I have a dream...the African Union

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2007, 12:00am

'Before you put a roof on a house, you need to build the foundations,' South African President Thabo Mbeki reportedly told diplomats at the meeting of the African Union in Ghana last weekend.

Others were just as quick to ridicule the summit's declared goal of creating a unified African government by 2015, and it certainly isn't going to happen fast.

It may never happen at all - but it might, and it would be a very good idea.

The African Union was created five years ago, out of the wreckage of the discredited Organisation of African Unity, with the goal of making Africa's rulers accountable. Now it is trying to revive the project for real African unity, and there is no shortage of Africans who argue that it is merely a distraction from urgent and concrete problems such as Darfur and Zimbabwe.

Maybe they are right, but what if those crises are just symptoms of a deeper African problem?

At the time most African countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they had higher average incomes and better public services than most Asian countries: Kenyans lived better than Malaysians; people in the Ivory Coast were richer than South Koreans; Zimbabweans were healthier, longer-lived and better-educated than Chinese. And there were more and worse wars in Asia than in Africa.

Now it's all dramatically the other way round, but why?

The answer must lie in the system. And the most striking characteristic of that system is the sheer number of independent states within Africa: 53 of them, in a continent that has fewer people than either India or China.

This is where the discussion usually veers off into a condemnation of the arbitrary borders drawn by the old colonial powers, which paid little heed to the ethnic ties of the people within them - but that is not the point at all.

The point is, that at least half of the 53 African countries have greater ethnic diversity within their borders than all of China.

There are over 200 ethnic groups in Africa. You cannot draw rational borders for Africa that give each ethnic group its own homeland.

The African federalists imagine a solution that jumps right over that problem: a single African Union modelled on the European Union, but where no ethnic group is even five per cent of the population.

Then politics stops being a zero-sum ethnic competition (at least in theory) and starts being about the general welfare. And also, in theory, the continent starts to fulfil its potential.

We will all be a good deal older before the African Union becomes more than a dream, but in the end it may.

As Alpha Oumar Konare, former president of Mali and head of the African Union, said at the start of the summit: 'The battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for this generation - the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa.'

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries