The Demise Of African Unity? – OpEd


By Matebe Chisiza*

‘I dream of the realisation of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their effort to solve the problems of this continent.’ – Nelson Mandela

People of Africa have shared interests and should be united around common goals. This is the main idea behind Pan-Africanism. Many of its proponents envision a unified Africa with no borders. Is this a pipe-dream or a realistic scenario? Ahead of Africa Day on 25 May, it is worth reflecting on the current state of African unity.

Pan-Africanism can be traced back to the early 1900s propelled and informed by the thinking of amongst others, W.E.B du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah. Yet it manifested in institutional form only with the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. It was created to promote unity and solidarity amongst African states, achieve a better life for Africans and defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its members. The OAU was meant to help Africa chart its own destiny and lead it to a better future. But its leadership, consisting of anti-colonial struggle rulers, was ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of a rapidly evolving world and the arduous and complicated task of building functional, modern states.

Arguably, the OAU’s most notable achievement was maintaining national sovereignty and respect for the borders inherited following years of colonial rule. In an ironic twist, this ultimately diminished African unity, as artificially-created boundaries were upheld and ethnic and religious groups were separated by different state lines, creating challenges related to building social cohesion. These divisions contributed to frequent conflict. The Biafran war of 1967 illustrates this, as the eastern region of Nigeria attempted to secede to form an independent state.

The objectives of the African Union (AU), which replaced the OAU in July 2002, sought a more comprehensive and less state-centric approach geared towards addressing the needs and aspirations of increasingly globally connected African populations. This included taking a stronger stance against unconstitutional changes of government, as evidenced by the suspension of 12 member states. The most notable suspensions are Libya in 2011, the Central African Republic in 2013, Egypt in 2013 and Burkina Faso in 2014. However, the new continental body has been sluggish in responding to domestic crises, both political and economic, in member states. Two examples illustrate this point.

First, on the political front, when a violent uprising broke out in Libya on 15 February 2011, the AU was quick to react but slow to intervene. The first AU meeting on the Libyan crisis was at the Peace and Security Council (PSC) on 23 February 2011. Subsequently, on 10 March 2011, the AU forged an African diplomatic response to the Libyan crisis, known as the ‘roadmap’, but then failed to take concrete action to see through its implementation. South African President Jacob Zuma was mediating on behalf of the AU, which had taken the position that Gaddafi should step down in favour of a transitional government of national unity. Yet there were challenges on how to implement this in the context of divided domestic and regional opinion. While many wanted Gaddafi gone, some leaders, including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, sympathised with him.

Instead of prioritising the lives of ordinary Libyans, the old doctrine of sovereignty trumped the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine. While the AU had proposed a ceasefire, not a single African country volunteered to send observers or troops to Misrata (the main battle ground during the conflict) to carry this out.

United Nations Resolution 1973 authorised military intervention in Libya and on 19 March the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) enforced a ‘No Fly Zone’ over Libya; this led to the bombings of Libya, which ultimately toppled Gaddafi. The intervention in Libya from then onwards was determined by the involvement of international organisations and actors in an African affair— a blow for the AU as it failed to be a reliable interlocutor for peace.

Africa also lacks unity in its approach to governance and economic development, though not for a lack of trying. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is a unique initiative, which was established in 2001 to eradicate poverty; bridge the economic and governance divide in African development and integrate countries individually and collectively into the global economy through proactive, external and intra-regional engagement and partnership. However, the continuing gap between sound economic governance and accountable, citizen-centred governance has meant that the full potential to access and exploit Africa’s abundant resources to launch a war on poverty remains outside Africa’s reach. Economic growth remains uneven and sufficient cooperation between African states is lacking. Why is it that in 2015 China was Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 57% of total continental trade, whereas intra-African trade in the same year stood only at 9%?

All hope is not lost for African unity and mistakes of the past should act as guidelines to pave the way towards a better and more united future. Africa continues to struggle with collective decision-making both in response to conflict and the promotion of evenly balanced development through its Regional Economic Communities (RECs). However, this could change. The AU was created to attain greater unity and solidarity between African countries, balancing the principle of sovereignty with the need to accelerate political rights and socio-economic growth and cooperation on the continent. These objectives can still be achieved by increasing intra-African trade, especially between RECs; building a regional consensus and action on people-centred, good governance norms and principles; and also through swift and unanimous action on threats to peace and security in the region. The AU should aim for equitable development throughout the continent, thereby ensuring a stronger and united Africa. As for governance conflicts that frequently occur, member states need to work together and look for more effective, timeous and actionable African solutions to African problems; otherwise it remains a hollow statement.


*Matebe Chisiza is a visiting Konrad Adenauer Foundation Master’s Scholar at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Source: SAIIA


The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has a long and proud record as South Africa’s premier research institute on international issues. It is an independent, non-government think-tank whose purpose is to encourage wider and more informed awareness of the importance of international affairs. It is both a centre for research excellence and a home for stimulating public debate.

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