When in 1946 Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe, so soon after the World War II, many must have thought him still shell-shocked. Then it was unimaginable that a mere generation later there would be a European Union with a single market and a common parliament, or that Germany would not only be re-united but host the World Cup finals in which Italy would defeat France. But even with this living example, to speak of African unification to Africans or Westerners alike is to be seen as an impractical dreamer or simply insane.
One is lectured that Africa is too big, too poor, too corrupt, too undereducated, always at war, undemocratic. In a candid moment, someone might add that with centuries of tribal enmity Africans cannot unify because they are, well, Africans. As if none of these problems existed in one form or another in the Europe of 1946.
This is not to say that the problems are not real. In the Darfur region of Sudan, an agonizingly slow nightmare is unfolding as the African Union (AU) idly watches. The heavily flawed Nigerian elections promise more conflict in the Niger delta. In the Congo, where millions of lives have been lost, embers of war keep reigniting. There is worsening poverty, more money being lost through unequal trade than gained in foreign aid, an AIDS epidemic with a genocidal fury, and a leadership without political imagination. This is a continent mired in quick sand.
Kwame Nkurumah of Ghana once said “Africa must unite, or perish”. We are uniting less and perishing more.
But does a Ugandan, for example, see a Ghanaian as an African and in terms that can translate into policy? Kwame Nkrumah’s major failing, which the AU now emulates, is to have seen unification as only between governments and not amongst African people. We have not had a single presidential race on the continent influenced by the question of African unification, or peaceful marches and public debates in favor unification in individual nations. Regional cooperation treaties are signed without consulting respective citizens. In short, Pan-Africanism has as yet to belong to the people themselves.
And Xenophobia is on the rise. South Africans, both black and white, want to protect their borders from the Amakwerekwere, the amaXhosa word for the black peril. In Kenya one finds a caricaturism so ingrained in national psyche that in parliament, members are banned from wearing African clothes. In Ghana, Nkrumah’s failures become a rejection of Africa and in Egypt or Morocco – the horror, are we even African they ask?
There have to be more conversations between African peoples themselves. One of the topics will, of necessity, be the nature of difference. Difference arbitrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But a unified Africa does not mean erasure of different cultures and languages; rather it would allow each fluid culture to flourish under equal protection. It does not mean that enmity ends, but rather that there are no ill political winds of nationalism to fan into a full blown war every disagreement.
Unification means access to the best that the continent has to offer and a shared burden when it comes to the many problems. It means having a unified voice in international politics and economics. A unified Africa would take Europe and the United States to task for providing farm subsidies to their farmers that in turn cost Africa millions of dollars each year. Africa would be able to demand that all nations with nuclear weapons abandon them as a threat to a common humanity. Or take a unified stand against pharmaceuticals and manufacturers of generic drugs for AIDS. Africa would be able to create solutions and implement them and not always wait for handouts. In short, Africa would have a bark…and a bite.
In life, individuals die where they stop dreaming. It is the same for countries and continents. Certainly for Africa, death finds new life where the dream of unification ends.
Poet Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness, coordinator of “Toward an Africa Without Borders” and a columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa magazine.