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.

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"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."

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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.

In a way, that development is allowing Africa to slowly converge at the grassroots level, through technology and media that are enhancing Africans' knowledge of one another.

"Africa is more united than ever before," said Dersso, the analyst. "More and more Africans are moving from one part to another part. You see more interest and awareness across the continent."

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That may be true, but familiarity also seems to be breeding contempt.

A few weeks ago, I found myself speaking to a lovely older gentleman at one of Johannesburg's numerous monuments to the ills of apartheid. He told me that, nearly 60 years after the fact, he was still hurt and angry that the apartheid government had evicted his entire neighborhood from this historic, once vibrant black area.

I asked him if he'd consider moving back, now that he was free to do so.

"No," he said, gesturing at a crowd of shabbily dressed men on the street corner, who had asked me for money on my way in.

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"Those guys," he said with a scowl, "are foreigners. They bring crime when they come here. They steal our jobs. They are bad news."

"But I'm a foreigner," I said. "You don't seem to have a problem with me, and I definitely took a job away from a South African."

"It's not the same," he said, shooting me a you-should-know-better look. I did. In South Africa, "foreigner" is a common term for immigrants from southern Africa — Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Congolese nationals.

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What immediately sprang to mind were the images of the xenophobic riots that shocked South Africa in 2008. Or, more recently, how South African police dragged a young Mozambican man behind a van, an act that likely led to his death.

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.

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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."

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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.

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