My old friend Eric Osiakwan, from Accra, Ghana, reminds me that Qaddafi may have cynically used and abused the dream of “one Africa,” but that the deposed dictator’s exploitation of the idea of unity across the African continent should not lead to the abandonment of the Pan-African ideal. He writes about a recent Atlantic article of mine, : “I don’t agree with the premise of your article that due to Africa’s “diverse diversity” she should not try to unite, for me that’s all the more reason why she should unite and the unity in this case is not to water down our diversity but to establish a common framework for political and socio-economic development. When you look at the history of pre-colonial Africa, we had pretty much a united front (or something close to it). Salaga was a big marketplace in Mali and people from all parts of Africa go there to trade. Timbuktu was a city of higher learning and many Africans from different part of the continent went there to study.” Osiakwan adds, “I agree with you that the approach of our post colonial leaders as well as recent bandits like Gadafi needs much to be desired and so lets not throw away the baby with the bath water.”
I agree with Osiakwan that Pan-Africanism has more than historical value and that many pragmatic Africans continue to dream of African unity as the foundation for more rapid development within the continent and more geo-political power for Africa across the globe. Indeed, a persuasive rebuttal to my argument against a rigid, ideological Pan-Africanism is to insist, as Osiakwan does, that pan-Africanism has been badly implemented over the past 50 years but that the concept is still worth trying. Now would a well implemented, unified approach to governing the African continent be desirable? I’d say yes loudly but the difficulties remain to realizing this aim remain enormous — and the pursuit of the aim, if it sucks energy from other worthy sub-continental initiatives, could mean that Pan-Africanism still does more harm than good. To be sure, governance along continental lines is no panacea for poor governance by smaller units. Look, for instance, at how badly the U.S. is being run, and quite possibly because the U.S. government is simply too big. Look at the political, financial and economic problems Europe is having because of flaws in the structure of the European Union, which is often presented by Africans as a model for their own political and economic unity.
So can we expect better from Pan-Africanism when Europeans and Americans struggle with the disease of giantism? In contrast to Pan-Africanism, I’ve always favored the construction within Africa of strong sub-regional groupings — like east African Eco community or ECOWAS. Make these sub-regional groupings much much stronger and in the meantime forget pan-Africanism.
The benefits of subregional groups with clout could be enormous: a powerful Ecowas for instance could ban Biya from office or put Togo into a regional trusteeship until a functioning legitimate government was formed.
Once there are five or six successful sub-regional political groups in Africa, the task of constructing significant continental-wide institutions will undeniably be easier.