Why you should care
Because not all tides are turning the same way.
Ciku Kimeria wants to visit every country on Earth, and having traveled to 44 of them, she’s well on her way. But a cruel irony threatens the Kenyan’s wanderlust dreams: African red tape. Her application for a single-entry tourist visa to Burkina Faso required her to get verified by a high-ranking police officer, a formal invitation from someone in the country, an in-person visit to the consulate and, oh, yeah, a fee of at least $60.
“My American or Japanese friends say, ‘I think I’ll go to Guinea-Bissau this weekend.’ For me, I need a month of planning,” says the 30-year-old consultant, who is currently based in Dakar.
For Kimeria and other itchy-footed Africans, all of that arcane hassle could soon disappear. Pan-Africanism is alive, well and even thriving — even as Western countries reject regional integration and look inward. Last year, the East African Community (EAC), comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, relaxed work-visa requirements for member states and made moves toward a common currency. Already, more professional Kenyans are working in Kigali. The 54-member African Union (AU) created a Standby Force to replace U.N. peacekeepers in crisis countries. This summer, it doled out the first copies of the African passport — first to a select few leaders but eventually, it says, to all Africans. The move is aimed at “creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage,” said AU official Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in a statement.
Economics has added a new urgency, especially as the prospect of a U.S.-China trade war looms. Global commodity prices have already dropped, and American tariffs on Chinese goods could put them into free fall. Experts believe that intra-continental trade could help insulate African countries from such shocks. Membership in the AU now seems to have more privileges. The North African country of Morocco, for instance, has launched a bid to rejoin the organization (it left in 1984 in a dispute over the Western Sahara) and recently invested $2 billion in Ethiopia to boost South-South economic cooperation. “There’s really a push to make Africa become tighter” economically, to remove trade barriers and expand free-trade areas, says Sangu Delle, a Ghanaian venture capitalist who invests in early-stage African companies.
— @MacJordan 🇨🇦🇬🇭 (@MacJordaN) July 18, 2016
Dreams of pan-Africanism have simmered for more than a century — at least since the continent was divvied up by Europeans in the 1880s. The desire was most palpable during the wave of decolonization in the 1960s and ’70s, when inspirational leaders like Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana preached pan-African unity, and artists and musicians like Fela Kuti coalesced around the dream of eliminating arbitrary borders. The Organization of African Unity, the precursor to the AU, debuted in 1963, and regional blocs — the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — have attempted to become more politically intertwined. But much of the political discourse has been just that — discourse.
Now, though, there’s been a shift from focusing on removing problem leaders to regional trade. The EAC, for example, has avoided talk of human rights, and instead focuses on job creation and independence from the West — even though development assistance remains a cornerstone of many countries’ budgets.
The motivations are not as kumbaya as they might seem. It’s no coincidence that, among the five member countries of the EAC, four are headed by restrictive leaders. One of them, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. And the head of the AU is, after all, the most repressive leader on the continent: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Indeed, some civil society leaders believe the new African passports will provide just another way for dictators to “track dissidents and journalists across borders,” says Revi Mfizi, a Rwandan doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
In some ways, pan-Africanism in 2016 is a by-product of Chinese influence. For decades, African countries were tied to the international community through the West, which brought its own set of norms about democracy and human rights. China stepped in with its no-strings-attached funding for infrastructure projects, and opened up another door. The country’s focus — on roads over press freedoms, and minerals instead of maternal health — made it the continent’s top trading partner. Indeed, some see the new pan-Africanism as a means of fending off the West.
Then again, one person’s intervention is another’s neocolonialist meddling. Take human-rights tribunals as an example. Three African countries recently withdrew from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, claiming the courts are racist and hypocritical. (Observers note the dismal human rights records of two of them, Gambia and Burundi.) At the same time, regional African courts are springing up to try African human-rights abusers, which will perhaps build local judicial capacity and deliver judgments that have more local credibility. The first conviction of a former head of state in Africa came this summer, when a court in Dakar, Senegal, gave Chadian dictator Hissène Habré a life sentence for torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was a pan-African effort: A judge from Burkina Faso presided over the trial, and judges from elsewhere in Africa also sat on the bench. Perhaps, with talk of similar courts in the Central African Republic and elsewhere, this is a harbinger of greater justice for Africans by Africans.
Even still, some Africanists think it remains all talk. “The dreams of a united Africa are very, very far away, and they are only revived when it comes to posturing,” says Jason Stearns, a longtime Congo researcher. After all, if we must remind you, Africa is a continent of 54 countries and a billion people, with thousands of languages, ethnic groups and identities. It might be hard to get along.
Nonetheless, Kimeria has her plan. To date, she counts 16 African countries among her passport stamps. There are only 38 more to go.