(Published in February 2009, New Vision)
Last week Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi was elected chairman of the African Union.
Gadaffi ascended to this position through a series of political maneuvers -- not least of all getting himself crowned Africa’s King of Kings, that have left many Africa watchers scratching their heads.
The Libyan big man has made no secret about his desire to unify the continent and if his dream materializes in his life time he has not been shy to signal his intention to lead this new super nation.
Every African leader has a variation of the same script for the unification of African and none will be seen to oppose the ideal.
However Gadaffi’s plan has come up against strong opposition initially spearheaded by former South African President Thambo Mbeki and now increasingly by our own President Yoweri Museveni.
Gadaffi, probably hearing the clock of father time ticking louder by the day wants the unification effected yesterday, while Museveni and co. are pushing a gradual approach that will have its base in regional blocks.
Both sides are not in disagreement about the necessity for the economic unification of Africa.
Is it necessary for a political unification of Africa for the continent to unlock its potential and uplift the wellbeing of its people? No and Yes.
A quick flashback may serve us well at this point.
The continent’s borders broadly reflect the interest of the colonialists at the end of the Second World War, neatly curved out between the UK, France and Portugal. Our political boundaries do not reflect Africa’s needs but those of the colonial powers who were all physically uprooted by 1975.
The effect of this is that our infrastructure is underdeveloped between countries – a reflection of the rivalry between the competing powers, but the infrastructure to the ports is better than average to better evacuate our exports.
Of course what this set up did is to further perpetuate the artificial political boundaries and restrict our trade outwards more than inwards. This made economic sense for the colonialist obviously.
So in trying to unify Africa this artificial separation has to be addressed.
The challenges of breaking down these barriers are many and contrary to popular opinion political unification is the least of worries, a few dollars liberally strewn around can take care of the politics.
The main challenge for the unification of Africa is to build large enough economic concerns or interests that will strain at these borders consistently and persistently, eventually bring them down.
Nineteenth century billionaire John D. Rockfeller was forever faced with the challenge of how to expand his Standard Oil beyond the borders of the individual states of America, differing legislation hindered a one size-fits all corporation increasing the cost of expansion. He made much faster progress in as far flung places as Indonesia and Georgia than he did at home.
Through a series of maneuvers and ruses – many of which would be frowned upon today, he managed to stretch his company’s influence across the US. But in the process he opened up railway lines, pipelines and distribution channels and by extension financial services and consumer societies that melted away the state boundaries for all practical purposes. Stand Oil was the first of the mega-corporations that eventually became multinationals.
Africa, with a population approaching a billion people, there is some indication of the emergence of continental business power houses.
Corporate South Africa has made strong in roads in telecommunications, banking, retail trade and television – as was evidenced by DSTV’s recent beating back of UK-based GTV. West African banks are making determined forays into East and North Africa. And Libya, its diplomatic isolation recently lifted and emboldened by last year’s record oil prices, is making continent wide investments in real estate, telecommunications and oil distribution. Kenya Airways is linking up the continent with its aggressive air route expansion.
The expansion of business will force governments to improve their road, rail, telecommunications and water transport networks, while harmonizing their legal and fiscal frameworks in order to tap more taxes. By laying and maintaining this infrastructure the movement of labour, goods and services will be greatly eased, technologies will be shared, comparative advantages will be crystallized and eventually our economies will be interconnected much more than they are today.
Once our economies are so interdependent it will be a small leap to eventual political unity.
We are talking about evolution – the Museveni school of thought versus Gadaffi’s revolution.
But Gadaffi’s push for unification is useful. First, African unification needs a champion, especially one who can put his money where his mouth is and secondly Gadaffi has put the unification of Africa back on the agenda compared to where it is now – moulding away in a forgetten file somewhere.