To your Tents O Africa: A Critique of Pan Africanism­­­

On the 17th of July 2016, an African union passport was launched to the delight of African elites at the 27th AU summit. Every time there is a move towards economic or political integration of African countries or when free movement of people is allowed between any two African countries, it is usually greeted with approval across the board. If I had a dime for every time someone suggested that Africans or Black people around the world should “get together,” I would be a millionaire by now.

Pan Africanism, has its origins at a time when Africa was under colonial rule. Many of the founding fathers of African independence preached that Africans were brothers in the struggle against European rule and must unite if Africa was ever going to be free. Africa has mostly won its independence, yet the sentiment still remains. There is nothing wrong with this sentiment. If Pan Africanism is defined as a universal brotherhood of the African people and nothing more, there would be no need to disagree. The definition of Pan Africanism as merely a political union and voting bloc is also not too bad an idea — although political unions are almost always succeeded by economic unions which in turn are succeeded by deeper political unions ad infinitum. Unfortunately, Pan Africanists hardly ever stop there. They dream of a more deeply integrated Africa and an ever increasing easing of migration hurdles between her states. If I had an additional dime for every time someone talked of “furthering African interests” on the global stage, maybe I would be a billionaire by now.

However, what nobody seems to be giving a direct argument for is “why?” Why should African countries get together? It seems to be taken for granted that Black nations existing on the same continent are the same people, have the same experiences, the same enemies, the same problems and therefore it is in their interest to get together. But is the fact that they are both black nations good enough reason for a country to forge deeper economic bonds with another? Does the fact that two countries occupy the same geographic location necessitate open borders? Is there such a thing as “African interests?” Do all African nations have the same enemies, problems and needs? Does a country like Nigeria have the same problems and needs as South Sudan? Do Nigeria and South Sudan even have anything in common?

The answer to all the above questions is no.

It should be immediately obvious that black skin should not be the basis of economic integration and that geographic proximity does not necessitate open borders. It is fine to think that all Africans are brothers. However, when it is time to do business, such sentimentality would lead no where. Economic integration is a thing to be pursued if it produces substantial benefits for the countries involved. While it might be true that economic integration with the neighbors next door might provide marginal benefits, the neighbour next door is probably not the country with whom deeper trade would provide the most substantial benefits. When it is time for business, as long as the benefits derived are more substantial, a country like Nigeria should seek to form closer economic and political ties with a country like India before it considers same with South Sudan, regardless of the race of its inhabitants or geographic proximity. In this age of airplanes, freedom of movement agreements can be reached by countries that do not share the same geographic location. It does not have to be the neighbor next door.

Often times, Europe is used as the model for the ultimate goal of the Pan Africanist. After all the European countries “got together” to forge strong economic and political bonds and allowed freedom of movement across borders. Those who point to Europe ignore the obvious fact that Europe is Europe and Africa is Africa. They also ignore the unique conditions that produced the European union and ignore the fact that whether the European experiment can be called a success is very questionable.

However, an important lesson can be gleaned from Europe. Europe teaches that the inevitable result of such sentimental alliances, based on superficial qualities like skin color and geography, is the inequality of power and influence of participating countries. Just like the European Union, Africa is a mosaic of rich and poor economies. Such an arrangement would consist of a few dominant countries and many dependent countries. As such, there can be no such thing as a unified African interest; only the interests of the individual dominant countries. Dependent countries must sacrifice a bit of their sovereignty and flexibility. Instead of making deals with other nations based on an evaluation of the costs and benefits, dependent countries must subject themselves to trade agreements, importation bans and economic policies that marginally benefit them. In addition, they often suffer a major depletion in human resources as they are powerless in the face of mass migration of their intellectuals, talent and even their menial labourers into more advanced economic centers.

There are also disadvantages for the dominant countries involved. Such a political and economic union requires a lot of money and other resources to run. Someone must foot the bill. Also, this effectively ties the economies of such dominant countries to other less viable economies. The dominant countries are on the hook if such economies fail and, as a result, have no choice but to keep such an economy on life support — Greece is a good example. This arrangement benefits neither side as such life support is often expensive for dominant countries and kills local industries in the dependent countries.

The Pan Africanist must therefore resort to the same argument that has been used since the days of Nkrumah; Africans are brothers in the struggle against European rule and must unite if Africa is ever going to be free. Whether a straight line can be drawn between deeper economic integration or more open borders and freedom from European rule remains to be seen. Even if this was case, African nations can find many brothers in the struggle against European rule outside the shores of Africa. There are many non African victims of Western exploitation and thus this argument would also be an argument for integration with Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Since the practicality of such integration is doubtful, this would lead back to the original point that race and geographical location can not be the determining factor in determining economic and political ties, rather countries must determine which alliances produce the most benefit.

The flimsy ideal of the brotherhood of the African people is no good reason for a country to lose the flexibility that comes with independence in exchange for the inextricable chains of a larger bureaucratic structure. To your tents O Africa.