Africa my beginning, Africa my ending

May 26, 2013

Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki

IOL – This year, 2013, Africa celebrates 50 years of the existence of the very first organisation in the entirety of the existence of our continent, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established to assert and pursue the unity of Africa among and despite its immensely diverse nationalities, cultures, languages and religious beliefs, and imposed national boundaries.

Thus must we understand that the historic effort to achieve practically the unity of Africa, expressed through the establishment of the OAU, is only 50 years old, and is therefore in its infancy.

In this context we must take into account the first historic task the OAU correctly set itself at its foundation. This was to unite in the ultimately successful but otherwise complex and protracted struggle to ensure the total liberation of Africa from colonialism and white minority rule. This objective was only achieved in 1994, 31 years after the establishment of the OAU, with the liberation of South Africa.

During the millennia before the colonisation of our continent, we did indeed have a few kingdoms as established state formations, many of them with ill-defined jurisdictions in terms of territory and sovereignty over distinct ethnic groups.

The fact is that largely, as Africans, we did not have the hard borders of individual “nation states”, even in the Sudan, Egyptian and Carthaginian antiquity. These were imposed on the continent as a result of the infamous 1885 Berlin Conference, which carved up Africa into geographically defined territories owned by the various European colonial powers. These boundaries largely serve as Africa’s current state borders.

Over the millennia the Africans migrated freely and widely across our continent, effectively treating our continent as a common patrimony and matrimony.

This is the reason that even today large swathes of our continent, across and without regard to the many colonially imposed boundaries, share the same languages and cultures, and therefore a common African identity.

It is because of this common African identity that we find that the various languages, such as Hausa in Nigeria, the indigenous languages in southern Africa, and kiSwahili in east Africa, to some extent, share some common words, proverbs and idiomatic expressions.

Indeed, in antiquity, some Africans, part of the very first members of the species homo sapiens, the global modern humanity, migrated out of Africa, not bound by any physical or political boundaries, to constitute the founding base of today’s diverse world community of peoples, in all continents.

In effect, by the time of the Berlin Conference, the Africans had established the fact in practice, through the millennia, that they were bound together by a common identity, not defined by any borders or boundaries.

With regard to our own country, South Africa, many of us who were brought up politically by the ANC have always known that the goal of African unity has stood out as one of the central objectives of our national liberation movement. This is because of what we learnt from our history, from the period of the establishment of the “Ethiopian church” in our country – a church independent of the colonial European church towards the end of the 19th century – and even earlier, to the moment of the establishment of the ANC.

What emphasised this for us was that the ANC was established with one of its specifically expressed objectives being “to bury the demon of tribalism” – the tribalism which had created the African disunity that resulted in the victory of the European project (which was disastrous for us as Africans) to colonise our continent!

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere captured the all-Africa sentiment for African unity when he said at the World Assembly of Youth in Dar es Salaam in 1961: “I am a firm advocate of African unity. I am convinced that, just as unity was necessary for the achievement of the independence of Tanganyika, or in any other nation, unity is necessary for the whole of Africa, to achieve and maintain her independence.”

Emperor Haile Selassie
Emperor Haile Selassie

Two years after Mwalimu Nyerere delivered the speech, on May 23, 1963, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I delivered his historic opening address to begin the proceedings of the Conference of Independent African States which established the Organisation of African Unity – the OAU.

This seminal speech was fully consistent with what Mwalimu Nyerere had said. In fact it defined in greater detail what should be done to give content to the shared aspiration for the unity of Africa. It might be that some readers of this article may be surprised and amazed that I will refer so insistently to what was said by a feudal African monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie I.

In this regard I would humbly advise these to bear in mind that this feudal monarch represented a millennia-old African kingdom. During the period of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, like the rest of our indigenous traditional African state formations, throughout Africa, it occupied the front trenches in the struggle to defend the independence of the peoples of Africa.

In this context, specifically, inspired especially by the historic victory at Adwa during which the Ethiopian masses were led by his preceding emperor, Haile Selassie had to lead the resistance to the brutal Italian occupation of Ethiopia during the period of World War II.

This process began with the Italian colonial war in Ethiopia in 1935, and ultimately led to the recovery of Ethiopia’s independence from Italian colonialism in 1941.

In this struggle, Haile Selassie led his people and country inspired by everything his predecessors, particularly Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu, had done to defend the independence of Ethiopia, including during the Battle of Adwa, which resulted in the defeat of colonising Italy in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference.

This Italian invasion and occupation in the 20th century sought to reverse the humiliating defeat which imperialist Italy had suffered in the previous century, in 1896, at Adwa.

Thus it was that Ethiopia was one of the three African countries which participated in the establishment of the United Nations Organisation (UN) at the end of World War II these being Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa.

What Haile Selassie said 50 years ago, at the founding conference of the OAU, remains, to this day, a defining statement in terms of what Africa must do to realise her hopes. This includes the achievement of her unity, the defence of her independence, the implementation of an independent development programme, and constructing a polity in favour of the emancipation of the ordinary African people from poverty and underdevelopment.

Having laid out a very clear road map, the emperor sounded a warning and a call which must surely be at the centre of our reflections as we celebrate the OAU at 50.

He said: “A century hence, when future generations study the pages of history, seeking to follow and fathom the growth and development of the African continent, what will they find of this conference?

“Will it be remembered as an occasion on which the leaders of a liberated Africa, acting boldly and with determination, bent events to their will and shaped the future destinies of the African people?

“Will this meeting be memorialised for its solid achievements, for the intelligence and maturity which marked the decisions taken here?

“Or will it be recalled for its failure, for the inability of Africa’s leaders to transcend local prejudice and individual differences, for the disappointment and disillusionment which followed in its train?”

We are half-a-century hence after the establishment of the OAU. We must respond to the questions and challenges which Emperor Haile Selassie posed on the very eve of the establishment of our continental organisation.

I believe that the fundamental question we must consider, critically, as we celebrate the OAU at 50, is – what have we done over half a century to advance towards the achievement of the objective of African unity?

This is particularly important because I believe that the perspective advanced by Mwalimu Nyerere and Emperor Haile Selassie, so many decades ago, and even as early as the 19th century by other African patriots is true and correct – that as Africans we cannot achieve our all-round liberation and renaissance unless we act in unity.

This means that none of our countries can achieve its individual fundamental objectives, to guarantee its independence and to determine its own independent path of socio-economic development, acting on its own, outside the context of united African action.

It is for this reason that I am convinced that the task to reflect on the challenges and opportunities to realise the objective of meaningful African unity must stand at the centre of our celebration of the OAU at 50.

In this context, in the address at the conference which established the OAU we have cited, Haile Selassie made important comments which remain relevant to this day.

In fact, these served as the agenda of the critical Grand Debate on the Union Government of Africa, the theme of the AU summit meeting held in Accra, Ghana in 2007, which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the independence of Ghana.

In the 1963 address by Emperor Haile Selassie we have cited, he said: “While we agree that the ultimate destiny of this continent lies in political union, we must at the same time recognise that the obstacles to be overcome in its achievement are at once numerous and formidable.

“Africa’s people did not emerge into liberty under uniform conditions. Africans maintain different political systems. Our economies are diverse. Our social orders are rooted in differing cultures and traditions.”

For his part, and at the same founding conference of the OAU in 1963, the outstanding African patriot, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, said: “We are fast learning that political independence is not enough to rid us of the consequences of colonial rule. The movement of the masses of the people of Africa for freedom from that kind of rule was not only a revolt against the conditions which it imposed.

“Our people supported us in our fight for independence because they believed that African governments could cure the ills of the past in a way which could never be accomplished under colonial rule…

To answer the vital and historic question – “what is to be done?” – concerning the challenge to achieve the unity of Africa, so vital to the future of our continent, we will have to respond honestly and frankly to the stark summary of our condition which Emperor Haile Selassie described when he said: “In a very real sense, our continent is unmade. It still awaits its creation and its creators.”

I am convinced that the centuries-long period of the violent seizure and export of African slaves to the Americas and Arabia, and the European imperialist and colonial domination of Africa, “unmade” Africa.

Accordingly, our striving to achieve the renaissance of Africa must focus on the “remaking” of Africa!

That “remaking” must aim to achieve exactly the objectives which Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Emperor Haile Selassie and Kwame Nkrumah set before and during the establishment of the OAU.

In reality, the “boundary” that Kwame Nkrumah was talking about was the divide between “the popular and progressive forces and movements within Africa” on one hand, and the opposed tendency on the other, which had coalesced as the “Monrovia” and “Casablanca” groups, prior to the 1963 founding conference of the OAU.

In this regard, in a lecture delivered in Tripoli, Libya, on September 23, 2002, one Abdalla Bujra said: “Indeed two ideologically opposed blocs of countries, the Casablanca and Monrovia blocks, emerged – one stood for development based on social planning and the other for market-driven development. The two blocs also had different approaches to external relations – delinking and relinking as opposed to strengthening inherited colonial links.

“Hence at the time the atmosphere throughout the continent was militantly and passionately discussing these issues. And the militancy and passion over these issues expressed themselves fully during the debates at the founding of the OAU.”

In this regard, whatever the merits of his broadly correct characterisation and argument, we must of course also take into account the impact on Bujra’s views of the simplistic and militant views about African unity which were consistently advanced by the then Libyan leader, the late Colonel Gaddafi.

Nevertheless, the hard reality is that, if indeed African unity is a fundamental condition for the renaissance of Africa, then we must ask the critical questions:

“What indigenous forces in Africa will serve as the vanguard (organising) movement to lead the African masses to engage in struggle to achieve this unity; and

“Around what specific objectives would this movement coalesce which would define the content and purposes of this unity?

Our objective reality is that in fact and in practice, we have not achieved the objective of African unity. In a sense, to put this matter broadly, we can say that we have not succeeded in bridging the divide between the “Monrovia” and “Casablanca” groups.

This is necessary to build the African political coalition which would lead the sustained offensive for genuine and durable African unity, bearing in mind the African reality which Haile Selassie detailed.

In this regard I would like to quote a famous observation made by Karl Marx in his treatise, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. He wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”