Will There Ever Be Unity in Africa?

On the African Union's 50th anniversary, ethnic strife and economic competition remain barriers to peace.

African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- This year, African heads of state are celebrating 50 years of Pan-Africanism through the African Union and its progenitor, the Organization of African Unity. Heads of state are meeting on Saturday at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to celebrate the 54-nation organization, founded on Marcus Garvey's Pan-Africanist philosophy of collective self-reliance and economic, political and social unity. That dogma has been embraced by African leaders and members of the Diaspora, including Bob Marley, who devoted a song to the topic.

But in modern Africa, the reality looks far different.

Since the organization's founding 50 years ago, Africa has only splintered more, subdividing itself further from the old colonial boundaries that are largely still in place. Since 1963 a handful of new nations have come out of such subdivisions: Western Sahara, Namibia, Eritrea and, most recently, South Sudan. The African Union has insisted on keeping old colonial boundaries, partly in an effort to prevent more countries from breaking off and possibly creating conflict in the process.  

Today the continent is riven with ethnic conflict, economic competition and petty diplomatic quibbles that rend the fabric of the glorious patchwork quilt that Africa was supposed to be. The AU has drawn condemnation for showing almost paralytic inaction on important issues and conflicts, including the conflict in Mali.

But analyst Solomon Ayele Dersso of the Institute for Security Studies has argued that one thing tearing at the fabric of African unity is African leaders themselves. Africa's catastrophic conflicts in the 1990s, he said, meant that "whatever unity that emerged within the OAU was a unity in dictatorship, corruption and misery."

Some of the problems go back to the organization's early days, he told The Root, when African leaders buoyed by Garvey's vision failed to get the support of colleagues who lacked the true conviction to pursue African unity.

"Unity was never there to begin with," Dersso said. "All that they were interested in, it appears -- many of them -- was basically to use their newly acquired powers to their own advantages."

That's a polite way of describing the autocratic, often brutal reigns of leaders who are accused of plundering their nations' wealth while allowing their people to sink into desperate poverty. Leaders like Uganda's Idi Amin, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo -- and, ironically, two of the AU's biggest cheerleaders: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Both of those men pushed aggressively for the AU's original vision of a United States of Africa ... and, in a predictable punch line, offered their own services as president.

And the disunity has not only come from within, argues Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o. "In a strange way both African and western governments fear a strong, united, democratic Africa," he wrote this week in an editorial. "For the west such unity would mean it could no longer do whatever it wants with Africa's resources. It would no longer be the sole determinant of the prices for exports to, and imports from, the continent. Its oil and mining companies would no longer continue to be the sole, invisible masters of Africa's vast oil and mineral resources."

It's a compelling theory, certainly, but African leaders have taken positive steps to free themselves from the yoke of providing only raw materials to the world. South Africa has led that charge by joining BRICS, a group of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China. South African officials have said that they hope their participation in the multibillion-dollar trade bloc will open Africa to new investors from these developing nations.