African Union: Between hope and despair

There are few leaders left in Africa who are capable of steering the continent into a better direction.

The African Union recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its creation [AFP]

The modern idea of an African Union was best articulated by the founding president of Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah was a visionary leader who realised that colonially constructed nations were economically and politically vulnerable to the machinations of the Cold War and neo-colonialism.

As he dealt with American and British schemes to destabilise Ghana, and as he watched the devastating British, American and Belgium intervention in the Congo, he became even more persuaded of the critical need for imagining Africa beyond the colonial map.

Theoretically, the birth of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 embodied the hope that Africa’s new leaders would undo the cultural and economic domination of the continent’s countries, and create integrative multi-nation projects.

Yet as the 50th anniversary of the OAU (now the African Union, or AU) was celebrated in Addis Ababa on May 25, ordinary Africans crave for the dreams deferred over the last 50 years.

Post-colonial challenges

The challenges post-colonial Africa faced were towering as liberation demanded reconstruction in many spheres, such as culture, education, politics, economy and most certainly, leadership and self-image.

Upon independence, many African countries’ economies relied on the export of raw materials whose value depended on the whims of external markets. There was little that any African country could do to change this in the short run. However, a clear appreciation of the hopelessness of sustaining this “banana republic” structure was the first step in the transformation. 

African Union criticised at 50th anniversary

Restructuring such economies required effective leadership and a population willing to sacrifice in exchange for a better life for the next generation.

An Africa-centric strategy taking stock of the circumstances of each country and those of the continent would have made agriculture and domestic food security the first priority while expanding investment in other sectors as well. Agricultural development and food security would have completely eliminated the twin scourges of hunger and destitution, and would have restored the dignity of the African people.

One cannot blame African leaders for the massive structural impediments inherited from the colonial era, but they must be held responsible for the failure to deploy Africa’s human agency to shore up national and continental vulnerabilities. A far-sighted exception to the general disappointment of the last 50 years was the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. Unfortunately, the organisation was riven by factionalism between Francophone and Anglophone countries, and between proponents of socialism and capitalism.

But the OAU had some successes, including mediation between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1964, and support for the liberation movements in southern Africa. With the exception of Angola, the OAU and African political leaders took a principled and unified stand on independence for Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

African leadership syndrome

Why were African leaders unable to embark on collective economic projects? For answers, one need not look too far beyond the sectarian and dictatorial national projects to see why such efforts failed.

For example, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta was unwilling to give up some of its economic advantages in order to advance the collective benefits of the East African Common Market. Giving up a little advantage now to gain a lot more later eluded Kenyatta – and it led to the demise of the common market. Such logic was an extension of Kenyatta’s local politics which suffocated dialogue, alienated many of his former comrades and turned Kenya into a single-party state.

Kenyatta became the wealthiest man in the country while the majority of the population remained mired in poverty. Personal accumulation of public power and translating that into private wealth is at the heart of African leadership syndrome, with perhaps the worst example being the calamitous reign of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

However, there have been notable exceptions as well, such as Ian Khama of Botswana, Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania and Aden Abdullah Osman of Somalia. Khama’s steady hand kept South Africa at bay from invading Botswana. He also presided over the establishment of the continent’s first “developmental state“, while Botswana sustained a good degree of liberal democratic practice.

Although Nyerere ran a single-party state guided by African Socialism, he ensured that ethnic tensions did not become a poisonous political factor in the country. He also did not amass a private fortune like so many of his counterparts.

Osman of Somalia was perhaps the most democratic leader of all, and deeply respected constitutionally mandated divisions of power between the branches of government. In the end, he was the only leader among his generation to leave office democratically.

With the total liberation of southern Africa came a new chance to rejuvenate the OAU. A new agenda to reform the organisation was launched under the leadership of President Mbeki of South Africa, which led to the formation of New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the renaming of OAU as the African Union (AU). 

Witness – Africa Rising

Although it was hoped that NEPAD and the AU could jump-start a progressive agenda across the continent, the necessary political realignments have yet to be realised in most countries. As a result, neither organisation has been able to embark on collective material projects which are developmental game-changers in the medium term.  

Political-economic transformation

Recent growth data indicates that the continent has been growing fast in the last decade despite the global economic slowdown. This is certainly welcome news to most Africans, who hope that this tide will not fade away like previous ones driven by resource-based revenues. The IMF and the World Bank have argued that Africa’s recent growth has been facilitated by policy and political reforms that governments adopted in the last two decades. Although there is a grain of truth in this claim, the fact is that policies prescribed for and imposed on Africa by these organisations devastated the continent for more than two decades.

If anyone can take credit for the “turn-around” of African economies, it is the ordinary Africans who exerted pressure on their governments and the exceptional appetite for resources of the new Asian Tigers. To scale up current growth and turn it into self-sustaining development requires major regional and continental joint projects aimed at beneficiation of raw material and deepening and expanding local markets for African products.

Will current African leaders rise to the challenge of the next 50 years? There is a fleeting opportunity for the continent to auspiciously position itself in the emerging post-North Atlantic economic map. Exploiting this opportunity requires simultaneous political-economic transformation in each country and the continent at large. Sleeping on the switch by free-riding the current resource boom will only reproduce Africa’s “Dome of Shame“.

Much like the past 50 years, there are a few leaders who are fully aware of what must be done and who have the courage to take charge. Unfortunately, most of Africa’s current leaders are too slavish to Western ideological domination and to their avid gluttony to comprehend what is at stake. This leaves politically organised civic movements to mobilise the population and produce the leadership and institutions necessary to make the 100th anniversary of the African Union the people’s half-century rather than a celebration of buffoonery.

Abdi Ismail Samatar is the President of the African Studies Association, Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, and research Fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is the author of An African Miracle.