The Organization of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963 in Addis Ababa, is attempting a transformation of sorts. Last week in Lusaka, Zambia, it changed its name to the African Union (AU) in imitation of the European Union, mostly as a result of Libyan Col. Moammar Khaddafi’s latest brainstorm and spending spree. The “new” body also decided to establish a continental Central Bank, Court of Justice, parliament, and, in the future, a single currency. Considering the realities of the African continent, and its real needs, this seems like the reshuffling of the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
To the superficial observer, all of this may be seen as a step forward. After all, who could be against African unity? But there is no such thing as “Africa” in any meaningful political and cultural sense, and there is no reason to think that the newly minted AU will be any more effective than the OAU was. What the continent needs is not another fictional show of unity or layer of bureaucracy.
Africa, like Asia and unlike Europe or Latin America, is not a cultural, political, or economic entity. It is a geographic collection of fifty-three states, virtually all postcolonial and recent inventions. Some countries have French as the official language, some Portuguese, Arabic, or English. Some have a mostly Black population, some Arab or mixed. Some are mostly Christian, some Islamic, some a mix. A handful have functional democratic systems, most are autocracies, many are kleptocracies, and all but a few (South Africa, Libya) are among the poorest in the world. Simply put, beyond accidents of geography, there is no such thing as “Africa”— except vis-a-vis the rest of the world.
For more than four decades, African elites and their intellectual mentors in the West have comfortably lived with a fiction: that whatever is wrong in the continent — tribalism, corruption, genocide, failing states, poverty, and HIV/AIDS— is somebody else’s fault, i.e., the rich West’s. Genocide in Rwanda? Blame the Belgians. Rampant anti-Asian racism in East Africa? Blame the British. Even more blatant anti-White racism in Zimbabwe? The British again. A string of spectacularly bloody tyrants, including Idi Amin in Uganda, Bokassa in Central Africa, Macias Nguema in Equatorial Guinea? The really guilty ones are in London, Paris, and Madrid; “Africa” is innocent.
But the problems go beyond denial. Take the case of Zimbabwe. Formally independent under black rule since 1980, the former Southern Rhodesia was one of the most economically developed states in Sub-Saharan Africa. It formed one-half (along with South Africa) of an exclusive club of continental food exporters, mostly due to a large, White-owned agrobusiness sector. Corn, wheat, and tobacco made famine unheard of and produced large surpluses of hard currency.
But then in 1980 Robert Mugabe, a committed Marxist, came to power, a strong believer in socialism and “racial justice.” He imposed a one-party system, aggravated ethnic cleavages— for example, unknown thousands of Ndebele were murdered by Mugabe’s Shona-based regime— and, during the past few years, fomented anti-White racism mixed with anti-free-enterprise ideology, leading to the virtual destruction of the agricultural sector. He is also giving asylum to his friend and ideological comrade in arms, one of Africa’s worst criminals, former Ethiopian Stalinist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
First, members of Mugabe’s party took over large farms and in no time managed to ruin them. Then, beginning in 1999, pro-Mugabe thugs disguised as “war veterans” invaded White-owned farms, killed their owners (Zimbabwe’s managerial class), evicted thousands of Black workers, and transformed one of Africa’s bread baskets into a famine area.
The international response was entirely off the mark. It is best characterized by a New York Times headline that read: “Zimbabwe seeks international aid to prevent famine” (July 6, 2001). Said Mugabe’s Finance Minister, Simba Makoni: “Where human life is concerned, we can find common cause to mitigate [famine].” It is the old story of the perpetrator of patricide’s asking for pity because he is now an orphan: the clear creator of famine is asking for the taxpayers of the West to pay for his crime, all in the name of a level of “humanity” to which he does not subscribe. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time until misguided relief organizations will flood our TV screen with malnourished Zimbabwean children and ask for our help without mentioning either the cause or main beneficiary of the famine— Robert Mugabe himself.
At the same time, the old British— and, indeed, Southern Rhodesian— political culture still survives. A multiracial opposition movement with majority support in the country has been able to defeat Mugabe’s attempt to make himself president for life, organize massive strikes, and, despite assassinations and the president’s open disregard of Supreme Court decisions, put serious pressure on the regime. None of this, however, is due to any pressure or influence of pan-African opinion. To the contrary, one of the AU’s first decisions was to rally behind Mugabe — the continent’s poster boy for racism, kleptocracy, and totalitarianism.
Indeed, as the New York Times (July 10, 2001) put it in another headline, “African leaders accuse Britain of attempting to isolate Mugabe.” A group made up of Nigeria (Africa’s most populous country), South Africa (the continent’s prime industrial, economic, and military power and Zimbabwe’s enabler), Kenya, Zambia, Algeria (itself under ethnic and religious attack), and Cameroon declared that the real problem is “British moves to mobilize European and North American countries to isolate and vilify Zimbabwe, leading to imposition of formal and informal sanctions against it.”
The problem, then, according to the AU, is not Mugabe’s destruction of his own country, but Britain’s campaign to make the facts known. While the final draft did not explicitly support Mugabe— an encouraging sign— neither did it condemn him, let alone draw useful lessons from Zimbabwe’s collapse. The African continent is depending upon international (read “Western”) welfare, with no act or even appreciation of the real problem: postcolonial African political culture and its often disastrous results. One of those is the irresponsible “solidarity” among its corrupt elites, with Mugabe the present beneficiary. Another is the persistence in recognizing the fictitious Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic — which is neither “Arab,” nor “democratic” nor a “Republic”— in fact it is a non-entity whose “people” (most of whom never lived in Western Sahara) and radical leadership live in Algeria. The price of this example of “solidarity”? Morocco stayed out of the AU.
All this comes while Africa begs for billions of Western aid to deal with its problems. Where is Africa’s responsibility? It does not seem that its leaders even accept the notion of responsibility, let alone the idea of using what resources it has to address its own problems. The result is that thuggery unchallenged leads to thuggery legitimized — or emulated. For example, South African president Thabo Mbeki’s reluctance to condemn, and thus remove, Mugabe has only encouraged illegal land grabbing in his own country, a racist as well as anti-capitalist issue. To its credit, the government in Pretoria has put a stop to that— for now.
If the new AU paymaster is Khaddafi and the result is solidarity with Mugabe’s totalitarian racism, why should Africa deserve Western tax money? Is this the best way to attract investments (the answer is already clear and negative) or international aid? The answer, coming from Lusaka, is a definite “no.” If Libya wishes to buy its way back into international respectability, let it pay not just for the AU’s new stationery but for substantive solutions to his continent’s problems as well. However, even were Libya to do so, it is unlikely that a change of label and higher still unrealistic ambitions would change Africa’s abysmal situation. Only serious self-criticism and steps toward more honesty, free markets and elite accountability could do that— and only the Africans, not the outsiders’ money could accomplish that.