Africa’s Unity: Mirage or Fact

Can Africa truly unite? Some say it’s a pipe dream, while others argue it can be done.

African unity was the founding goal and principle of the founding fathers in the 1960s.

But who is going to make this a reality? And who were the parties fighting for this vision from the early days of independence? Unity cannot be realized without teamwork and institutional support. For this reason, the Organization of African Unity (OAU now AU) was one of the key African collective organizations working toward unity. From the early days of this effort, Ethiopia has played a critical and supportive role.

A leading actor in this effort was Ketema Yiftu, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister from 1961 to 1970, who worked tirelessly on behalf of the country and Emperor Haile Selassie to establish the OAU. The diplomat was assigned by the Emperor to personally deliver letters of invitations to more than thirteen of Africa’s independent states to bring them together in Addis Abeba where the groundwork was laid for the organization. So it is fair to say that Ethiopia midwifed the birth of the OAU, the organization, it was hoped, that would unite Africa, and still remains the best way to bring the continent together.

The Emperor played a critical role in urging the 32 head of states who were then independent to agree on the OAU charter and sign it.

Ethiopia did not stop its leadership at only establishing the OAU. It has also served as a diplomatic hub of Africa, trying to bring Africa’s political, economic and social development agenda to international attention. Ethiopia fought alongside many of the colonized African nations to bring them out of the harsh, unjust and fascist colonial rules. The support included giving military training to freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, material support, and most importantly, demonstrating its own independence as a beacon of hope to other African nations.

After most of the continent gained independence in the 1960s, Ethiopia was on the forefront fighting of neocolonial abuses by the international community. This included the advent of the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) adopted by the Bretton Woods system which saddled developing nations with hard aid conditions. This was one of the major challenges which was faced by the newly independent countries thanks to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. While most developing nations were obliged to accept the terms, Ethiopia successfully defended its national interest by firmly objecting to the aid pre-conditions presented by the proponents of neoliberalism ideology. Currently, Ethiopia strongly applies its own policies and strategies according to its own SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat) analysis for the people centered development approach it follows with. That is why Ethiopia strongly and firmly challenges outsiders that Africans should solve their own problems by their own strategies and policies instead of applying the policy prescriptions crafted by outsiders.

So why has Africa’s unity not yet been successful? It’s important to see this question from the economic point of view with respect to Regional Economic Communities (RECs) that can be taken as tools for economic integration. There are around eight regional economic communities recognized by the AU in Africa that are used to ease trade exchanges between member states, promote investment and tourism development among the member states. The Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). These are some of the Regional Economic Communities that will help facilitate Africa’s long-term economic integration goals.

For those already established RECs, which have not hastened Africa’s integration as expected, there are different challenges to be pointed out. One of the major challenges is the lack of infrastructure that connects African states across different regions in the continent, lack of diversification of export products (since most African countries export agricultural products), lack of effective implementation of free trade agreements, lack of good governance and political commitments (democratic transfer of power).

On the contrary, there are also examples that can prove that Africa’s economic integration can be achieved. Ethiopia is currently attempting to connect its neighbors with power and infrastructure developments. The Ethio-Djibouti Railway has just been completed, and roadways are under construction from Addis to Kenya and Sudan. The plans and agreement entered with Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti for power export are one of the most prominent examples. Morocco is one the big producers of wind energy in Africa that can be exported to its neighbors for power connections that will lead to strong economic integration and a way for political unity in Africa.

On the other hand, there is a recent argument that comes to the forefront due to European Union member states’ failure to stay in the union. Britain decided to exit, Italy is about to call for a referendum, and France’s future as a member of the EU is also not certain. In my opinion the story is different; Europeans are now reaching the minimum threshold in terms of economic/basic needs. They are looking for high level, dynamic democracy. When it comes to Africa, the nature, history, culture and settlement of the society is far different from the European community. African needs to fulfill its economic well-being, social development, political freedom and advanced technologies. The question here is whether or not the regional economic integration on the basis of the wider communities’ needs and interests is able to bring real change to the livelihood of each individual household. Therefore, there are and will be, no extreme cases in point that can endanger Africa’s unity (which is more of economic integration for the time being) as long as it aims to benefit fairly and focuses on the wider community.

In general, the argument that is made that Africa can never unite is incorrect and not based on the facts that Africa has the potential to integrate in trade, investment, tourism, human resource development, experience sharing in business and political model. And as long as the continent works to build modern infrastructures, diversify export items, and facilitate strong trade transactions among countries, ensure peace and democratization in each nation, build strong institutions with educated manpower that can serve for the demand of the general public, unity will be within its grasp.

As former South African president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela wrote in his book “Long Walk to Freedom,” Africa’s unity will provide a path to economic integration and gradual political unity.

By Shewaye Mern

Published on Jan 31,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 874]



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