Barring unforeseen glitches, this edition of Engineering News will hit the newsstands on May 24, a day before the fifty-sixth anniversary of the day when then Ethiopian leader Emperor Haile Selassie hosted the leaders of newly independent African States at a get- together that gave birth to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the antecedent organisation of today’s African Union.
Including Selassie, whose country was never colonised, 32 heads of State and government were in attendance. Each took to the podium, setting out his expectations of the new pan-African body. I have read many of the speeches over the years and found the one by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah – delivered on the eve of the official founding of the OAU (half a century ago today) – to be the most inspiring.
For the uninitiated, Nkrumah’s Ghana, known as the Gold Coast in colonial times, was the first sub-Saharan African country to attain independence – on March 6, 1957. Nkrumah was a devoted pan-Africanist and, as he stood up to address his peers on that auspicious day 50 years ago, he did not waste time in declaring: “Our objective is African union now. There is no time to waste. We must unite now or perish.” It’s a pity that, to some in the Ghanaian army, he was a prophet who did not have honour in his own village; they overthrew him in 1966. He lived in exile until his death in 1972 at age 66.
So committed was Nkrumah to African unity that he chided those in his audience who appeared to be dragging their feet on the matter: “We have been too busy nursing our separate States to understand fully the basic need of our union, rooted in common purpose, common planning and common endeavour.”
These words are as true today as they were when they were uttered all those many moons ago. This is exemplified by, for example, the slow pace regarding the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). At the last count, the agreement setting up the continentwide free trade area had secured 49 signatures and 12 ratifications – 10 short of the 22 required for it to enter into force. Nigeria, whose economy is among the largest three on the continent, is one of those countries that have not yet signed up.
Very few people would dispute that the proposed free trade area is a compelling proposition – it will ensure that Africa has a truly integrated market that completely removes the historical pattern of smallness that bedevils African economies, as well as their isolation and fragmentation and consequential lack of competitiveness.
Kenyan academic Professor Patrick Lumumba illustrated the disadvantages of smallness and fragmentation in a recent lecture in which he cited Lesotho as being completely unable, because of its size, to negotiate meaningful trade or others deals on an equal footing with the likes of China. In his view, better outcomes would be achieved if African countries engaged in negotiations of this nature not as nation States but as blocs, of which we have a few: the Southern African Development Community, the East African Community, the Economic Community of Central African States, the Economic Community of West African States, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, and the Arab Maghreb Union.
Lumumba conceded that first prize would be trade and related negotiations taking place at continental level, through a pan-African entity like the AfCFTA. In saying that, he was echoing Nkrumah, who said on May 24, 1963: “We want a united Africa, united not only in our concept of what unity connotes, but united in our common desire to move forward together in dealing with all problems that can best be solved only on a continental basis.”
Those in the know tell us that, if the AfCFTA were to come into effect this year and tariff and nontariff barriers were to be removed, intra-African trade would double by 2022 and all of us would benefit from the pooled and expanded sovereignty. That’s the kind of vision Nkrumah had. I hope it will be realised one day.