Unity Eludes Africa

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - When the African Union website opens, a welcome message declares that "Africa must unite." But while such sentiment may be growing, an initiative to move the continent towards a formal union has failed.

African leaders meeting for the 9th A.U. Summit in Accra, Ghana, this month considered as a key agenda item a report commissioned by the bloc that recommended steps culminating in a single African government by 2012. But most African leaders rejected the hugely ambitious plan, at least for the time being, saying regional blocs should be strengthened first.

The decision stemmed from many factors, from individual governments' failure to discuss the issue with their citizens, to concerns by some about the agenda of the main proponent of the idea, Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi. Gadaffi provided most of the funding for the Accra meeting.

The idea of a unified Africa was first floated more than five decades ago by Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, but the proposal did not gain widespread support among the continent's leaders.

Many Africans today regard the idea as impractical because of the diversity of cultures and differing levels of support for democracy.

"How would we gain from such an alliance?" asked Rosemary Katana, 35, a banker in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. "Our resources should be directed to what can change the living standards of the continent faster," she said. "Then we can think of the grand plans when people are not dying from hunger."

On the streets and in the media, others agreed that the idea should not be rushed. "At least for once, reason prevailed and [African] leaders thought before they made this commitment," one editorial said.

Leaders like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni say the A.U. is an adequate political and economic vehicle for Africa, but that it needs to become more focused. Museveni said in Accra that the bloc needed to stop "being everywhere and nowhere. Focus is the key issue. It needs to act and stop too much talk."

The Ugandan leader said the A.U. should prioritize stepping up regional trade and strengthening regional structures. That will eventually lead to integration, he argued.

Some political analysts believe integration would enable African nations to pool their resources and so help to improve overall living standards, among the lowest in the world.

But they also believe that the hurdles faced by European nations in moving towards union have been child's play in comparison to those Africa would face, after years of poor political and economic governance, development disparities and continuing conflicts within and among nations.

Other factors likely to impede progress, analysts say, include national identity; lack of shared values such as democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law; disparities in levels of development; and differences over the powers of a pan-African parliament.

Speaking after the Accra meeting, Botswana's minister of foreign affairs, Mompati Merafhe, said some countries were pushing the unity idea because they thought they were ready for it, but at the same time many others were still grappling with internal problems.

He said his country wanted a gradual and incremental approach to African unity, sentiments shared by representatives from Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and others.

Other participants, including Libya and Zimbabwe, called for immediate action.

At another meeting to discuss the issue of unifying Africa -- also financed largely by Gadaffi -- scholars, civil society representatives and business leaders met in South Africa on July 3.

At that meeting, Prof. Francis Makoa of the political studies department at the National University of Lesotho said the continent's countries need to harmonize their policies and define how individual states will cede their sovereignty to a central A.U. authority.

"We have seen an Africa that personifies leaders but does not move with the people," he said.

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