Following independence most African states had closer ties, especially in the economic field, with outside states than they had with each other, and foreign powers thus exercised considerable leverage within the continent. This applied especially to the former colonial powers since the ‘mother country’ was normally the new states’ principal trading partner; economic, financial and cultural links between France and its former colonies (except Guinea) were particularly close.
Tordoff’s bold statement seems, initially, to make this a one-sided debate, with the result a foregone conclusion. However, if we take a closer look at the details we can see that the African model is not so unilinear in construction. This essay shall explore the various movements made towards and away from unity in the African continent. It shall highlight how the climate, mood and impetus have changed over time through both internal, domestic, influences and those from the international community as a whole.
As Tordoff illustrates, there have been many differing organisations that have had varied success in achieving regional or, in some cases, continental cooperation in both the economic and political spectra. These movements’ objectives and powers have changed over time and have witnessed many phases in their development. For the purposes of this essay, we shall explore four stages in the African movement: post-independence; the Cold War period; the post-Cold War period and the mid-late 90s onward.
Post-Independence President Nkrumah of Ghana thought that African independence was simply the advent of a neo-colonial experience in which the national interests of African states were subordinate to the economic strategies and desires of their former colonial masters. He called for a pan-African movement in order that the African states joined to combat this exploitation and grow together.
He saw regional blocs as detrimental to the African cause, not as helpful stepping-stones, and sought to create an International Governmental Organisation (IGO) that would enable the peoples of Africa to meet the new challenges put before them in the post-colonial era: It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity. Divided we are weak; united, Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world. This powerful message resonated across most of the African continent immediately after independence and brought about a wave of optimism for the future of the African people, both domestically and internationally.
Nkrumah viewed the colonial experience from a critical perspective, believing that they had systematically pursued policies for the ‘development of underdevelopment’4 and had created a set of exploitative relations between themselves and their former colonies.
In an attempt to combat this feeling, many organisations were set up, not only by the African peoples, but also through the colonial powers; it was mainly the Anglophone states that were encouraged to go along the ‘regional track’, the French bureaucracy held little credence for regional entities and baulked at such manoeuvres. Some of these organisations focussed on political unity, while others focussed on more ‘structural’ issues. Those designed to combat political separation were set up to counter the arbitrary colonial territorialisation of the African continent and strove to bring together areas of ethnic closeness, e.g. Ghana and British Togoland (1957) whose ties were put into place to bring together the Ewe speaking people of both states.
Other unions appeared over the coming decade, including the union of the Republic of Cameroon with the Southern Cameroons (1961) and Tanganyika with Zanzibar (1964). These were formed for similar reasons and continue today. However, the Tanganyikan bond is under immense strain due to political differences between the two parties. It should be noted that these coalitions were started before all parties had attained independence; their purpose and direction possibly motivated by the colonial powers. However, this potential influence was accepted for the good of the regions; the larger unions would be better able to ‘surmount local crises’6 and would ‘promote political stability.
They were part of a liberal wave of development that saw African stability and growth as attainable only through modernisation and industrialisation.8 The emphasis here was on expanding the electorate; moving away from the ‘primitive’9 identifiers that caused so many problems, i.e. ethnicity and religion, and towards more modern identifiers, such as ones’ profession. There were other attempts at unifying otherwise separate states – British and Italian Somaliland (1960) and the Gambia with Senegal (1981). However, these unions did not have such a positive lifetime; the alliance of Senegambia collapsed in 1989 in response to the Gambia’s refusal to extend the union10 and the newly established state of Somalia fell into intense internal conflict as warlords fought for control of various areas within the fresh boundaries.
Some commentators believed that the failure of Senegambia and Somalia lay in the interference of external forces; others thought that it was simply too early for such ties to be made, without suitable infrastructures and reciprocal measures arranged. These differences in opinion are due to the differing schools of thought regarding African unity. Those of the former opinion coming from the critical tradition and those of the latter coming from a liberal one.
Whichever tradition one ascribes to, it is clear that foreign powers were pivotal in the early stages of unification/regionalisation immediately after independence. This could be due to ulterior motives or simply that they thought the new states lacked the experience required to execute such measures. One can continue this comparison with the first of our ‘functional’ unions, the East African Common Services Organisation (EACSO), later the East African Community (EAC). Initially inaugurated as the East African High Commission (1948-1961), it was set up by the British in order to aid the administration of the area, which covered Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.