This article will be published in The Independent (Uganda).
The spectre of a United States of Africa is once again stalking the African continent. The idea can be traced back half a century to the pan-African aspirations of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana. But in recent years Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has made it his own – and he has vowed to use his year-long tenure as chairman of the African Union (AU) to pursue it.
Yet with opposition from most of Africa’s big hitters, including Uganda’s own President Museveni, Gaddafi’s fantasy looks destined to remain just that. The hurdles that stand in the way of the creation of a serious union of African states are daunting; even if the political will were there, the economic, technical and institutional obstacles seem insurmountable -at least for now.
If Gaddafi is nevertheless determined to pursue his dream, he might do well to study the story of the European Union (EU) – probably the most successful example of a union of nation states the world has ever seen. Today, the EU is a global powerhouse – together, its 27 members make up one of the strongest economic forces in the world, and the union is an increasingly assertive political voice outside its own borders. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of its success is the fact that EU accession is a top political priority in most European countries that haven’t yet joined the club.
But it was not always the case. The EU traces its roots to a six-member coal and steel common market, forged in 1951 in the aftermath of world war. The idea was for the six members – France, West Germany and Italy, plus the three Benelux countries – to bind vital sectors of western European economies together in such a way as to, in the words of French foreign minister Robert Schuman, make a repeat of war in Europe “not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” The efforts of Schuman and a determined French civil servant called Jean Monnet led, over time and through successive waves of enlargement, to the body we know today.
What can African leaders looking towards a union of their countries learn from this story? I can see five lessons.
Don’t be seduced by charisma.
Perhaps the most important lesson, particularly for Gaddafi, is that a grand project of continental union needs neither a single unifying charismatic figure to drive it nor an overarching utopian vision. If the EU can point to a “founding father,” it is probably Monnet, who worked tirelessly in endless committee meetings to further his goal of European integration. But Monnet left it to member states to sell the idea of integration to their citizens. He understood that if union was to succeed, it would be through the grinding work of building institutions, constructing treaties and binding nations into a structural set-up that they would find it more difficult to exclude themselves from than to join.
At the same time, Monnet was a resolute “gradualist”. Although his ultimate aim was for Europe to become a federal state along the lines of the United States of America, he understood that this was not a project that could be imposed on the diverse millions of Europe – but something that would have to be worked towards over generations. Today, 50 years after the founding of the European Economic Community, Europe has many of the characteristics of a single state – passport-free movement of peoples, free movement of capital and labour, a single currency, redistribution from richer regions to poorer – although the goal of fully fledged federation remains distant.
The two clear models of leadership we have for Africa are the anti-colonial hero – Nyerere, Kenyatta – and the “big man” despot – Amin, Mobutu. The continent has thrown up few quiet but determined technocratic administrators in the Monnet mould. While strong, charismatic leaders can help unite feuding factions, they can just as easily antagonise rivals and divert energy for action into petty squabbling. In Africa’s case, given the absence of any continent-wide appetite to unite behind a project of integration, the second of these would appear more likely.
Focus on the bottom line.
The EU has succeeded for one reason above all: it brings prosperity to its members. By lowering and then eliminating barriers to trade, by allowing workers to move freely, by acting as a single player in international trade negotiations and by redistributing wealth internally, the union has raised living standards across the board and made it very difficult for member states to consider leaving – even when they become infuriated with the EU’s actions. In fact, no member state has ever left the EU: the story is one of continual expansion as more and more countries have made the necessary internal reforms to join the arc of prosperity.
It is here perhaps that Museveni’s argument that Africa’s regional blocs should be strengthened before pan-African unity is pursued is strongest. Most African countries trade more with their neighbours than with states across the continent; it would seem wise to encourage these trade relationships before embarking on an unrealistic scheme to free up trade across the continent. The sheer scale of the challenge is illustrated by the fact that it can cost more for an east African to import a car from west Africa than from east Asia.
Strength through diversity.
Despite the wishes of some of its more fervent supporters, the European Union has never been characterised by any real unity – whether political, cultural or, despite the single currency, economic. Europe’s “common foreign and security policy” deteriorated with the divisions that emerged over the Iraq war, with Britain, Italy, Spain and some eastern European states lining up with Bush in favour of invasion while France and Germany led the international opposition. Different countries have responded to today’s economic crisis in different ways, with ministers in France and Germany publicly criticising the British approach. Even attitudes to the union itself vary wildly across the continent, with France and Germany, the traditional “motors” of integration, counterbalanced by more Eurosceptic nations like Britain and Sweden. But by striving for unity among European countries, the EU has managed to endure serious scraps between its members – and even to thrive in some areas.
There is no obvious reason why this model cannot work for Africa. The challenge will be the same as it has been for Europe: to find a method of integrating states while allowing them space for legitimate disagreements – and ensuring that those disagreements do not hinder the fundamental project of union.
Make the most of war.
The seeds of the EU were planted in the fertile ashes of war. As described above, the motivation of the EU’s founding figures was to make it impossible for Europe ever to experience again the kinds of destructive warfare that tore the continent apart not once but twice in the first half of the 20th century. The big countries soon found that European integration was in their national interest. France saw the project as the most effective way to pursue its own strategic aims – in particular, binding its two-time foe Germany (then West Germany) into and making it dependent on a supranational system. Wartime allies West Germany and Italy, meanwhile, were desperate to be rehabilitated into the community of nations, and here was the perfect way for them to do so. (Later, post-fascist Spain and Portugal sought membership for similar reasons.) The smaller west European nations, for their part, were happy to take advantage of the prosperity and global clout that membership of the EU offered. Above them all stood the United States, which supported the development of European integration as a bulwark against communism. Decades later, the EU provided the Warsaw Pact nations with an ideal opportunity to rejoin the global system they had been locked out of during the cold war.
Africa, of course, has seen more than its fair share of destructive wars in the postcolonial era. But the geopolitical dynamics here are very different from post-second world war Europe. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past decade has been artlessly described as Africa’s first world war owing to the way it sucked in armies from all over the region. But consider the differences. First of all, the region is nowhere yet near stable. Ugandan soldiers roam the forests and parks of eastern DRC, hunting out Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Rwanda continues its involvement against Hutu militias in DRC, with, for now, Congolese support. DRC itself remains the archetypal failed state, with violence rampant, infrastructure scant and government impotent. Second, while France and Germany were neighbours and shared a history, the major powers in Africa – South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya – are geographically dispersed and tend to be regionally rather than continentally focused. Third, Africa as a whole faces no grave ideological foe in the way that the western European nations did in the formative years of the European project, in the form of the Soviet Union. And of course there is no great external power protecting the development of African union, in the way the US did with Europe. In this context, it is difficult, to say the least, to see the wars in DRC or elsewhere serving as catalysts for union in Africa.
Adversity is your friend.
It has become almost a cliché to say of the European Union that it progresses only in times of adversity. (This is why some analysts believe the current financial crisis will lead to further European integration.) And there is no doubt that the EU has been able to weather some serious storms in its history – the crisis generated by General de Gaulle’s refusal to allow Britain to join in 1963 and again four years later; the various defeats in national referendums on EU agreements (most recently Ireland’s “no” vote on the Lisbon treaty, a problem the union has not yet solved). It is through the process of working out how to manage competing demands and to resolve conflict that the EU has happened upon its complex but successful model. So in this sense, one might say that problems have been necessary for progress.
Of course, if setbacks were an indicator of success, Gaddafi’s project to unify Africa would be virtually complete. As things stand, it looks as remote as ever. But the Libyan leader, no stranger to tribulation himself, can at least take heart from the fact that the nations of Europe have managed to overcome a myriad of what seemed like insurmountable obstacles to form one of the most powerful forces in the world.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.