Africa is getting closer to unity. That sounds very optimistic, but recent trends on the continent point in that direction. African leaders have shown that they have serious intentions to make the African Union (AU) work.
They have recently initiated institutional reforms within the AU and established a self-financing formula for its activities. Only last week, they signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
It was a momentous event. Forty four countries signed the AfCFTA agreement, while 43 signed the Kigali Declaration. Twenty seven signed the Protocol on the Free Movement of People. This is an unusual number given the dismal history of the signing of similar agreements.
For the optimists, this was evidence that African unity is not only achievable but can be done much sooner.
It was also proof that they are beginning to overcome the fear of perceived loss of sovereignty and therefore power by getting into larger unions, and also the fear of defying external instructions.
There are probably two reasons for this. One, the benefits must be big enough to outweigh those fears. Two, there is a growing confidence among the younger population of some of the countries accustomed to getting instructions from outside Africa, that point to a loosening of that grip.
However, even among the group inclined to be positive about African efforts at unity and increased prosperity, there is no illusion that this will be easy. They are aware that the road to African unity has been long and bumpy and will not become smooth overnight. The only certainty is that movement on it is in the right direction and gathering pace.
But not everyone shares this sense of confidence that things are moving in the right direction. That is to be expected. There will always .be those prepared to pour cold water on every effort towards greater unity. They have called the AfCFTA a pipedream, unworkable and unachievable. The shocking thing is that, among these sceptics are Africans – intellectuals, journalists and businesspeople.
No one should really be surprised. This has been how the African Union and its predecessor, the OAU have been viewed throughout their history.
For some, the AU and OAU before it have been hailed as the embodiment and vehicle of Africa’s aspirations to unity and dignity.
Others have dismissed them as ineffective, divided organisations, forever talking and bickering and never getting to anything; talk shops, strongmen’s clubs and such other unflattering names.
Seen in their historical context, these are perhaps correct and reflect the stages through which the AU has gone.
African unity or pan-Africanism was first of all an idea and the early stages reflected this. There were debates and conferences across the world, to define the idea and give it some concreteness. But first there had to be independence.
That eventually came, with most countries getting independence by the early 1960s, and it was time to give flesh to the idea of unity. In 1963 the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed for this purpose. But immediately there were differences about the form unity should take and the pace at which it should be pursued. Some of these differences were ideological, others reflected the leaders’ personalities; some were internal, others from the outside.
Inevitably there was a great deal of talk because it was still at the philosophical stage. In many instances action was deferred to an undefined future date.
The immediate post-independence period was a time of great ideological divide between capitalism and socialism. African leaders found themselves having to identify with one or the other of the ideologies, and their countries fought over by the different powers. In that situation continental unity remained merely an item on a wish list.
The process of liberation had been incomplete and so African leaders found themselves preoccupied with freeing the rest of the continent.
In between, there were periods of instability created by coups and counter coups.
Finally the whole continent was liberated and a level of stability returned. It was time to look again at the whole idea of unity. For this, a new organisation was needed, and the African Union, was formed from the old OAU.
Eighteen years after its formation, the AU is beginning to deliver on that promise. Africa has moved from the philosophical phase to a period of more action. It has gone beyond preoccupation with liberation to concerns of attaining prosperity.
And so today we are not fascinated by lofty ideas and rousing speeches about unity but more interested in workable plans to achieve it.
It is not surprising that the presidents who are driving African unity are not those who espouse grand philosophies, but those who have a clear vision and a roadmap of how to arrive at it. In that sense AU is on track.
But as reaction to the AfCFTA show, there is a lot of scepticism and other challenges to overcome.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.