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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: United States Of Africa? by Shaffique Adam

Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi has come up with some pretty bizarre ideas over the years, which is why it was so surprising to find a group of Cornell students seriously debating the merits of one of them: The United States of Africa. The discussion was prompted by the visit to Cornell by Pete Ondeng, the head of the Kenyan Secretariat of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), as part of the Institute for African Development's (IAD) ongoing Thursday seminar series.

The prominence of NEPAD in the IAD seminar series is indicative of how seriously many African intellectuals are considering the idea of regional integration.
Integration is a much-debated topic: The European Union will most likely decide this week that reforms in Turkey meet the Copenhagen criteria and European ministers will then vote on whether to allow Turkey to take the next step toward integration; America is constantly evaluating the success of NAFTA and debating its economic dependence on Mexican migrant workers and importation of cheap drugs from Canada. Even on the micro-scale at Cornell University, residential communities with special priorities like Ujamaa, Alice H. Cook House and the Center for Jewish Living are constantly engaged in striking a balance between forging a unique identity around their founding principles and vision and integration with the broader campus community.

However, to discuss integration in Africa, one needs to have a better understanding of the continent. At this time, one needs a healthy dose of optimism even to begin examining the problems that African countries face. The economic climate is characterized by widespread poverty, rampant unemployment, large foreign debt and a workforce crippled by HIV/AIDS, where it is estimated that in many countries, almost one in three young adults are infected by the virus. Then we have the worse examples of countries plagued by civil war and genocide. The inability of the Organization of African Unity to handle the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan and the exodus of refugees it has created just add to a long list of the continent's shortcomings, which include not providing clean water to most of its citizens; causing millions to die from preventable diseases and entire villages dying from starvation during floods and droughts because relief food can not be adequately distributed.

In examining the vicious cycle of African poverty, Mr. Ondeng notes that Sub-Saharan African countries transfer to their creditors several times more money than they spend on healthcare. Unfortunately, the transition from colonialism to corrupt post-colonial leaders, fueled by institutional and multinational corporate profiteers who were unabated by illiterate populations has left the continent in dire straits. Perhaps the malady of African leadership is illustrated by the recent talks aimed at providing some sort of government in war-torn Somalia. When the delegates of the Transitional National Government of Somalia realized that they were being hosted luxuriously in the city of Eldoret, they brought along three times as many cronies than they were permitted. Being cash-strapped, the organizers soon decided to move to a cheaper location in Nairobi, which immediately prompted boycott calls from the Somali leaders: It was contrary to their religious beliefs to be hosted in a city that had a zoo! With leaders who always put their personal comfort over the welfare of their people, there is no hope for progress on the continent.

It is within this African context that one must understand Mr. Ondeng's cautious optimism and the vision for a United States of Africa. Eyeing with envy the economic prowess of America and the European Union, to some a united continent is the Utopian solution to all Africa's problems. Proponents argue that countries in Africa were sliced up arbitrarily during the Berlin Conference, with borders cutting through tribal lines, leaving behind an odd mixture of people with strong tribal identities bundled together and expected to form a democratic state. For example, the Kenyan population is so comfortable with tribal politics that nobody raised an eyebrow when the columnists for the leading Kenyan newspapers demanded that after the death of former Kenyan Vice President Michael Wamalwa, his successor be chosen from the same Luhya ethnic community to preserve the tribal balance of power in the country; and indeed this is exactly what happened. In much of Africa, elections are more about tribal affiliations and alliances than they are about issues and ideology.

It is unlikely that a United States of Africa would solve any of these problems. If geography is the basis for integration, then Egypt is better off casting its lot with Syria and Israel than with Namibia and Madagascar; Algeria and Morocco should capitalize on their proximity to Europe rather than looking for common ground with Zimbabwe. More important, even regional integration like the East African Community had to be postponed for five years because it came with a whole host of problems. Allowing in geographically mobile and educated workforces from a neighboring country can only further exacerbate local unemployment with no guarantee that profits will not be repatriated back to the home country. Furthermore, expanded markets only benefit countries with a comparative advantage in manufacturing industries and with available capital, which again will benefit some countries to the short-term detriment to others.

Odeng counters that we should look at the long-term benefit. The wisdom of John Keynes replies that there is no such thing as the long run: "In the long run, we are all dead." Odeng rebuts that we should plant the seeds of integration, whose fruits will be reaped by a future generation. This discussion brings to mind a Kenyan proverb: We did not inherit the world from our parents, we merely borrowed it for our children.

Shaffique Adam is a graduate student in physics. He can be reached at

Note: This article first appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

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