It has been more than fifty years since the lofty ideal of a United States of Africa was floated. FRANCE 24 looks at how this dream has panned out.
It was the stuff of dreams, hatched just as Africa was beginning to come out of the shadows of its colonial past. The concept of a United States of Africa conjured up hopes of an awakening continent. Reality, though, got in the way, hampering lofty ideals.
Picture this. The Eritrean city of Asmara is the dynamic federal capital of a prosperous continent. Business flourishes here and in every corner, billboards announce the presence of multinational corporations. McDiop fast-food restaurants and Sarr Mbock coffee shops jostle for the disposable cash of the continent's carefree young folk as they stop for a Hadj Daas ice cream. This is the United States of Africa: A continental federation and a major player in a new order if only it weren’t Djiboutian novelist Abdourahman A. Waberi’s imaginary world . *
It is now more than fifty years since the Pan-African conferences of 1953 and 1958, where independent Ghana’s first leader, Kwame Nkrumah, mooted the idea of a centralised continent-wide government. Today, the “United States of Africa” is just political fiction.
The African continent has been riddled with coup d’états (Mauritania, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger), civil wars (Sudan, Somalia), post-electoral conflicts (Togo, Kenya, Zimbabwe), border spats (Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, Eritrea and Djibouti), and dubious constitutional changes to keep a leader in power for longer. Against this backdrop, it is hard to imagine 53 leaders bringing to life the dream of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
"The plan is stalling because there are too many divergent motivations”, observes Samy Ghorbal, a freelance journalist and specialist in African affairs.
“The United States of Africa made sense right after African countries gained independence, because they were then part of a third world perspective. But today, most countries on the continent have converted to a market economy. So the whole concept needs to be reworked from scratch”.
Still, numerous African leaders don’t see it that way. Libya’s Mouammar Gaddafi leads the way. Excluded from the international scene, the self-proclaimed “King of Kings of Africa” has tirelessly promoted unity for the continent. Gaddafi has pressed for an immediate constitution for the United States of Africa, with mixed results.
Southern African countries ‘very attached’ to their sovereignty
The Libyan colonel succeeded in 2000 in transforming the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (UA), better equipped, in his view, to accelerate the process of integration. But Kadhafi also come up against strong resistance from countries in the south of the continent – mainly South Africa – which favour a more gradual approach.
“These countries acquired their independence late. They are still young and do not want to sacrifice their sovereignty, to which they are very attached, for the sake of African unity”, explains Samy Ghorbal.
Their stance is persuasive. At the Accra summit in July 2007, southern African countries scuppered the thrust for African unity advocated by Gaddafi and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. The summit had planned to establish a calendar for the creation of a centralised African government. After three days of unruly debates and meetings the plan was postponed indefinitely. The “gradualists” also wanted a regional approach to continental unity. They want to reinforce regional integration organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which promote economic growth, peace, and stability all over Africa.
The conflict between the radicals and more moderate pan-Africanists is not a recent one. As early as 1963, the OAU’s painful start pitted radical leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré against the proponents of gradual change like Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
"Everyone agrees with the premise of the United States of Africa. It’s the method that divides people,” explains Samy Ghorbal. “Most presidents don’t want to rush it. But in order to avoid crossing Kadhafi, West African countries prefer to hold their tongues and let their southern neighbours do the protesting. It’s a well-choreographed ballet”.
It remains to be seen, however, if this ballet can find a choreographer to see it through before the dancers tire themselves out.