It is like the annual Muslin pilgrimage to Mecca. So if you are a great believer in rituals go out tomorrow and join the other believers in celebrations. I hope I’m not being unduly critical of the African unity agenda either regionally or continentally. But what has changed?
Yes, in Southern Africa, we have changed the name of the Southern African Coordination Conference to Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1992, in the high altitude city of Windhoek. And we did the same with the Organisation of African Unity when we changed it to the African Union (AU) in 2002, in the coastal city of Durban. But stubbornly, I might still insist that things haven’t altered because despite the name changes, Southern Africa and indeed Africa itself, is still far from being integrated or united.
There is neither an integrated SADC nor is there a united Africa with a union government. In the case of SADC, we were told that by 2008 the region would have a Free Trade Area – reducing or eliminating tariffs or relaxing non-tariff barriers to the movement of goods and services. This has not happened as yet after years of SADC existence. In the case of the African Union, African leaders have been talking about African unity and a union government for the ‘United States of Africa’ since the formation of the original OAU in 1963 in Addis Ababa. Thus Kwame Nkrumah’s urgings for a union have been in vain so far.
Thus any serious discussion of the problems facing the integration or unity agenda in the region and in Africa must involve a process of restructuring the African reality itself. This reality, however, can be very complex and re-sculpting it produces its own sets of blinkers and ideological predispositions. And these predispositions affect the way we see, describe and understand the problems that faces post-colonial Africa and its various projects whether at the national, regional or continental levels.
I therefore argue here that the integration and unity-talk is essentially following the same political trajectory that pertains at the national level of the various African countries themselves. Unless one addresses the national question first, one cannot hope to move on to the higher ground – which is the regional level – SADC, COMESA, ECOWAS, EAC. The example of the European Union is instructive here.
There was no blanket admission to the Union in Europe. Some countries were required to put their houses in order first before they could seek membership. In Africa, any system goes, however. Proceeding from that perspective, one can legitimately argue that as time elapses, as the post-colonial period lengthens and African societies rediscover their past, then the significance of nationalist politics becomes less significant. We are witnessing it here in Namibia where identity politics (read tribal politics) is taking root. Thus if individual countries themselves aren’t united internally how can they unite at the regional and eventually at the continental level?
As contestations of conflicting hopes and theories, the analyses are sometimes controversial and inconclusive for we are dealing with fundamental historical debates about African histories, its past and future, as constructions and reconstructions, prognoses and mysterious visions that would define the future. And that future is very much murky.
Thus in the twilight of the century that witnessed the end of colonialism half a century ago on the continent (Ghana in 1957, for example) and the end of apartheid in 1994, many Africans were hoping that a new Africa was being created in our presence. But, unfortunately most people, including many Africanists and African scholars themselves, forgot that we were inheriting colonial institutions that had no resonance with Africa’s pre-colonial past – its histories, culture and institutions.
The problem in Africa, despite the heavy weight of colonialism and traditions, is that you have countries pulling in different political directions basically failing to agree on anything. They failed to agree or act during the crisis in Libya. And how about the looming war between Sudan and South Sudan?
And what are African leaders doing? Basically nothing until the ‘imperialists’ intervene to save lives. How about the case of Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe has been defying all the SADC political agreements and protocols?
Indeed, where was Africa, the OAU, in 1994 when a horrified world was watching the unrelenting brutality of the violence that was unfolding during the Rwandan tragedy where close to one million Africans were brutally killed? Thus unless the various African countries get their political kingdoms in order first (to paraphrase Kwame Nkrumah) talk of regional integration and continental unity might falter.