Dashiki Dialogues: Where is our dream of African unity?

Do you remember a time when the word Africa gave you a scared sense of purpose whenever you heard it spoken? I do.

This is regardless of the fact I was born at the tail end of the spirit of the time, a full 10 years before Brenda Fassie released her magnum opus, Black President.

It was six years before the apartheid regime banned Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s jazz LP, Jika.

Anyway, this reflection came to me because the Organisation of African Unity, which has since morphed into the African Union (AU), is turning 50 this year.

I’m concerned that the electric feeling that went with the mere mention of Africa feels diminished. In fact, even our former president Thabo Mbeki has been repeatedly quoted as saying that Africa’s progressive movement is in retreat.

This is to say that the grand network of interests, agendas and people who shared a bowl of passion for the advancement of Africa and her people are not as resolved as before.

Narrow politics of ethnicity, country and party interest seem to, in fact, obscure what used to be the continent’s nobler ideals of unity, economic growth and cooperation.

It figures because, in some quarters, the idea of who Africans are is not clear.

This is regardless of an understanding that our sense of identity should have enough space for Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Cheb Mami and Charlize Theron.

In fact, to point out how much the continent is in a bad way, consider the following: press freedom on the continent is defended by multinational organs like Reporters Without Borders, African poverty is fought by Bono and Jeffrey Sachs, our civil wars are solved by UN peacekeeping forces, Africa’s economic policies are determined by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while her people are liberated by Nato.

I heard these observations made by a passionate observer, albeit with a touch of hyperbole. But his hold on the truth is undeniable.

Only fumbling responses were offered by African leaders as the West descended on Libya, and the acceptance that South Africa should pull out and make way for French soldiers in the Central African Republic are only two indicators of the retreat Mbeki speaks of.

One cannot but notice the absence of a guiding paradigm in popular African discourse to guide a march towards a continental cohesion of sorts. Pan-Africanism is mute and no one speaks of the African renaissance much any more.

Now the Chinese are here and people are crying foul, with warnings of a new coloniser. Our dialogues are not as resolved as the year after Fela Kuti released Shuffering and Shmiling, and our dashikis seem a tad faded as the AU turns 50.

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