

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