The African heads of state met this week in Addis Ababa to mark the 50th Anniversary of the African Union. looking back during the last 50 years they need to assess the road the AU has travelled and where it might be going in the next 50 years.
Started as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), its original aim, as Kwame Nkrumah rightly put it, was to unite Africa within our life time. Dialo Telli, the Guinean first Secretary General of the OAU, believed strongly in this mission, and was an effective Pan Africanist during his tenure at the head of the organisation.
But the profile of the OAU, now AU, has gradually declined over the years across the continent. This is not to say that the organisation has not achieved much; it has some notable accomplishments that have promoted conflict resolution among warring states at certain times. But the goal of union or unity still remains elusive, much to the disappointment of the people of Africa who could have been much better off today were Nkrumah's dream to be realised in our life time.
What, however, makes unity so elusive in our continent?
In 1963 it would have been much easier for the young African nations to come together politically than it is today. At that point in time, individual sovereignty was still a new thing; leaders were not yet fully wedded to it. After some years, and after tasting the sweetness of power, it became more and more difficult for each head of state to give up this power to somebody else. That is just the reality of life.
Secondly, soon after independence, there were many more idealists supporting Pan Africanism within the corridors of power than we have today. Those who attend AU meetings these days go there as mere technocrats even when they are heads of states. Not too long ago we had four idealists as heads of state who tried to awaken the spirit of Pan-Africanism in what they called the African Renaissance and NEPAD (the New Partnership for Africa's Development). These three heads of state were Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Buteflika of Algeria, Abdoulaye Wad of Senegal and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.
With the departure of these four from power the new idealism in the unity of Africa seems to have substantially subsided. It is difficult to see who is now in the horizon to champion this spirit, or to drive those in power to take more serious steps towards breaking down the borders that keep us apart. This is important: the force of political unity will do much more in promoting social and economic transformation of the continent than the technocratic belief in the many regional integration projects scattered around the continent.
That, however, is not to belittle or to disregard regional integration. But all of us will agree that Europe under the European Union, complete with a European Parliament, has achieved much more than when it was a mere economic community. Yet Europe is much richer than Africa. Going across the Atlantic we shall find out that the USA discovered this formula much earlier than everybody else and became a world power to reckon with. The power of China also lies in the unity of its provinces into one very powerful nation of over a billion people. The emerging power of India equally lies in its size and the number of people brought together by the unity of the various Indian states.
The African Union will do Africans a great service if it seriously rekindled the discourse on African unity. We do, of course, have some real problems looking at the leadership on the continent at the moment. There is hardly any head of state who stands talk among his or her colleagues. There is hardly any head of state with the moral authority to inspire others the way Nkrumah, Nyerere and Mandela would have done it. Thabo Mbeki and Obasanjo came very closely to being such inspirational leaders, obviously taking advantage of the size and power of their own countries. But they were in power for too short a time to make their influence and intellectual hegemony last. Although Nkrumah was not in power for much longer, but his influence predated his years as head of state, hence the tremendous impact he had as the oracle behind the spirit of Pan Africanism.
Are we therefore, as Africans, doomed for quite a long time to come, to see our continent languish in underdevelopment due to the long delay in coming together as a viable political force in a united Africa? Whatever the case, the dream must be kept alive. The worst thing is to give up. We must keep on lighting the candle of unity however dark the night is. One of these days, even on the back of these regional initiatives, something will come up.
Political parties, in each African country, however heavy their respective domestic agendas are, should have commitment to Pan Africanism. It is quite clear that the discourse on Pan Africanism is hardly present in many African countries, worst of all among political parties. We are therefore our own enemies. We cannot expect our leaders to take up an agenda towards which we "the people" show little concern.
The real beginning should be with our education system. What is imprinted in a child's mind will remain with that child all his or her life. Within the AU there needs to be a department of African education advising African governments on Pan African syllabi in schools, from primary schools onwards. In the American education system learning about the USA begins from kindergarten. People therefore learn to become Americans very early. If we want to make Pan Africanism a reality, we must create Pan Africanists in our education system.