Deconstructing the language of integration and unity in Africa

OPINION -THE Windhoek SADC Summit came and gone. And so has the Africa Day which was celebrated across the continent on May 25.

People are now probably preparing for next year to perform the same rituals. I say rituals here because nothing seems to change – which is the characteristic of a ritual.

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But someone might grab me by my throat and says ‘that’s not true’, and under that pressure I would probably concede that things have indeed changed. But what has changed?

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Yes, we have changed the name of the Southern African Coordination Conference to Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1992, in the high-altitude city of Windhoek. And we did the same with the Organisation of African Unity when we changed it to the African Union (AU) in 2002, in the coastal city of Durban. But stubbornly, I might still insist that things have not changed because despite the name changes Southern Africa, and indeed Africa itself, is still far from being integrated and united.

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There is neither an integrated SADC region nor is there a united Africa with a union government. In the case of SADC, we were told that by 2008 the region will have a Free Trade Area (FTA) – reducing or eliminating tariffs or relaxing non-tariff barriers to the movement of goods and services. This has not happened as yet after a good 31 years.

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In the case of the African Union, African leaders have been talking about African unity and a union government for the ‘United States of Africa’ since the formation of the original OAU in 1963 in Addis Ababa. Thus Kwame Nkrumah’s urgings for a union have been in vain.

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Thus any serious discussion of the problems facing the integration or unity agenda in the region and in Africa must involve a process of restructuring the African reality itself. This reality, however, can be very complex and re-sculpting it produces its own sets of blinkers and ideological predispositions. And these predispositions affects the way we see, describe and understand the problems that face post-colonial Africa and its various projects whether at the national, regional or continental levels.

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I therefore argue here that the integration and unity-talk is essentially following the same political trajectory that pertains at the national level of the various African countries themselves. Thus unless one addresses the national question first, one cannot hope to move on to the higher ground – which is the regional level. The example of the European Union is instructive here.

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There was no blanket admission to the Union in Europe. Some countries were required to put their houses in order first before they could seek membership. In Africa, any system goes however. Commenting on the recent suspension of the SADC Tribunal, the radical lawyer, Norman Tjombe, asked why SADC leaders should support a strong regional court if they don’t support strong courts in their own countries?

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Proceeding from that perspective, one can legitimately argue that as time elapses, as the post-colonial period lengthens and African societies rediscover their past, then the significance of nationalist politics becomes less so. We are witnessing it here in Namibia where identity politics (read tribal politics) is taking root. Thus if individual countries themselves aren’t united internally how can they unite at the regional and eventually at continental level?

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Let me, however, as a corollary to the preceding discussion look at the significance of Africa in contemporary global politics assuming there was a semblance of integration and unity. In recent years and weeks, especially in the wake of recent ‘revolutions’ in North Africa, we have heard and read about ‘African solutions to African problems’ being tossed around and about.

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Specifically in the case of Libya where NATO forces have been maintaining a no-fly zone and also the bombing of military targets (of course with the usual civilian casualties caught in the cross-fire) African leaders have been urging that to be stopped because they see it as another Western imperialist agenda and would instead argue that Africa can solve its own problems.

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But when did Africa solve its problems? That’s the question. Why didn’t Africa intervene before the UN and NATO came into the picture? They are calling for dialogue between the Libyan leader and the rebels – which is now too late, I’m afraid. Muammar Gaddafi has had ample chance to do so.

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But he decided to unleash the might of the Libyan military on his ‘own’ people. Closer to home, what is SADC doing in the case of Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe has been defying all political agreements and protocols including those by the now suspended SADC Tribunal?

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Indeed, where was Africa, the OAU, in 1994 when a horrified world watched the unrelenting brutality of the violence that was unfolding during the Rwandan tragedy where close to one million Africans were brutally killed?

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Some of these organisations have no significance and rationale for their continuing existence. And there will be no ‘African solutions to African problems’ until such time that a radical revolution, both politically and intellectually, take place on the continent. And as one SMS message recently put it: it is time to dissolve these entities. I couldn’t agree more.