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Tajudeen Abdul Raheem comments on African leaders' apparent contradictions between regionalism and contintenal unity, and how their quest for regional integration is becoming a smoke-screen for slowing political union. But, he says, 'How can you argue for gradualism at the continental level and not concede the same at regional and national levels? That is the ridiculous but logical conclusion of the gradualist argument about pan-Africanism. They will never be ready.'

At the historic summit of the African Union in Accra in July 2007, President Museveni was one of the surprise leaders of ‘pro-gradualism’, who made it easy for the others, principally Thabo Mbeki, interested only in Africa and Africans as markets rather than as peoples, to gain their pyrrhic victory.

His reason for becoming a latter day gradualist at the continental level, having been a ‘faster-faster unionist’ and ardent promoter of the political federation of East Africa, was that regional integration needs to be consolidated; because there was more likelihood that convergence on economic, social, political, and, even historical, non-state linkages would make union possible.

That was the mantra of all the leaders in Accra. Many of them, not known for caring much about their peoples’ wishes, also became listening leaders in Accra, arguing that the bulk of the people have not been consulted.

How one wishes that this love for consulting the people were genuine! How many of them bother to even consult their own cabinet, parliament or political parties before signing away the future of their countries to foreigners in the name of encouraging investment? Did any one of them subject their neoliberal policies to the masses’ consent?

The main political gain in Accra for those of us who believe in immediate political union was that nobody, no head of state, argued against political union. What they lacked was the courage to agree on concrete steps towards it; instead, hiding behind ‘step-by-step’ approaches and the need to consolidate Regional Economic Communities (RECs): a very seductive argument used to subvert the African unity agenda.

For instance, if post-apartheid South Africa had indeed been interested in regional integration in the SADC region, instead of just expanded markets for South African goods and services, then that region could have been more integrated, with full freedom of movement, by now. Confronted with the prospects of African union, President Mbeki suddenly discovered the virtue of regional integration!

President Museveni must be reflecting over his opportunistic switch in Accra, his pet dream of the faster political integration and federation of East Africa having been deferred at the recent summit of the east African states.

How can you argue for gradualism at the continental level and not concede the same at regional and national levels? That is the ridiculous but logical conclusion of the gradualists' argument about pan-Africanism. They will never be ready.

In the 1960s, they used to argue that the nations newly liberated from colonialism were too young, needed consolidation and therefore could not go for political union continentally. More than four decades later, not many of them have been united. If gradualism had been the route, we should all be one happy family. But are we? So now they have shifted the goalposts to: ‘let us unite the region first’. And even that they want to do gradually!

Even those of us who believe in immediate union have no illusions that it will happen overnight. But if we agree on that destination, the way we approach it will be radically different. We will give the required political authority and financial resources to the AU to carry out clearly defined functions on our behalf, and align our regional and national policies accordingly. The route of the RECs would have been more sensible, if so many of them were not wrecking any prospect of unity.

We declared them to be the building blocs of the pan-African enterprise. But for more than four decades, we have remained at the foundation level. Actually, we keep building new foundations. Hence our states belong to more than one regional economic grouping. If you have so many foundations, when are you going to finish the building?

There are practical reasons why the timelines of the East African federation needed to be changed, given its recent enlargement with the ascension to full membership of Rwanda and Burundi. But these are not reasons enough to halt the march towards political union. The presidents must stop looking at this as an either/or issue. How can the East African Community (EAC) leaders expect to negotiate the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) dictated by the European Union regionally, or form custom unions, when they all belong to more than one regional economic block? Tanzania, which, ironically, is now the most reluctant regional integrator, is in SADC; all east African countries are in EAC and COMESA [the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa]. The same is true among west African states and in the SADC countries. They are talking about aligning economies that they do not control. Nyerere must be turning in his grave because he even offered to delay Tanzania's independence for the sake of a greater east Africa.

The Chinese, Asians and globalisation are already aligning us forcibly, and you can see this across the continent. Our only leverage is to have the political will to act together, instead of being picked out one-by-one for the slaughterhouse! African leaders have to stop treating African unity as an à la carte menu. They are either committed to it in total, and will take the necessary steps, including abandoning their narrow ‘big man in Africa’ complexes, which, they conveniently interpret as ‘sovereignty issues’; or, they should quit deceiving us with a unity agenda that in effect means: not in my life time!

* Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is the deputy director of the UN Millennium Campaign in Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes this article in a personal capacity as a concerned pan-Africanist.

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