Egyptians divided over proposed African Union

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Al-Ahram / IPS, 25 June - The current proposal for Pan-African unity is drawing mixed reactions among African experts and diplomats in Egypt. Some see it as reflecting great aspirations for development of the continent while others say there and too many constraints for the project to succeed.

Some believe the idea will not take-off because it is the brain-child of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. "He always comes with a new idea, promoting it for a while before rejecting it to move to another attractive slogan. Remember his previous advocacy for the Pan-Arab unity?" said Abdel-Karim Samy, a teacher.

Samir Mahmoud, a journalist, said, "Gaddafi has now become indelibly associated with the simple injunction: Africa must unite." Mahmoud contrasts Gaddafi against those African leaders "who cringe and cower at the prospects of a real bid for unity. The ideological disciples of the leaders who thwarted Nkrumah's dream of African unity now want to ruin Gaddafi's plans".

Forty-odd years ago, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president and a leading figure in the anti-colonial movement, and a handful of other founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) attempted in vain to accomplish African political and economic union. Since then, a combination of tedious bickering, petty jealousies and personal rivalries have thwarted their pioneering efforts. 

In the latest effort at continental unity all 53 OAU member countries, heeding a call from Gaddafi signed a declaration on African Union, better known as the Sirte Declaration of September 1999. This was formally adopted in Lomé, Togo in July 2000 at a regular session of OAU heads of state and government.

By the end of the Sirte summit, some 31 African states had ratified the declaration on the proposed Union. The African Union does not come into full effect, however, until at least two thirds of OAU member states - 36 countries - ratify it. The expectation is that this threshold will be reached at the next OAU Assembly and Summit to be held in Lusaka, Zambia, 2-11 July. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher will lead the Egyptian delegation to Lusaka.

In the 1950s and 60s Egypt, under President Gamel Abdel Nasser, was in the forefront of both African and Arab Unity. Now, official attitude to the proposal is unclear but it appears that Cairo favours economic co-operation, but it is more cautious when it comes to political unity. "To be realistic, this proposal will not take place before five or seven years from now, since the democratic experience and political ideology varies to a great extent in the continent. Therefore, no unity can be achieved in the meantime," commented a high-ranking official in the Egyptian foreign ministry who requested anonymity.

The OAU, symbol of the dreams of Africa's independence leaders, was born in 1963 in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa but its achievements have fallen short of the promise. The Sirte Declaration calls upon African leaders to work to see it launched by the year 2010 at the very latest. The vision is a United States of Africa, or at least an African Union similar, but not identical, to the European Union.

- Unity has been an elusive goal, and Africa's myriad conflicts will dominate at least the next decade in this continent, said Ahmed Fathy, a professor of political science at Cairo University. 

Critics of the proposal point to an absence of a concrete plan of action and conflicts among amny African nations as insurmountable obstacles. "The political unification of the entire continent is simply unrealistic, particularly at a time when - as so often - most African countries are engaged in some sort of civil strife or border disputes," said Dia' Rashwan, a researcher in African affairs in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. 

What some see as inherent contradiction between a Pan-African orientation and Arab identity and culture has also been cited as obstacles but former Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid, disagrees with this proposition. "I believe that the present-day African reality propels Africans to devise ways and means to seek continental solutions to the many problems facing Africa," he said, noting that "there are 10 Arab states, members of the Arab League that are located on the African continent." 

Abdel-Meguid, who was Egypt's permanent representative at the United Nations between 1972-83 said there was a close partnership between African and Arab states in various political arenas at the international level and this should promote unity. "Arab countries stood by their African brethren to end apartheid and racial segregation in the southern half of the continent. Africans, too, stood by their Arab brethren during the Arab Israeli wars" and consistently support Palestinian rights, he said. 

Amr Moussa, the current Arab League Secretary-General, spoke of the close co-operation between the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity at the "highest level". 

At present the Arab League co-operates with Africa at several levels including the Arab Fund for Technical Assistance to Africa. The Arab League also dispatches research teams, technical experts, doctors, teachers, lecturers and other professionals to African countries, he said.

Mohamed Safar, a political analyst, does not make much of differences in geography. "We should not make distinctions between Africa north and south of the Sahara. We are all Africans and we all aspire for a better future for our continent." 

He also warns against expecting quick results. ôIt took the European Union 40 years to arrive at this historical juncture. "Even so, Europe, in spite of all its achievements in cementing European unity, still faces many intractable problems. We, in Africa, must remind ourselves that working towards African unity necessitates hard work and unwavering resolve." Safar said. 

However, Ahmed El-Nokr, a journalist, says that there are so many differences in Africa, in terms of political systems, economical levels, religious and cultural concerns which may hinder such project of unity.

But Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist at Al-Ahram daily newspaper argues that unity was essential to economic progress in the global economy. "The industrialised nations have no intention of willingly giving up the privileges and powers they enjoy under the present global economic and political order. Even now, they are cementing their already formidable might by closing ranks to create ever larger and more integrated regional economic blocs."

In this new scheme of things, "Africa will inevitably be pushed even further towards the periphery, reduced to an utterly dependent appendage of Europe and/or America" unless it was united, noted Salama. 

- The challenge is enormous, but Africa must not allow this opportunity to slip, confirmed Noha Gamal Eddin, a writer who declares her support for a 'United Africa'. "Africa is in the throes of a thorough-going change - not always for the better. Well-meaning, but weak-willed resolutions will not do. The hideous whirl of dramatic events shaking the continent - the AIDS pandemic, abject poverty, under-development, mass illiteracy, and armed conflicts - must be resolved," said Gamal Eddin.

By Hala Shawky

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