In a few days, Africans at home and in the diaspora will be celebrating the fifty-seventh anniversary of Africa Day, which marks the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the antecedent body of the African Union (AU), back in 1963. Were it not for the physical distancing and bans on gatherings necessitated by the raging Covid-19 pandemic, May 25 was going to see much merrymaking – read braaiing, imbibing and listening to great speeches – in those African countries where the day is a public holiday.
But those of us in Mzansi and many other countries, I must say, will not notice any difference, as May 25 has never equated to a day away from the office, the factory floor or wherever. I think we need a Codesa-like process here, spearheaded by those with pan-African pretensions. Cosatu comes to mind. So too does Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. But we must be careful not to allow him to continue to play a leading role in national affairs once he has managed to have Africa Day added to the list of public holidays. His race nationalism sickens me, and it would be a sad day if he were to take control of the levers of power.
With merrymaking out of the question this year, Africans with their continent at heart will most probably spend next Tuesday reflecting on the ideals that led to the founding of the OAU. To become familiar with those ideals, one only needs to read the speeches delivered by our early leaders in Addis Ababa on that May day nearly six decades ago. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was, of course, one of the leading lights of the pan-African movement, with a vision for an eventual United States of Africa under one flag and one central government. That vision was expressed so eloquently when the great man addressed his peers and has been reported on by the media times without number. So, I will focus on one of the less ventilated speeches – by Nigerian Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa.
In fact, Nkrumah’s and Balewa’s takes on African unity were diametrical opposites. Balewa said: “Some of us have suggested that African unity should be achieved by political fusion of the different States of Africa; some of us feel that African unity could be achieved by taking practical steps in economic, educational, scientific and cultural cooperation and by trying first to get the Africans to understand themselves before embarking on the more complicated and more difficult arrangement of political union. My country stands for the practical approach to the unity of the African continent. We feel that, if this unity is to last, it must start from the beginning.”
Another key takeaway from Balewa’s speech was that African States should endeavour to create an African common market. But he was quick to add: “What appears to us to be more practical is that we should have an African common market based on certain groupings. We are thinking, sir, of a North African grouping which will include Sudan; a West African grouping which will extend to the River Congo; an East African grouping which will include almost all the Central African countries. If we base our examinations on these groupings, I think we will arrive at a very successful establishment of an African common market, because I think it is good for the trade of Africa. For example, the inter-State trade in Africa is 10%, and 90% is done with countries outside Africa. There is no reason why we should not increase the inter-State trade on this continent.”
While we now have several regional economic blocs and an intercontinental trade area is taking shape, that intra-African trade remained in the low teens for much of the past decade, before jumping to 17% in 2018, must be causing Balewa to turn in his grave.