Global Policy Forum

From Pan-Africanism to the Union of Africa


By Tim Murithi

June 20, 2007

Is it a realistic debate to be having at this time, when the continent is afflicted with so many other problems and challenges? To what extent are the majority of African people aware that this debate is going on? Before we can even begin to grapple with these questions, says Tim Murithi, we need to pose the question: how we have got to the point that we are discussion a Union of Africa Government or the so-called United States of Africa?

It is appropriate to reflect on the debate that has been raging on the prospects for further continental integration and the impending discussions on the Union Government Project. During the 8th Ordinary Session of Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 29 to 30 January 2007, the decision was taken to devote the next meeting of the Assembly to an elaborately titled 'Grand Debate on the Union Government'. From 8 to 9 May 2007, the Executive Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs met in Durban, South Africa to brainstorm on the state of the Union. The groundwork has therefore been laid for discussions to take place in Accra about the direction that the AU should take.

We could question whether it is indeed appropriate and realistic to be debating a Union Government at this time. Have AU member states mastered the art of rudimentary unification? Do they yet speak with a unified voice and act based on a common purpose? To add to this casserole of doubt the continent is still afflicted by so many other problems and challenges from conflict, to underdevelopment and inadequate public health services. Ultimately, by adding a pinch of scepticism about the genuine political will of AU member states to pool their sovereignty, it seems that the Grand Debate may be no more than a storm in a tea cup, much-ado-about-not-very-much. But perhaps this is a bit dismissive!

Is it indeed a realistic debate to be having at this time, when the continent is afflicted with so many other problems and challenges? To what extent are the majority of African people aware that this debate is going on? If they are not aware, who is having this conversation on their behalf? How can a Union Government Project succeed if it does not have the buy-in and the support of the people of Africa?

But before we can even begin to grapple with these questions we do need to pose the question: how we have got to the point that we are discussion a Union of Africa Government or the so-called United States of Africa? Only by tracing the trajectory of the evolution of the notion of Pan-Africanism can we begin to contextualize the impetus behind the impending 'Grand Debate on the Union Government'.

This paper will assess the origins of Pan-Africanism and discuss the norms that animated this movement. It will then assess how Pan-Africanism was institutionalized in the form of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the present day African Union (AU). It will argue that the Grand Debate on the Union Government is only the latest incarnation of an attempt to institutionalise Pan-Africanism. Understanding the reasons why Pan-Africanism gained currency as a movement and liberatory ideology will help us to understand this Grand Debate. The past in this sense is influencing the present and will ultimately inform the future. The paper will assess the role that civil society can play in contributing to the Union Government debate. The paper will also question whether the Union Government of Africa Project will be built on a solid enough foundation to realize the aspirations of Pan-Africanism. It will conclude by assessing the limits of continental integration.

What is Pan-Africanism?

It is often assumed that the process of continental integration begun with an Extra-ordinary Summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) convened in Sirte, Libya, in 1999. In fact, the process begun with the Pan-African movement and its demand for greater solidarity among the peoples of Africa. To understand the emergence of the African Union we need to understand the evolution of the Pan-African movement. A review of the objectives and aspirations of Pan-Africanism provides a foundation to critically assess the creation of the AU and its prospects for promoting the principles and norms of peace and development.

Historically Pan-Africanism, the perception by Africans in the diaspora and on the continent that they share common goals, has been expressed in different forms by various actors. There is no single definition of Pan-Africanism and in fact we can say that there are as many ideas about Pan-Africanism as there are thinkers of Pan-Africanism. Rather than being a unified school of thought, Pan-Africanism is more a movement which has as its common underlying theme the struggle for social and political equality and the freedom from economic exploitation and racial discrimination.

It is interesting to note that it is the global dispersal of peoples of African descent that is partly responsible for the emergence of the Pan-African movement. As Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, observe in their book Pan-African History: Political Figures from African and the Diaspora Since 1787, 'Pan-Africanism has taken on different forms at different historical moments and geographical locations'. Adi and Sherwood note that, what underpins these different perspectives on Pan-Africanism is 'the belief in some form of unity or of common purpose among the peoples of Africa and the African Diaspora.' One can also detect an emphasis on celebrating 'Africaness', resisting the exploitation and oppression of Africans and their kin in the Diaspora as well as a staunch opposition to the ideology of racial superiority in all its overt and covert guises.

Pan-Africanism is an invented notion. It is an invented notion with a purpose. We should therefore pose the question what is the purpose of Pan-Africanism? Essentially, Pan-Africanism is a recognition of the fragmented nature of the existence of African's, their marginalization and alienation whether in their own continent or in the Diaspora. Pan-Africanism seeks to respond to Africa's underdevelopment. Africa has been exploited and a culture of dependency on external assistance unfortunately still prevails on the continent. If people become too reliant on getting their support, their nourishment, their safety, from outside sources, then they do not strive find the power within themselves to rely on their own capacities. Pan-Africanism calls upon Africans to drawn from their own strength and capacities and become self-reliant.

Pan-Africanism is a recognition that Africans have been divided among themselves. They are constantly in competition among themselves, deprived of the true ownership of their own resources and inundated by paternalistic external actors with ideas about what it 'good'. Modern day paternalism is more sophisticated and dresses itself up as a kind and gentle helping hand with benign and benevolent intentions. In reality it seeks to maintain a 'master-servant' relationship and does not really want to see the genuine empowerment and independence of thought in Africa.

The net effect of this is to dis-empower Africans from deciding for themselves the best way to deal with the problems and issues they are facing. Pan-Africanism is a recognition that the only way out of this existential, social, political crisis is by promoting greater solidarity amongst Africans. Genuine dialogue and debate in Africa will not always generate consensus, but at least it will be dialogue among Africans about how they might resolve their problems. If ideas are not designed by the African's, then rarely can they be in the interests of Africans.

Institutionalisation of Pan-Africanism: The OAU

In the twentieth century, the idea of Pan-Africanism took an institutional form. Initially, there were the Pan-African Congress' which convened in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, under the leadership of activists like the African-American writer and thinker WEB. du Bois; the Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams; and inspired often by the ideas of people like the Jamaican-American Marcus Garvey. These ideas were adopted and reformed by continental African leaders in the middle of the twentieth century. Kwame Nkrumah who later became the first president of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Banar Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ali Ben Bella of Algeria took the idea of Pan-Africanism to another level on 25 May 1963 when they co-created the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The principles of the OAU kept the spirit of Pan-Africanism alive. The primary objective of this principle was to continue the tradition of solidarity and cooperation among Africans.

During the era of the OAU the key challenge was colonialism. Since 1885, in what was then known as the 'Scramble for Africa' European colonial powers had colonized African peoples and communities across the entire continent. The Belgians were in the Congo, the British in East, South, West and North Africa. The French in West Africa, Somalia, Algeria and other parts of north Africa. The Italians in Somalia. The Germans, who later lost their colonies following their defeat in the Second World War, had to relinquish Namibia and modern day Tanzania. Africans had successfully fought on the side of the allies in the Second World War and after its conclusion they brought their struggle for independence back home to Africa.

The OAU embraced the principle of Pan-Africanism undertook the challenge of liberating all African countries from the grip of settler colonialism. The main principle that it was trying to promote was to end racial discrimination upon which colonialism with its doctrine of racial superiority was based. In addition, the OAU sought to assert the right of Africans to control their social, economic and political affairs and achieve the freedom necessary to consolidate peace and development. The OAU succeeded in its primary mission, with the help of international actors, in liberating the continent on 27 April 1994, when a new government based on a one-person-one-vote came into being in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. The OAU however was not as effective in monitoring and policing the affairs of its own Member States when it came to the issues of violent conflict; political corruption; economic mismanagement; poor governance; lack of human rights; lack of gender equality; and poverty eradication.

The preamble of the OAU Charter of 1963 outlined a commitment by member states collectively establish, maintain and sustain the 'human conditions for peace and security'. However, in parallel, the same OAU Charter contained the provision to 'defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the member states'. This was later translated into the norm of non-intervention. The key organs of the OAU - the council of ministers and the Assembly of heads of state and government - could only intervene in a conflict situation if they were invited by the parties to a dispute. Many intra-state disputes were viewed, at the time, as internal matters and the exclusive preserve of governments is concerned.

The OAU created a Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution in Cairo, in June 1993. This instrument was ineffective in resolving disputes on the continent. Tragically, the Rwandan genocide which was initiated in April 1994 happened while this mechanism was operational. It was also during this last decade of the twentieth-century that the conflict in Somalia led to the collapse of the state and the violence in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan led to the death of millions of Africans.

These devastating events illustrated the limitations of the OAU as an institution that could implement the norms and principles that it articulated. Despite the existence of the OAU's mechanisms for conflict prevention and management, the Rwandan tragedy demonstrated the virtual impotence of the OAU in the face of violent conflict within its member states. The United Nations (UN) did not fare any better as all of its troops, except the Ghanaian contingent, pulled out of the country leaving its people to the fate. Subsequently, both the OAU and the UN issued reports acknowledging their failures. The impetus for the adoption of a new paradigm in the promotion of peace and security in the African continent emerged following the Rwandan tragedy.

Regrettably due to the doctrine of non-intervention, the OAU became a silent observer to the atrocities being committed by some of its member states. Eventually, a culture of impunity and indifference became entrenched in the international relations of African countries during the era of the 'proxy' wars of the Cold War. So in effect the OAU was a toothless talking shop. The OAU was perceived as a club of African Heads of States, most of whom were not legitimately elected representatives of their own citizens but self-appointed dictators and oligarchs. This negative perception informed people's attitude towards the OAU. It was viewed as an Organization that existed without having a genuine impact on the daily lives of Africans.

The African Union

The African Union came into existence in July 2002, in Durban, South Africa. It was supposed to usher Africa into a new era of continental integration leading to a deeper unity and a resolution of its problems. The evolution of the AU from the Organisation of African Unity was visionary and timely. The OAU had failed to live up to all of its norms and principles. Africa at the time of the demise of the OAU was a continent that was virtually imploding from within due to the pressures of conflict, poverty and underdevelopment and public health crisis like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The OAU effectively died of a cancer of inefficiency because it basically had not lived up to its original ideals of promoting peace, security and development in Africa. The African Union has emerged as a homegrown initiative to effectively take the destiny of the continent into the hands of the African people. However, there is a long way to go before the AU's vision and mission is realised.

The AU is composed of 53 member states. It is run by the AU Commission based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Chairperson of the Commission is Alpha Oumar Konare. Its top decision making organ is the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government, its executive decision-making organ is the Executive Council of Ministers, who work closely with the Permanent Representatives Committee of Ambassadors in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The AU has also established range of institutions which will be discussed below.

If we know the 'purpose' of Pan-Africanism then the steps to achieve its goals become clearer to understand. It is in this context that we can begin to understand the emergence of the African Union. It would be a mistake to view the African Union as an aberration that just emerged in the last few years. It would be more appropriate to view the AU as only the latest incarnation of the idea of Pan-Africanism. The first phase of the institutionalization of the Pan-Africanism was the Pan-African Congress' that were held from the end of the nineteenth-century and into the beginning of the twentieth-century. The second phase of the institutionalization of Pan-Africanism was the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity. The third phase of the institutionalization of Pan-Africanism is in effect the creation of the African Union. It will not be the last phase. Subsequent phases and organizations will bring about ever closer political, economic, social and ties among African peoples. African unity is an idea that can be traced back to the nineteenth-century. The African Union is a twenty-first century expression of a nineteenth-century idea. As such it is an imperfect expression, but nevertheless the best expression of Pan-Africanism that can be brought forth at this time.

Towards a Union of Africa?

The agenda to establish a Union Government of Africa or the so-called United States of Africa is well underway. At the core of this debate is the desire to create several ministerial portfolios for the African Union. During the 4th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, from 30 to 31 January 2005, in Abuja, Nigeria, the AU agreed to the proposals made by the Libyan Government to establish ministerial portfolios for the organisation.

Specifically, in the 6th Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of AU Ministers, Libya proposed the establishment of the posts of Minister of Transport and Communications to unify transportation in Member States to be under the competence of the AU which will include airports and main ports of African capital cities, highways, inter-State railways, State-owned airline companies which are to become the basis for a single African airline company. Ultimately, Libya proposed that this should lead to 'the creation of a post of Minister of Transportation and Communications'.

Similarly, Libya also proposed the creation of the post of Minister of Defence to oversee 'a joint policy on defence and security of the Union and provide for the reinforcement of peace, security and stability on the continent'. This Libyan proposal noted that the provisions of the AU Constitutive Act, of 2000, and the AU Protocol on Peace and Security, 0f 2002, have effectively established a 'Joint Defence Framework'. As a logical step in the implementation of the Protocols and establishment of the institutions of the AU the Libyan proposal emphasised the importance of establishing this post to oversee and 'defend the security of Member States against any foreign aggression and to achieve internal security and stability'. In addition, Libya also proposed the establishment of the post of an African Union Minister of Foreign Affairs. Central to its argument is that AU countries undermine their own influence when its 53 Foreign Ministers, each individually representing their own governments speak simultaneously and occasionally in contradiction with each other. The Libyan proposal notes that this post is necessary in order to expedite 'the Continent's political, economic and social integration and to reinforce and defend unified African positions on issues of mutual interest' in the international sphere.

In order to respond to these proposals the AU Assembly decided to 'set up a Committee of Heads of State and Government chaired by the President of the Republic of Uganda and composed of Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Niger, Senegal and Tunisia' to liaise with the Chairperson of the AU Commission submit a report by the next summit in July 2005. In November 2005, the Committee convened a conference under the theme 'Desirability of a Union Government of Africa'. This meeting included members of the Committee, representatives of the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), technical experts, academics, civil society and Diaspora representatives, as well as the media. The conference came up with three key conclusions including the recognition that the necessity of an AU Government is not in doubt; such a Union must be of the African people and not merely a Union of states and governments; its creation must come about through the principle of gradual incrementalism; and that the role of the RECs should be highlighted as building blocks for the continental framework.

Based on the findings of this conference the Assembly mandated the AU Commission to prepare a consolidated framework document defining the purpose of the Union government, its nature, scope, core values, steps and processes as well as an indicative roadmap for its achievement. The Assembly reaffirmed 'that the ultimate goal of the African Union is full political and economic integration leading to a United States of Africa'. The Assembly further established a Committee of Heads of State and Government to be chaired by President Olusegun Obasanjo, Chairperson of the African Union, and composed of the Heads of State and Government of Algeria, Kenya, Senegal, Gabon, Lesotho and Uganda. More specifically, the Assembly requested the Committee to consider 'the steps that need to be taken for the realization of this objective, the structure, the process, the time frame required for its achievement as well as measures that should be undertaken, in the meantime, to strengthen the ability of the Commission to fulfill its mandate effectively'.

The Chairperson of the Committee of Seven, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, submitted a detailed report entitled: A Study on an African Union Government: Towards the United States of Africa, on July 2006, to the 7th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in Banjul, Gambia. Some of the key themes emerging from this report highlighted the fact that Africa is over-dependent on the external world particularly with regards to expatriate technicians and technology.

It also noted that Africa has not fully exploited its potential at national, regional and continental levels with reference to trade, education and health sectors. It notes that 'a United Africa would have the unique potential of producing most types of food and agricultural produce throughout the year'. The study also notes that in the context of globalization 'the challenges of overdependence and under-exploitation of its potentials have increased the marginalisation of the continent in world affairs'. The study further outlines the 16 strategic areas that an African Union Government should focus on including continental integration; education, training, skills development, science and technology; energy; environment; external relations; food, agriculture, and water resources; gender and youth; governance and human rights; health; industry and mineral resources; finance; peace and security; social affairs and solidarity; sport and culture; trade and customs union; infrastructure, Information technology and biotechnology.

The study notes that the 'design and functioning of a Union Government as a tool for integration would have far-reaching implications on the existing institutions and programmes of the African Union'. It further assesses the implications of a Union Government on the organs of the AU. The most notable impact would be the 'need to consider allowing a longer tenure (about 3 years for example) for the President of the Assembly' of the AU. The President of the Assembly would also be the unique spokesperson of the Union at world or other special summits. Therefore the study notes that, 'it would be desirable that the function of President be on a full time basis and could be assigned to a Former Head of State or any distinguished African with the necessary background and track record for the job'. Another notable innovation would be that 'under the Union Government, the AU Commission will be entrusted with the implementation of decisions, programmes and projects in the Strategic focus areas, which will constitute the Community Domain'. This notion of issues falling under the Community Domain would assign the Commission with 'the executive authority and responsibility to effectively implement' policies. The study also recognises that 'the logic of using the RECs as building blocks for the eventual deep, continental integration remains valid. The challenge is in aligning, synchronizing and harmonizing the integration efforts of member states, the RECs themselves, and the AU'.

There are also national implications of the establishment of a Union Government. The study notes that it is vital 'to build the necessary constitutency for advancing political integration'. In this regard, some countries have already set up Ministries in charge of integration and other countries should follow suit. The study notes that 'there is also a need to devise appropriate mechanisms for legislative implications at the national level' and 'the direct involvement of the people in promoting the Union Government could also be in the form of national associations or commissions for the United States of Africa'. In terms of financing the Union Government the study discusses the possibility of establishing indirect taxation schemes particularly with regards to an import levy and an insurance tax. A meeting of ECOSOCC in March 2005 proposed 'imposing a five US dollar tax on each air ticket bought for inter-state travels and 10 US Dollars on each ticket for travelers between Africa and other continents'. Ultimately, the study is positive about the prospects for a Union Government and outlines 3 phases for the transition to a Union Government, including:

1. The initial phase - commencing immediately after the decision of the Assembly at the AU summit in July 2007. It will include all the steps and processes that are necessary for the immediate operationalisation of the Union Government.

2. The second phase - will be devoted to making the Union Government fully operational in all its components and to laying the constitutional ground for the United States of Africa.

3. The third phase - will aim at the facilitation of all required structures of the United States of Africa at the levels of states, the regions and the continent.

The study recommends a 3-year period for each phase which will mean that the United States of Africa will be formed by the year 2015. Elections at continental, regional and national levels would be held, paving the way for the official constitution of the United States of Africa.

The study was considered by the Executive Council at its 9th Extraordinary Session held from 17 to 18 November 2006 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. According to the report of this meeting there was a view that

1) 'all Member States accept the United States of Africa as a common and desirable goal', but differences exist over the modalities and time frame for achieving this goal and the appropriate pace of integration; and

2) there is a common agreement on the need for an audit review of the state of the Union in order to know the areas in which significant improvements have to be made to accelerate the integration process.

The report of the Executive Council was submitted to the AU Assembly in January 2007 which decided to devote the July Summit to a Grand Debate.

The role of civil society in continental integration

It is important to include people and civil society in this Grand Debate. To what extent are the majority of African people aware that this debate is going on? If they are not aware, who is having this conversation on their behalf? How can a Union Government Project succeed if it does not have the by-in and the support of the people of Africa? Can there be an African Union Government without African Citizenship? Where are the African citizens in this debate? More questions than we care to answer. To be fair the AU will convene from 28 to 30 May an all-inclusive continental consultation on the Union Government Project, at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, as part of the preparations towards the Accra meeting.

So civil society will have the opportunity to contribute to this Grand Debate. There is also the issue of the extent to which the AU is consulting with the wider African public on the issue of the Grand Debate. The AU has established a website inviting public contributions on this Grand Debate. However, some civil society activists have argued that an African Union Government is a pipe dream without laying the foundations for genuine African citizenship.

The limits of top-down continental ontegration

Will the establishment of a United States of Africa generate accusations of lack of originality? Some key actors within the AU want to have a US of Africa so that they can rival the power of other global players. There is nothing wrong with such an objective in principle. However, there are limits to a US of Africa. Notably, the USA as it is currently framed is:

1. A top-down approach to continental integration; 2. Governed by the whimsical will of the leaders of African governments; 3. Has a tendency towards un-democratic practices, like lack of consultation; 4. Through its formulation, which largely excluded African civil society, effectively governed by the rule of Heads of State and not the continental rule of law.

The objective behind the US of Africa should not be primary one of increasing the level of global competitiveness of the continent. Rather a primary focus should be on improving the livelihood of African people as a whole. For this to happen further continental integration has to be motivated by the founding principles of Pan-Africanism, namely a commitment to democratic governance, human rights protection and the rule of law. Anti-democratic actors who herald and proclaim the importance of establishing a United States of Africa, should not be allowed to replicate the anti-democratic policies and practices at a continental level.

If Africa is striving for genuine continental integration based on progressive principles, we should perhaps seek to forge a Federal Union of Africa (FUA) rather than a United States of Africa. This will begin to delineate and demarcate and articulate the founding principles of a union of African countries and their societies. A Federal Union of Africa should ideally be at once federal in nature; based on the democratic will of its people; governed through the consent of African people; and governed by the rule of law and the protection of human rights for all African peoples.


In the final analysis, the Grand Debate on the Union Government is indeed welcome. The injunction that the great Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah left us with is still valid: 'Africa must Unite, or disintegrate individually'. Somehow the Grand Debate captures this spirit and could be viewed as only the latest incarnation of an attempt to institutionalise Pan-Africanism. Understanding the motivations between Pan-Africanism will help us to understand this Grand Debate. But it is also appropriate to question whether the Union Government of Africa Project will be built on a solid enough foundation to realise the aspirations of Pan-Africanism and improve the well-being of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. The past in this sense is influencing the present, it remains to be seen whether it will ultimately inform the future.

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