Opinionista Simon Allison 25 January 2013

Pan-Africanism: An idea whose time has come, and gone

Here we go again. Another African Union summit, another ode to joys of pan-Africanism, which, if you didn’t know already, is the solution to all of Africa’s problems: the bringer of prosperity, the solver of conflict, the builder of infrastructure and the maintainer of stability. Not at all bad for a theoretical concept, that has rarely existed except in the lofty eloquence of our leaders and intellectuals.

This time Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was leading the chorus of Pan-African praise-singers as she revels in her new role as chairwoman of the continental (dis)organisation’s secretariat, the African Union Commission (AUC). She delivered her first keynote address of the summit on Thursday, speaking to a room full of Africa’s foreign ministers who make up the executive council.

“I’m confident that Africa’s march towards greatness, towards our cherished goal of prosperity and peace, will continue,” she told her audience. “The more united and organised we are the quicker will be the pace and shorter the journey.” Earlier, she had spoken about the need to stimulate a continent-wide debate on the importance of the principles of pan-Africanism and African renaissance, and to mobilise citizens and diaspora behind African unity and integration in order to realise Africa’s collective will. Whatever that means.

In her defence, Dlamini-Zuma had little choice. The Organisation of African Unity is celebrating its the 50th anniversary, so we can expect to hear lots more of this happy-clappy sentimental nonsense about what it means to be African and how we are all linked by a common destiny. At some point, I fully expect the assembled heads of state to link hands, light a fire and sing Kumbaya – this is Africa, after all.

It’s just a pity that nobody really means it. While she had them all in one place, I would have liked to see Dlamini-Zuma ask all those foreign ministers exactly how many of them had paid their dues to the AU. Its finances are notoriously opaque, but it is well-known that many countries have not bothered to contribute financially to the AU for years. While countries are in arrears, their commitment to pan-Africanism can be nothing more than lip service.

On a broader level, the benefits of half a century of steadfast commitment to pan-Africanism are hard to spot. Economically, most African countries remain isolated behind a wall of trade barriers and customs duties, with the notable exception of the East African Community which has worked hard to create a common market. Politically the same: in recent years the African Union’s most notable achievements have been its abject failure to deal with the political crises in Libya and Cote D’Ivoire, and the vicious, divisive leadership battle from which South Africa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma emerged victorious.

So let’s have less soaring ambition and more concrete plans, because there’s a lot of work to do, as Dlamini-Zuma outlined in her speech. It’s a long list and daunting list: science and technology innovation; agriculture development; infrastructure development; trade and investment support; development of industries; peace, stability and good governance; mainstreaming of women and youth; resource mobilisation and management; and strengthening the institutional capacity of the union itself and its organs.

It is only this last point that Dlamini-Zuma herself has any real control over, and already her influence is being felt. I’ve observed this before, but it’s worth repeating: the African Union Commission now has a functional communications department, sending out regular press releases and even answering calls on occasion (this never happened before). I was not in Addis Ababa for Dlamini-Zuma’s speech, but I was able to watch it thanks to the live feed provided on the AU website, another unprecedented innovation. These are small, superficial improvements, to be sure; but they are hopefully indicative of a greater degree of organisation and efficiency within the commission itself.

But let’s get back to pan-Africanism. It’s a beautiful concept, one that appeals to most Africans, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality. Who doesn’t like the idea of us all working together for the common good, pooling our skills in the spirit of continental Ubuntu for the betterment of all? The idea that we share some common destiny; that, merely by virtue of us being African, we are linked on some deep, almost spiritual plane.

Pity it’s meaningless. “Pan-Africanism was an historic mistake of enormous proportions – a simple-minded political ideology that for the past 50 years or so has done more harm than good for Africa’s standing in the world,” wrote G Pascal Zachary in the Atlantic, writing after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, who was of course the most enthusiastic proponent (and funder) of pan-Africanism in recent years; this alone should tell you something.

Zachary – a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and not an African, because sometimes it takes an outsider to see the obvious – continued: “The trouble with unity of the Pan-African sort is that the African continent is, as my friend Chanda Chisala reminded me recently, ‘diverse in its diversity’. Yet in the name of unity, the essential tensions with Africa’s important sub-regions, and between these regions, get erased. And in so erasing these differences, the possibilities for political exploitation re-emerged in the post-colonial era. Minorities and ethnic groups both within countries and across borders lost their voices, their identities, and their futures in the name of the great leveller, Pan-Africanism.”

Never will this argument be more true as Africa’s heads of states gather over the next few days to pay their allegiances to the grand ideal of African unity. For too long the likes of Robert Mugabe, Teodoro Obiang, Idriss Deby, Isaias Afwerki, King Mswati III, Denis Sassou-Nguessou and even Paul Kagame have been able to camouflage their excesses in the noble language of a failed idealism, and their peers have been allowed, encouraged even, to refrain from criticism in the interests of preserving African solidarity.

If this is pan-Africanism, I don’t want it. And neither should you. DM

Read more:

  • As Gaddafi dies, so does his craziest dream and mistakes: pan-Africanism on the Atlantic

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