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The recurring myth of a certain African unity

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The recurring myth of a certain African unity

In this video clip, Dr Paul-Simon Handy, of the Institute for Security Studies, speaks to Polity's Amy Witherden about what he calls the "recurring myth of African unity". Cameraperson: Nicholas Boyd; Editing: Darlene Creamer (03/06/2009).

3rd June 2009

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In this video clip, Dr Paul-Simon Handy, of the Institute for Security Studies, speaks to Polity's Amy Witherden about what he calls the "recurring myth of African unity".

Below is the original opinion piece on which this discussion was based.

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It has become a tradition in Africa and among its Diaspora to celebrate Pan-Africanism on 25 May, Africa Day. On this day, Africans across the world reaffirm the aspiration for unity that formed the basis for many of the struggles in the continent's recent history.
But is there much to celebrate this 25 May? Does Pan-Africanism carry the same meaning today as in colonial and immediate post-colonial times? It is clear that Pan-Africanism has been misdirected, and has become an ideology with symbolic rather than concrete objectives. The idea of Pan-Africanism should be revisited, with the aim of reorienting it towards service delivery, performance and efficient governance.

Despite the tangible successes the African Union (AU) has enjoyed in its brief history -- its impressive record in organising a collective security framework with a peace and security architecture and its growing importance as a generator of common norms to regulate an African way of "living together" -- paradoxically it appears that the idea of Pan-Africanism is in a deep crisis. This conclusion is based on more than a criticism of the flamboyant excesses of the current President of the AU, who in many aspects symbolises the antithesis of all the major achievements of the last decades. Rather, the perceived crisis of Pan-Africanism derives largely from the persistence of the myth of African unity, which paralyses African dynamism within the continent and, increasingly, in international forums. The consequence is the absence of an efficient and respected body to lead the continent intellectually, politically and economically by authority and example.

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If there is a commonly shared belief among much of the African intellectual and political elite, to the extent that it has become a dogma, it is what we can term the myth of African unity. This myth is derived directly from the African experience of the colonial period; it is a collective reflex of the weak, which suggests that by uniting, Africans can resist the colonial and neo-colonial hegemony. It is principally a reactive idea, born of the painful African experience of colonization. It has generated a huge body of literature, which constitutes the foundation of academic and political Pan-Africanism. This mythology constitutes the driving ideology of the AU, even though many have forgotten that the birth of its progenitor, the Organisation of African Unity, represented the failure of Kwame Nkrumah's ‘African unity' dream. The most recent product generated by the Pan-Africanist dogma is the African unity government, championed by Libya and its President. This myth has become dominant and in some ways even totalitarian, in that it has become difficult to question the usefulness of an African Union Government without being considered an enemy of Africa. However, most defenders of the ‘African unity' government are unable to articulate logically why a continental bureaucratic monolith would be in any better position to solve issues of socio-economic delivery than national and local structures.

Proponents of the highly symbolic idea of ‘African unity' generally proceed from two highly debatable postulates. The first of these is that Africa's artificial borders lie at the root of most of the continent's problems. The second is the assumption that race, linguistic parenthood and a common past of suffering make us automatically brothers and sisters who share the same values and ambitions. These two arguments of the Pan-Africanist mythology are erroneous. This does not mean that African states' borders are not artificial, nor do I intend to contradict the legacy of the respected Senegalese historian and Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop by proclaiming that African cultures are not linked by a profound common substrate. The two principal arguments of academic and populist Pan-Africanism are in error because of the conclusions they imply.

Since the modern state began its successful career of expansion after the Westphalia treaty in 1648, states' borders have generally been shaped by wars, treaties and other encounters. In short, there are no natural borders in the modern world. States' borders are by definition artificial and the only difference in Africa's case is that these artificial borders drawn by non-Africans. So it is less the artificiality of the borders than their heteronomy, their reflection of a foreign agenda that could be problematic. Even here, however, there is no African exceptionalism, as the same principle also applied to Latin America following Spanish colonisation. In reality, artificial borders are in and of themselves neither good nor bad. The only certainties are that they exist and have generated deeply rooted national identities that have to be taken into account in any serious attempt to create unity. Although the African Union is itself a combination of national states, adepts of the African unity still consider African states to be an accident of history.

Regarding the link between Pan-Africanism and race and linguistic community, the numerous wars, violent conflicts and even genocide across the continent amply demonstrate that there is no transcendental sense of brotherhood unifying Africans. Rwanda and Somalia remind us that sharing a common language, history and culture affords no protection against barbarism. Basing a sublimated unity on race and culture is to ignore the reality of contemporary Africa, which is more than just black, rural and consensus-oriented. The century-long presence of whites in Southern and Northern Africa, of Indians in East Africa and of "Arabs" throughout the continent indicates a more cosmopolitan, diverse and integrated continent than many of the apostles of ‘Blackness" would like to acknowledge.

Unity does not necessarily need sentimentalism and geography to be effective. It rather needs values and norms; shared beliefs in specific rules of the game, which still have to be invented.

In reality, the Pan-Africanist myth is the profound expression of a deep-seated African "lamentation", which makes it difficult for Africans to think about a post-post colonial time in which we cease to become mere objects fated by historical circumstance, and strive to become the agents and shapers of our destiny. The intellectual constructions around race and artificial borders have not yet generated shared values around the continent after some fifty years of independence. That Africa's leaders are now discussing the creation of a continental government structure, despite our inability successfully to manage our local and village councils and other small-scale governments is telling.

Neither race, history nor widespread under-development are sustainable grounds for unity. The real foundation of African unity should be based on efficient governance norms and practices, democratic consensus and economic prosperity. Literature indicates today that though there is no direct causal relationship between these three concepts, each constitutes a good in its own right. To be effective, these norms do not require the support of a Pan-Africanist ideology caught up in the toils of obsolete and misguided debate.

Since the Pan-Africanist ideology has been unable to articulate a vision beyond hollow concepts such as "Ubuntu" or other collective therapeutic slogans, because sentimentalism and mythology instead of ideas and scholarship continue to dominate the African unity debate, there is an urgent need to revisit the Pan-Africanism. A possible way to do so is to revisit the African unity debate along the utilitarian lines of efficiency, common values and service delivery, thus bringing the idea of African unity back to the people and avoiding the elitist trap in which Pan-Africanist discussions are caught. The Pan-Africanist dream has to be articulated along material (trade, ‘free' movement across borders, better communications between countries, access to each others good and services) and immaterial (establishing the conditions for the rule of law, peace and security) incentives that will make sense to the common man.

One of the weakest links of the Pan- Africanist discussion today is that it is not accompanied by a sound scholarly debate on African integration. Such discussion is currently dominated by politicians, development agencies and certain scholars scattered around the world, and has failed to produce a structured research area within which various and contending schools of thought may find expression. With the notable exception of the South-Africa based African Renaissance Centre and maybe the Julius Nyerere Chair at the University of Dar es Salam there is no credible African Integration research centre in the continent (and yet they exist in Europe and the US) able to provide policy-makers with research based analysis and policy-options on African unity and integration. For all their faults the African renaissance debate and Nepad attempted to address these issues but were later caught up in the current logic of false consensus.

Modernising the discussion about African integration, and giving it a deeper analytical substance, would allow for the exploration of new ideas and options. Without deeply involving African thinking and thinkers, without a critical interrogation of the major assumptions and postulates of the Pan-Africanist myth, African unity will remain an elitist idea and aspiration. The complexity of development challenges and the needs of Africa's peoples deserve and require far better than this.

By: Dr Paul-Simon Handy, Head of the African Security Analysis Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Tshwane (Pretoria)

 

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