Pan-African dream a mirage as conflicts, economic pain rule

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By Dr Sizo Nkala

The year 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) which was renamed the African Union (AU) in 2002. The birth of the OAU marked the end of the colonial era which had seen most of Africa suffer under the yoke of European colonialism.

It also symbolised the beginning of the post-colonial era which engendered promises of African renaissance or rebirth. The founding document of the new continental body, the OAU Charter, committed it to ending colonialism, forging African unity, and promoting peace, security, and socio-economic development on the continent. At the core of the continental initiative was a pan-African dream underpinned by the belief that people of African descent were connected by brotherhood and sisterhood and shared a common history and a common destiny.

It was hoped that pan-Africanist ideals would lead to the unification of the continent and enhance its socio-economic potential. However, precious little has been achieved in terms of turning the pan-African dream into reality in the last 60 years. The post-colonial era has brought more suffering and misery than relief and freedom for millions of Africans who live under the violent lordship of despots. Africa has been in a permanent state of crisis since the end of colonialism.

One dimension of the crisis is political. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2022, which measures electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political culture, civil liberties, and political participation, showed that Africa is trailing the world when it comes to democracy.

While the global average for the Democracy Index was 5.29, Africa registered an average of a mere 4.14. Only Mauritius out of Africa’s 55 countries is recognised as a full democracy while 23 countries are classified as authoritarian.

These are countries where elections are rigged, dissent is violently suppressed while constitutions are tweaked to extend the incumbents’ stay in power. Vicious security forces are readily unleashed on protesters raising legitimate grievances. The Freedom in the World report of 2022 revealed that 44% of African countries home to 48% of the population are classified as unfree while 41% of the countries hosting 45% of the region’s population are classified as partly free. Only 15% of the countries with 7% of the population were labelled free countries.

As such, the vast majority of African people still live under oppressive conditions 60 years after the demise of colonialism. The lack of democracy has led to a corresponding rise in violent conflicts and military coups as people jostle for power. Since 2000 Africa has seen 22 military takeovers and 26 failed attempts. There were recent coups in countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Chad, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. According to the 2022 Global Peace Index, Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s least peaceful regions. Over the last few years, violent conflicts have erupted in Mozambique, Mali, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan which have led to the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more.

The AU has not been able to mitigate the conflicts across the continent and has been found flat-footed on many occasions. The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) which is charged with ensuring peace and security in Africa has been starved of the resources it needs to discharge its duties.

On the socio-economic front, Africa has not fared any better. Six decades into the postcolonial era, Africa’s contribution to the global GDP is only 3%, the lowest of all the regions in the world. While the economic transformation was one of the rallying cries of the anti-colonial movements, very little transformation has taken place. Africa’s role in the global economy is still, by and large, that of a supplier of raw materials to the erstwhile colonisers. Further, Africa is also the least economically integrated continent in the world with only 15% of Africa’s total trade taking place between African countries. Over 400 million people (about a third of Africa’s population) still live in extreme poverty representing around 70% of the world’s poor.

Very few African states have the capacity to deliver public goods and essential services such as water and sanitation, health, and critical infrastructure. Inequality has continued to deteriorate in Africa with a few super rich and politically connected people surrounded by widespread poverty. With a Gini co-efficient of 0.43 inequality levels in Africa are higher than other developing regions with an average Gini co-efficient of 0.39.

The richest 0.0001% in Africa reportedly own 40% of the continent’s wealth. The accumulation of extreme wealth is usually enabled by corruption expedited by unscrupulous politicians who get into public office not to serve but for personal aggrandisement. Corruption is also another cancer that afflicts Africa. According to reports, Africa loses almost $89 billion every year to illicit financial flows. More often than not, politicians are at the centre of corruption networks accumulating obscene amounts of wealth at the expense of their own people. Hence, as the continent celebrates Africa Day this month, there is sadly little to celebrate for the majority of Africans. The postcolonial ruling class continues to make a mess of a continent that holds so much promise. The pan-African dream will not see the light of day if the present state of affairs persists.

*Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies