New Internationalist

Future Imperfect

Issue 326

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Africa / DEMOCRACY

Demonstrating for children's rights in Durban, South Africa. Grassroots democracy and civil society are becoming ever stronger in Africa.
GIACOMO PIROZZI / PANOS
Future imperfect
Would a united Africa benefit the ordinary people who live there?
Or would it be driven by the corporate agenda? And what are the dangers
along the way? Yao Graham envisages two very different scenarios.

A couple of years ago, after checking me in, the receptionist in a hotel in Cairo, Egypt, informed me that he had to keep my passport. 'Why?' 'Oh, that is what we do for all people coming from Africa,' he replied. Gamal Abdel Nasser must have turned in his grave.

Nasser's close collaboration with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah was central to establishing the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. The OAU charter announced a 'determination to promote understanding among our peoples and co-operation among States in response to the aspirations of our peoples for brotherhood and solidarity, in a larger unity transcending ethnic and national differences'.

Some 37 years on, the hassles of travelling within the continent remain one of the starkest statements of the unfulfilled promise of Pan-Africanism. There are few countries without stories about the arbitrariness, venality and corruption with which public officials treat visitors from other African countries. In many cases they are the fall guys for social ills.

Rights groups in South Africa have questioned the treatment of illegal African immigrants by the police. Last year in Ghana an irate mob in the capital Accra burned down a drinking place frequented by Liberian refugees, blaming them for the unsolved serial murder of women. Not too long ago Gabon, faced with a crime wave in its capital, Libreville, rounded up 'suspicious' African immigrants.

This treatment is not simply a function of the wariness and suspicion towards the 'other' which is present in every society. Nor can it be blamed simply on the failure of the OAU and its regional bodies to establish freedom of movement, as the experience of citizens of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) shows. ECOWAS permits visa-free travel and up to 90 days' residence in any member country for its citizens. Yet travel in the region is still unpleasant, particularly for cross-border traders. As a Malian merchant acidly remarked: 'Customs officers don't want to know whether our goods are manufactured in the ECOWAS region, they just rip us off.' A Ghanaian recalls that, between the Ghana - Côte d'Ivoire border and Abidjan, his bus was stopped 12 times by police and customs officials.

You cannot shave a person’s head in his absence

These experiences are an ugly strand of the alienated relationship between state and citizen in most African countries. For most of the post-colonial period the idea of a leading role for the state in development was implemented in one of two ways. In countries such as Zaire and Togo a ruling clique adapted the repressive colonial state machinery to protect their private plunder. Elsewhere visionary leaders such as Nkrumah, Nasser and Nyerere harnessed people's energy to realize their own development plans.

'You cannot shave a person's head in his absence,' says Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu, secretary-general of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity. The ruinous effects of governments shaving absent heads at the national level - making false claims on behalf of the people they are supposed to represent - have been mirrored at the Pan-African level, where ordinary people have barely got a look in.

'We take the question of popular participation very seriously,' says Sunmonu, who was a keynote speaker at a landmark conference on popular participation and democracy held in Arusha, Tanzania in February 1990. This produced an 'African Charter for Popular Participation in Development and Transformation' (the 'Arusha Charter').

1990 was of course a critical year in the surge of political liberalization across Africa and this gathering helped to legitimize the whole idea of popular participation and grassroots democracy. Citizens and their organizations now have a stronger and more active voice in national politics right across Africa, and this both feeds and is fed by a greater Pan-African awareness.

The field of human rights is a case in point. According to Professor Emmanuel Dankwa, chair of the OAU's African Commission on Human and People's Rights, civil-society activism has made an invaluable contribution to the work of the Commission in recent years. 'Without civil-society organizations, there would have been very little progress. Over 90 per cent of the complaints that have been brought against State parties have come from civil society. When you are going on a mission, you rely on civil-society organizations for a fair picture of the situation in that country.'

In this scene from Freetown, Sierra Leone, which is ‘The Real Thing’? African unity could yet be hijacked by the high priests of globalization.
CLIVE SHIRLEY / PANOS

The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, signed by 53 countries, came into force in 1986. Depending on your stance it was either a small but important step or a cynical compromise among repressive regimes. It recognizes all universal rights but these are subject to clawback clauses, clearly intended to retain the supremacy of domestic laws - small wonder that some of the most authoritarian rulers felt able to ratify it, such as Togo's Eyadema and Zaire's Mobutu.

Until recently, the Charter was marginal to African political life. But now, human-rights campaigners in repressive situations, such as Nigeria under Abacha, have started to find the Commission a useful forum. 'When the jurisdiction of the courts was ousted in Nigeria we became a human-rights court of first instance,' Dankwa remembers, 'but sadly we were unable to save Saro-Wiwa.'

The OAU has decided to create an African Court of Human Rights. There is talk of amending and strengthening the Charter; a draft Pan-African treaty on the rights of women is also in the works.

An updated Pan-African human-rights code, enforced by stronger independent institutions, could establish minimum standards of democratic political culture. This will be an important girder in the credibility and legitimacy of Pan-African political and peace-keeping institutions. It is arguable that the existence of such a framework could have saved some countries from sliding into political crisis and internal conflict, saved lives and reduced the resources devoted to violent conflict and reconstruction.

Côte d'Ivoire provides a case in point. Soon after last December's coup in that country, a number of West African leaders disclosed that they had privately warned then- President Konan Bedie that his handling of the country's political problems was taking the country to the brink. These leaders are proud of having set up a regional military force, ECOMOG, which has intervened in civil wars - yet they are not ready openly to criticize undemocratic leadership practices which feed violent conflicts and coups.

We are seeing a resurgence of mass movements... That is the real African renaissance

One unintended consequence of tragic conflicts like these has been the breakdown of the colonial borders in the name of which African leaders indulge each other. Across the Sierra Leone/Liberia/Guinea borders and in the conflict zones of Central Africa, communities divided by colonialism have reintegrated due to the collapse of state authority during years of war. It would be difficult simply to restore the old divisions.

It is in the area of economic activity that Pan-African integration has promised and disappointed in equally large measure. The failure is not for lack of proclamations and institutions. There are more than ten regional economic integration bodies on the continent. But there is still no African Common Market, although the OAU set 2000 as the date for its completion some 20 years ago.

Today there is a new flurry of talk about economic integration which involves a contest between two visions. One is rooted in the neo-liberal economics of the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and sees African integration as a subset of globalization. The other, which underpins the Pan-African ideal, seeks to create space for Africa-centred development and to forge a better deal for Africa from the global system.

African governments appear to have their feet in both camps but the sweeping neo-liberal policies they have implemented under IMF/World Bank structural-adjustment programmes tilt them towards acting as a footstool for globalization. The threat of neo-liberalism comes not only from the demands of the WTO and IMF, but from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, recently signed by US President Bill Clinton, and from a new partnership agreement between the European Union and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. 'The emphasis of the ACP-EU trade regime constitutes a serious threat to Africa's strategy for regional integration and development.' says OAU Assistant Secretary-General Vijay Makhan.

Not surprisingly, the double talk of African governments is mirrored in the modern Pan-African movement in the American diaspora. The split loomed in conflicting African-American attitudes towards Clinton's African Growth and Opportunity Act and crystallized in last February's National Summit for Africa in Washington.

This brought together more than 2,000 Pan-Africanists and 'friends of Africa'. From beginning to end there were sharp political differences between those who want corporate America in the driver's cab of the National Summit for Africa's future work and those who oppose this idea. In a sign of the times, one of the loudest voices at the Summit was Leonard Robinson Jr, who worked for Ronald Reagan, promoted constructive engagement with apartheid South Africa and subsequently became a lobbyist for two of Africa's worst dictators, Eyadema and Abacha.

On the continent and in the diaspora the definition of Pan-Africanism is therefore the subject of a new contestation. Will it be for the people or at their expense?

This magazine has highlighted the absence of African news in the West. A good source of such stories accessible from anywhere in the world is: www.africanews.org
The Panafrican News Agency has its own page on this site at: www.africanews.org/PANA/news/

Amos Sawyerr, former President of Liberia, is optimistic that the people will prevail. 'I don't see leaders in government as the driving force of Pan-African solidarity. We are seeing a resurgence of mass movements, something that could end in a major redefinition of the post-colonial African state with increased input from below. That is the African renaissance that will eventually show up.'

Yao Graham is co-ordinator of TWN Africa.
He is also managing editor of African Agenda.


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