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

And this, in Africa’s most stable and prosperous nation.

When viewed from the grassroots level, African unity seems almost impossible: the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, members of the Luo and Kikuyu tribes fighting to the death in Kenya in the aftermath of the disputed 2007 election, Christians and Muslims killing each other in central Nigeria and the two horrific decades of civil war in Sudan that finally led the ethnically black people of South Sudan to separate from their northern Arab neighbors.

Worse, ethnic conflict appears to be infectious. In a beautiful, mineral-rich corner of eastern Congo, Rwanda’s genocide has spilled over the border and continues to simmer today, in the form of mass rapes, horrific killings and a cycle of never-ending violence.

Just this week, the violence in eastern Congo got so severe that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited, pledging to send 3,500 more peacekeepers and bringing along World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, who pledged $1 billion to help kick-start development that would allow locals to see some amenities they’ve never had, despite living on ground that harbors massive mineral wealth.

Ban offered a customarily wan speech on the subject, but underneath his usual platitudes, a simple idea shone through. “We have to look at the fundamental underlying causes of the problems — there lies a question of development,” he said. “Among peace and security, development and human rights, which are three pillars of the United Nations, we believe that development is the key.”

Ban and Kim’s announcement in Congo that they would focus on development — such as electricity projects and improving cross-border trade — is miles away from Garvey’s sexy pronouncements (“Africa for the Africans … at home and abroad!”). But maybe this is a more realistic vision for a new Africa — and one that African leaders seem to be slowly embracing, with infrastructure initiatives and the possible establishment of a new development bank through BRICS that will focus on Africa.

The key to moving out of conflict, to bringing people together with a common purpose, to lifting people up, may not be ideas alone. It may be cellphones, reliable electricity, satellite television, paved roads and concrete bridges.

Maybe, just maybe, that will bring the continent together. The next 50 years will tell.

A. Hawes has lived and worked in Africa for more than five years and covers a variety of topics and events.