United but perishing: 50 Years of a Haphazard African Union

In 1963, expounding his vision regarding the Organisation of African Unity Kwame Nkrumah declared, “Independence is only the prelude to a new and more involved struggle for the right to conduct our own economic and social affairs; to construct our society according to our aspirations, unhampered by crushing and humiliating neo-colonial controls and interference.”

Warning that Africa must “unite or perish”, Nkrumah insisted that without true unity, Africa would “sink into that condition which has made Latin America the unwilling and distressed prey of imperialism after one-and-a-half centuries of political independence.”

As the African Union celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is rather disturbing that the African condition can only be described as united but perishing.

It is surprising that the African Union seemed to have defined its vision then as supporting liberation movements in the erstwhile African territories under colonialism and Apartheid.  To be sure, this was a worthwhile cause, but it was only part, and indeed only a minor part of what Kwame Nkrumah had envisioned at the inception of the union.

Perhaps more in line with the original Nkrumah vision was the position taken by Thomas Sankara in the 1980s. When Sankara seized power in Burkina Faso in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, his goal was to eliminate corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power.

Sankara immediately launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. His foreign policies were centered around anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.

African Union leaders

African Union leaders

Commenting on the 1987 assassination of Thomas Sankara, Ulises Estrada declared, “Sankara’s assassins were guided by imperialism, which could not allow a man with the ideas and actions of Sankara to lead a country on a continent so exploited for hundreds of years by international imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonial governments that do their bidding. Sankara’s political ideas will endure, like those of Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, also assassinated by traitors at the behest of the empire.”

In 1999, The African Union Heads of State issued a declaration with a view to “accelerating the process of integration in the continent to enable it play its rightful role in the global economy while addressing multifaceted social, economic and political problems compounded as they are by certain negative aspects of globalization.” It had taken the African Union close to 40 years to finally appreciate the heart of Nkrumah’s vision behind the formation of the Union.

Nevertheless, the African Union today considers its vision to be that of ““An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”

But it is this vision statement that explains the reason for the haphazard nature of the African Union’s success in its programs.  In that speech in 1963, Nkrumah highlighted the fact that the success of African Unity would be built, not simply on states achieving political independence from colonial masters, but also economic and social success that appreciated the vast bestowment of resources that Africa had as compared to the rest of the world, and the overriding need to effectively manage those resources. It is, therefore, the fact that the vision of the African Union has failed to recognize this need for a united resource management that perhaps explains the failure of the realization of Nkrumah’s dream to date.

The importance of a united effort on safeguarding African resources can never be overemphasized. Africa is the only continent with enough resources to sustain itself even if it were shut out from the rest of the world. It is the exploitation of these resources that has caused wars and grand corruption across Africa, leaving the continent that is the richest in resources as the poorest on the globe. How the safeguarding of resources can be left out of the African Union’s vision is a curious question. Could it be that the framers of the vision are concerned about the message that will give to the global community; the message that the Union is prepared now to take issue with the exploitation of the continent it is charged to look after?

An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa as envisioned by the African Union vision will only be created if the vision incorporates within it the need for a united management of Africa’s vast resources which have hitherto been exploited first by the western colonial masters, and in modern times by the Chinese.

The African Union that celebrates 50 years of its existence needs to renew its vision and realize that only an African Union with enough muscle and bite to promote its Pan-African Ideal can truly promote the continent into becoming the “dynamic force in the global arena” it dreams about.

In order to achieve that lofty ambition, the Africa Union needs to take the lead in loosing the shackles that bind African states to colonial powers and other economic oppressors. This necessarily requires a re-invention of the mandate of the union in order to incorporate prominently the need and role of an African Defence force that will be mandated to safeguard the resources of Africa. In this regard, the African Monetary Fund, and institution of the African Union, needs to be more prominent and given enough power to promote Afro-centric structural programs fashioned in Africa for the interests of Africa. There is no longer any doubt that the model works. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The IMF should not be more powerful in Africa than the African Monetary Fund. Indeed, it could be argued that the so called economic development assistance provided by the IMF and the World Bank could be best used suited to the African vision if there was a way of ensuring that the African Union was involved in the setup.

An African Monetary Fund with powers akin to those of the IMF would give the continent more control over the economic policies of its members, and have the power to steer the direction of the continent’s resources in line with the African Ideal. This is what President Gaddafi of Libya believed. Gaddafi was a major funding source of the Fund. His death, which would have been avoided if the African Union had been able to defend the continent as it should, deprived the African Monetary Fund of much needed funding, to the advantage of the western powers.

Celebrating 50 years of celebrating the existence of the African Union is celebrating 50 years of an organization that has seen its once grand vision become one dimensional, sabotaged by conflicting interests of selfish and corrupt leaders and external powers, neo-colonialists and global organizations and corporations with hidden agendas. The African Union 50 years after its birth is an organization that talks and talks, but frequently fails to walk the talk. It’s vision lacks the necessary inspiration as founded in its inception, and its role is by and large more symbolic and idealistic than practical.

The organization is seen by many as inconsistent and sometimes even powerless; sometimes united, sometimes not. Many of the leaders of its members have personal if western agendas. Although its peacekeeping missions have sometimes been commendable there is a need for a more powerful African military force that could be called to stop bloodshed in many African countries. The African continent should be able to defend any African country from any foreign attack. The example of the recent events in Libya, where the African Union was simply powerless to do anything is a case in point.

The African Union has not facilitated the seamless cultural and economic integration of African countries that was eagerly expected. Smaller blocks like SADC are doing much better than the mother body. Questions still remain, for example, as to why an African should be required to get a VISA into another African country. Some wonder why Africans have problems to pass through each others’ borders when doing business. These are the basic issues that the AU should have tackled long before 50 years of its existence had passed.

The African Union wishes to be seen to be taking a strong stand against imperialists and neocolonialists, yet this depends largely on the leaders of the Union at any particular time. When the leadership changes to other countries, various drives and policy positions quickly lose steam. The structure of the AU should be strong enough to ensure that no new puppet leaders can change the its core vision and policies. It is a sad testament to the weakness of the Union that ever since the death of Thomas Sankara there has been very little said against neocolonialism.

The African Union celebrates its 50th anniversary on 25th May, 2013. In Malawi, on 24th May 2013, the day before the 50th anniversary of the African Union, Malawi’s minister of Finance, Dr. ken Lipenga stood in Parliament to present his budget. He told Malawians that 41% of the budget would be funded by developing partners. Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara must be turning in their graves!

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