The Politics of Forgetting: the United States of Africa

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– A call to accomplish the idea of continental self-interest for Africa

By Jerry Kai-Lewis ([email protected]; [email protected])

It was almost 98 years ago in 1919 that Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr., under his United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, launched his Black Star Line, a steam ship company that was part of his programs aimed at improving the conditions of those of African ancestry. At its peak in 1920, the UNIA-ACL claimed 4 million members. Despite Garvey’s controversial mail fraud charge, trial, conviction, jailing and deportation back to Jamaica by the US Government, his UNIA-ACL was the first Black movement that showed great potential at mobilization efforts by people of African descent.

Considered a prophet by the Rastafarians for accurately predicting the coronation of a Black king in Africa (Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia) that would be the deliverer of those of the Diaspora, Garvey also influenced the formation of Pan-Africanism, the OAU (now AU), and, the United States of Africa. He was the first to ever mention the United States of Africa in a 1924 poem saying: Hail! United States of Africa – free! Hail! Motherland most bright, divinely fair! State in perfect sisterhood united. Born of truth, mighty thou shalt ever be.

Shortly before Garvey’s death in 1940, his call was heeded by a young Ghanaian who graduated from Lincoln University, a Black school in Pennsylvania USA, and was smitten with the idea of a United States of Africa – Kwame Nkrumah. During his years in office, and after the formation of the OAU in 1963, Nkrumah, then Ghanaian president and father of the continent’s Pan Africanist movement, echoed Garvey’s call to unite the continent into a single political and economic bloc. As a sign of his dedication to the idea of a US of Africa, Nkrumah bought the Black Star Line, got it back on the seas and placed the name “Black Star” on everything from street signs to the center of Ghana’s red, yellow and green flag. “The emergence of such a mighty stabilizing force in this strife-torn world should be regarded…not as the shadowy dream of a visionary, but as a practical proposition which the peoples of Africa can and should translate into reality…We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late,” said Nkrumah. Yet the then 31-nation OAU didn’t heed Nkrumah’s call. Instead, Balkanization (politically unstable countries) and South Americanization (politically and economically weak and dictator-ridden countries without organic ties to one another) became the order of leadership in most countries continent-wide. Between 1963 and 2002, the continent suffered: countless coups, dictatorships and civil wars; a severe brain drain, financial mismanagement and corruption; and the displacement and deaths of millions of Africans due to war, poverty and disease. Also, during this time, regional economic blocs, ECOWAS, OERS, UDEAC, OERM, EACM, CEAO, CEDEAO* and UEA, were formed.

According to another champion of the Pan African cause, Cheikh Anta Diop, a lot of these groupings failed as they were born, the Union of East Africa (Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya) being a good example. “All of them are giants with feet of clay engaged in trying to square the circle: to achieve meaningful economic unity without political union. No one wants to make the necessary sacrifice to achieve political unity. All hope to gain the benefits of economic integration without sacrificing the selfish interests of their governing groups on the altar of African unity. That is the fundamental contradiction lying at the base of all these ephemeral constructions and unions,” said Diop in his seminal work, Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State.

While these economic groupings were good starts, Diop contended that the reason why they would not work is because they were not legally binding.

“The days of the nineteenth-century dwarf states are gone. Our main security and development problems can be solved only on a continental scale and preferably within a federal framework,” said Diop. Within a federated state, which involved a real surrender of sovereignty, the rules governing such a set up was irreversible, hence legally binding. With parts or all of their sovereignty transferred to a continental parliament, the borders marking these dwarf states proliferating the continent would have, in effect, become mere administrative lines. That would have solved the border disputes, still a legacy of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 when Africa was partitioned by European powers, which plagued the continent in the early years of independence. Morocco was not part of the now AU as a result, and is not a part of ECOWAS because of this.

Not willing to sacrifice their national interests for the sake of continental unity, most of the leaders at independence regarded their national coffers as personal bank accounts. The lust for more money and power saw them doing any and everything in their power, from the banning of political parties, jailing and killing political dissidents, to encouraging tribal conflicts, just to hang on to the highest office in the land, even for life.

Forced to see the continent’s weak standing in this age of globalization where their wishes are ignored by bigger economies and blocs, the African countries, who trade more with other countries than with each other, decided in 2002 to form the African Union with the aim of greater integration. So after 39 years of making Africa the laughing stock of the world’s peoples, some of the dictators, their handpicked successors and a few democratically elected presidents were showing signs of seriously turning Garvey’s and Nkrumah’s call for a single economic, political and military Africa into reality. While many observers saw this drive, set for accomplishment by 2015, as the last ditch effort of washed out political icons, it is nonetheless still a possible and viable venture, a win-win situation for an economic, military and political power long in the making. But where should we start in order to get on the Black Star Line?

It took 39 years from Garvey’s poem to the formation of the OAU. It took another 39 years after that for the formation of the AU. So, the talk of a U.S of Africa by 2015, while it was encouraging never sat well with me – maybe because it was way below the 39 year cycle and the fact that most of our leaders have been known for making bombastic speeches and accomplishing very little, if anything at all. Our way forward is something that most of our political ideologists have surprisingly overlooked for half a century. The advent of a forced and borrowed western style of democracy overlooked the fact that African empires had set up strong political foundations where the separation of power were their strongest points. Instead of restoring the African democratic principles, a principle under which tribalism and blatant corruption, the reasons for all the civil wars and coups that have plagued the continent since independence was impossible, the post-colonial state maintained western political hegemony over Africa.

“African law must therefore be rescued from the non-law or ‘Customary Law’ to which it has been relegated because colonialism made it mimic other systems, and pluralism of law must be restored…Although colonial domination disrupted the process of state building, African societies remain plurinational by nature. The pre-colonial nations – that marked out the identities of these multinational states – survived: even though they were parceled out and often dispersed among several states, it was not impossible to reforge a societal link. Reinstating these nations will make it possible to bring to an end the crisis of national consciousness and identity that is ravaging Africa, and will prevent political manipulation of disputes over nationality,” said Professor Mwayila Tshiyembe of the Pan-African Institute of Geopolitics.

The first step should be for our leaders to recognize that the state/continent is made up nations/tribes that have to work together for the common good of the state/continent, while simultaneously allowing individuals to be proud of their nationalities, religions and other orientations. This set-up was here before colonial domination and a proper restoration of our past makes for a better future. And while our leaders are still arguing over the modalities of coming together, it would take the vision and selfless passion of the Founding Fathers of Pan Africanism to accomplish this idea of continental self-interest. If China and India can rule more than a billion people from different nations/tribes, so can the United States of Africa!

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2 COMMENTS

  1. You have tribal divisions in almost every African Country. When the tribal problem is solved then you can talk about a United Africa.

  2. The Western nations craftily separated Africa and America fought hard to keep it’s states together. All I can say is, as the regional blocs become more unified and integrated, the more the union of the motherland will happen. Which is the last empire. From the beginning was Egypt and to the end, a mightier African empire.

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