Do we Need a ‘United States of Africa’?

A year before his death, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi reaffirmed his commitment to building a United States of Africa.

Speaking at the African Union Summit in Kampala, Uganda in 2010, he told reporters what he saw for Africa’s future. Using the United States of America as a model, he believed African nations should form a close federation of mutually supportive states headed by a president. This, he added, would make them free from western influence and reliance on handouts.

Considering the battles the continent has had to fight over the centuries from slavery, colonialism and the political and economic uncertainties the post-colonial age left behind; the idea of a political union could be the leg up Africa needs to realign the imbalances caused by the injustices of the past, and to enter the world stage on a level playing field with everybody else.

Regardless of Gaddafi as a political figure, his idea of a united Africa is no rogue idea. In fact, his vision was and is shared by other African leaders. Support for a unified Africa also came from Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s ex-president has spoken about its potential for healing the rifts caused by colonialism throughout the continent. The idea of a Pan-African political union could be a positive reimagining of African identity for the twenty-first century. For one it would help erase the ethnic divisions created by the artificial boundaries drawn by western powers.

Mugabe- united Africa
Robert Mugabe | Aljazeera English | flickr


Prior to colonialism, rigid nation states were never part of the African lexicon. Whilst there were kingdoms such as the Oyo Empire in West Africa, they were never as large or as uniform as the states the colonial powers drew up. Instead, in any modern African country you can think of there used to be numerous mini-kingdoms and many different communities. Where smaller kingdoms kept their sovereignty but often paid homage to larger ones. So the idea of establishing a United Africa comprised of smaller nation states as part of a wider union is probably more like the political landscape of pre-colonial Africa anyway. What this all shows is that the more we look deeper into Africa’s authentic history, the more normal the idea of a united Africa becomes.

The idea behind a united economic and political Africa takes form in the already existing African Union. Set up in 2002, by 2004 it established its first Pan-African parliament where members could discuss and debate continent wide issues. Unlike its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity, it has a proactive peace-keeping policy and can intervene in conflicts if needed. They have deployed military force in regions that have experienced genocide and other forms of violence, such as Burundi and Somalia. They also have the authority to suspend member states who experience political coups and will only re-admit them when they return to the constitutional rule of law. Best described as a United Nations/European Union fusion, the organisation is trying to cultivate a sense of being African above and beyond nation states. It remains the strongest organisational advocate for a united Africa.

union of Africa
17th Ordinary African Union Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea | Embassy of Equatorial Guinea | flickr


Whilst it is likely both Mugabe and Gaddafi envisioned themselves as the president of a trans-African union, if we hold apart unsavoury political personalities for the moment, we can see the merits in the theory of a united Africa. First and foremost, it is a defiance against the legacy of the colonial project and the carving up of Africa into bordered states. Gaddafi himself stated his wish for the proposed union to stretch from “Cape Town to Cairo”, an interesting appropriation of British colonialist Cecil Rhode’s words when he spoke about making Britain the dominant power in nineteenth century Africa. If presided over by a politician with genuine motives, a united Africa could be the way for its people to reject the ghosts of colonialism, namely artificial borders and nation states, forever.

Not only could a united Africa rectify the continent’s social and political divisions, it could revive and re-strengthen its economic health as well. By following an economic model similar to that of the E.U., an African union could stimulate an interconnected and potentially flourishing trade environment. This could stop foreign powers like China exerting such a strong influential position in African industries. China has monopolised Africa’s mineral industries over the past few decades along with fostering some rumours of unethical business practices. So a more African-centric trade environment similar to that of the EU could help re-establish African industry for the benefit of the African people.

Whilst Africa is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world, its ethnic groups are no more unified living within the colonial drawn borders of nation states. Ethnic conflict whether violent clashes or simply political and social disunity remain commonplace throughout the continent. Only in April this year the U.N, discovered as many as five probable mass graves in Eastern Congo. Suspected to be the remains of victims of ethnic clashes between the Lendu and Hema people, the Congolese government has since denied their existence. But, if the hidden graves signify anything, they signify the bloody consequences of drawing borders without knowledge of ethnic differences. When faced with these grim realities, perhaps a United States of Africa under a president doesn’t seem such an extreme future for the continent.

united Africa
East Congo conflict | Don-kun | flickr


So if there were a United States of Africa, a kind of EU hybrid that proposed and held shared laws above the divisions of states, perhaps the people would be better protected against incidences of ethnic violence in the future. A sort of trans-African law and justice system could mean the perpetrators of ethnic violence would be answerable to continental law. Additionally, national governments would not be allowed to let groups continue the violence with impunity. And as we are all too aware government complicity in stirring ethnic tensions and even perpetuating violence continues to be a problem throughout Africa.

But of course the execution of such noble ideas relies on the president of a united Africa being a wise, fair and altruistic leader. If they were not, the results could be catastrophic for the people of Africa. The president of a united Africa would be one of the most powerful political figureheads in the world. And such a concept inevitability attracts characters hungry for power at any cost. This is evidenced in the fact that the likes of Mugabe and Gaddafi supported the idea. And considering their track records for being undisputed leaders of their respective countries for decades, it is no surprise they advocated for such a union.

The idea of a United States of Africa may be a utopian dream for well-meaning politicians, or it could be a dictator’s fantasy. But it’s an idea that is rightly trying to solve Africa’s inherent divisions and economic issues. Although there is a chance it could be appropriated for immoral purposes, such as establishing an indefinite dictatorship over millions of people and billions of capital from multiple states, it could also unify the people of the continent. Ethnic and political divisions from badly drawn borders as well as economic malaise from the extraction of economic resources by new world powers has Left Africa with a global reputation for acquiescing to encroachment. Therefore, an economically self-strengthening and politically robust united Africa could go some way to resolving these long standing issues.

Although a united Africa may still be a concept, it could, at least in theory, be the way to forge a collective African identity for the benefit of peace and economic prosperity for the people. A shared sense of being African could go a long way in stopping the ethnic divisions colonial powers started by drawing borders across vastly different people. The already existing African Union is the first step in someday realising the idea of a united Africa. But only time, and the ascent of the next generation of leaders for Africa’s nation states, will tell if this idea will be pursued further or if it will be left in the grave of Gaddafi, and in the mind of an ancient and disposed Mugabe.

Featured image | Gaddafi | BRQ Network | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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