"Before you put a roof on a house, you need to build the foundations," South African President Thabo Mbeki reportedly told diplomats at the summit meeting of the African Union in Ghana last weekend. Others were just as quick to ridicule the summit's declared goal of creating a unified African government by 2015, and it certainly isn't going to happen fast. It may never happen at all -- but it might, and it would be a very good idea. "The emergence of such a mighty stabilising force in this strife-torn world should be regarded...not as a shadowy dream of a visionary," declared Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, almost half a century ago, "but as a practical proposition which the peoples of Africa can and should translate into reality....We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late."
Nkrumah was pleading for a pan-African government instead of the jigsaw-puzzle of ex-colonies that came into existence as the European imperial powers left Africa. He was asking for the Moon: the independence struggle was waged within the borders of each colony, and the leaders who emerged had their power bases within those borders. Wider unity would have dethroned most of those leaders, so it did not happen. But now the unity project is back. The African Union was created five years ago out of the wreckage of the discredited Organization of African Unity with the goal of making Africa's rulers accountable. Now it is trying to revive the project for real African unity, and there is no shortage of Africans who argue that it is merely a distraction from urgent and concrete problems like Darfur and Zimbabwe. Maybe they are right, but what if those crises are just symptoms of a deeper African problem?
At the time most African countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they had higher average incomes and better public services than most Asian countries. Kenyans lived better than Malaysians; people in the Ivory Coast were richer than South Koreans; Zimbabweans were healthier, longer-lived and better-educated than Chinese. And there were more and worse wars in Asia than in Africa.
Now it's all dramatically the other way round, but why? Individual Africans are no less intelligent, hard-working or ambitious than individual Asians, so the answer must lie in the system. And the most striking characteristic of that system is the sheer number of independent states within Africa: fifty-three of them, in a continent that has fewer people than either India or China.
This is where the discussion usually veers off into a condemnation of the arbitrary borders drawn by the old colonial powers, which paid little heed to the ethnic ties of the people within them, but that is not the point at all. The point is that at least half of the fifty-three African countries have greater ethnic diversity within their borders than all of China. A few, like Nigeria, approach India in the sheer range and diversity of their languages, religions and ethnic identities.
You CANNOT draw rational borders for Africa that give each ethnic group its own homeland. Even if you refused that privilege to groups of less than half a million people, you'd end up with over 200 countries. So the old Organization of African Unity decreed that the colonial borders must remain untouchable, because the only alternative seemed to be several generations of separatist ethnic wars.
The problem is that quite a few of the separatist ethnic wars happened anyway, and many other African countries, to avoid that fate, became tyrannies where a "big man" from one of the dominant ethnic groups ruled over the rest by a combination of patronage and violence. Time was wasted, lives were lost, and things went backwards. It was nobody's fault, but Africa needs to change this system.
There are over two hundred ethnic groups in Africa that have over half a million people, and NONE (except the Arabs of North Africa) that amount to even five percent of the continent's population. Only three languages -- Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Japanese -- account for half the population of Asia. Even in Europe, eight languages account for 75 percent of the continent's population. Africa is different, and maybe the national state (or, rather, the pseudo-national state) is not the answer there.
The African federalists imagine a solution that jumps right over that problem: a single African Union modeled on the European Union, but where no ethnic group is even five percent of the population. Then politics stops being a zero-sum ethnic competition (at least in theory) and starts being about the general welfare. And also, in theory, the continent starts to fulfill its potential. We will all be a good deal older before the African Union, or whatever it will eventually be called, becomes more than a dream, but in the end it may. As Alpha Oumar Konare, former president of Mali and head of the African Union, said at the start of the summit: "The battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for this generation -- the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa."