While French military airplanes bomb militant targets in the deserts of northern Mali, the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has again asserted his long-held dream of a “United States of Africa.”
Echoing similar entreaties from the former dictator of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, Mugabe called for the formation of a giant continental superpower in order to compete better with the more advanced nations on earth, to end chronic regional wars, and to finally block Western interference and intervention in Africa.
"Get them [African states] to get out of the regional shell and get into one continental shell,” Mugabe said in his capital, Harare, after a meeting with Thomas Boni Yayi, Benin's president and the outgoing chairman of the African Union (AU), according to the Herald newspaper of Zimbabwe.
“The continent of Africa: this is what we must become. And there, we must also have [one] African head. [Yayi] was talking of the president of Africa. Yes, we need one. We are not yet there. This is what we must go and discuss, but we must also discuss the issues that divide us."
Yayi himself called for a Pan-African movement.
“Our vision now is what we can do to strengthen the unity and stability because without it we cannot move to the prosperity of our people in our continent,” he said.
“Pan-Africanism is necessary for us to be together. Our regional communities have to move together, to work together and to strengthen the unity of the continent. We need to strengthen democracy in our countries. We need to strengthen good governance. We need to strengthen the peace and stability and unity of our countries.”
Gadhafi’s original proposal, which he offered publicly in 1999, fell apart quickly, failing to gather much traction. Some feared that the Libyan leader was simply making a play to expand his own personal empire and crown himself the King/Emperor of Africa.
But the Colonel was undeterred.
"I shall continue to insist that our sovereign countries work to achieve the United States of Africa," Gadhafi said as late as 2009 during an AU meeting.
During a festival celebrating African culture and identity in Senegal, Gadhafi grandly declared: "Down with imperialism! Africa must unite, so that we do not again become serfs or slaves. It is necessary to establish a unity government for the African continent and that Africa has one army ... which could consist of a million soldiers.”
Gadhafi also blasted African leaders who were opposed to the idea of a united continent, calling them "agents of imperialism, myopic or traitors who do not think about the future of Africa."
"It is not enough to dwell on the past of the continent, we were treated like animals, we were hunted in the forest, they enslaved us ... they appropriated Africa,” Gadhafi added.
“But why fight for liberation, if we remain satellites of our colonial powers?"
Gadhafi, never short on fanciful ideas, even suggested that this African superstate could include nations in the Western hemisphere, like Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, with large African-descended populations.
Critics, both in Africa and elsewhere, have countered that uniting 55 nations of hundreds of different tribes, a multitude of languages and economies at vastly different stages of development, would be an unrealistic goal.
Mugabe seemed to concede this when he took an obvious stab at the AU for failing to create the unity among Africans originally envisioned by the founders of its predecessor entity, the Organization of African Unity, 50 years ago.
"We really have not become integrated as an African people into a real union," Mugabe said. "And this is the worry, which my brother [Yayi] has, and the worry I have; the worry perhaps others also have. That we are not yet at that stage which was foretold by our fathers when they created this organization."
But he added that Africans share enough in common to overcome whatever issues divide them.
"We are not there yet,” Mugabe said. “As we stand here people will look at us, as me [as an] Anglophone, him [Yayi] Francophone, you see. There is also Lusophone [Portuguese-speaking], but we are Africans first and foremost. Africans, Africans. Look at our skin. That's our continent, we belong to one continent. We may, by virtue of history, have been divided by certain boundaries and especially by colonialism. But our founding fathers in 1963 showed us the way and we must take up that teaching that we got in 1963. That we are one and we must be united."
Bizarrely, Mugabe, who has brutally ruled over Zimbabwe for more than three decades, even referred to conflicts within his own nation.
“In my country, yes, we have also had divisions, political divisions, but I am glad that we all appreciate that whatever political affiliations we belong to, we are Zimbabweans,” he declared.
The revival of this quixotic dream of African unity was panned by various sources.
"I don't foresee a single United States of Africa with a single president because we are so diverse politically and otherwise,” said Lindiwe Zulu, international relations adviser to Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, according to the Guardian newspaper.
“It is very desirable in the long term, but I don't see it any time soon. There is a lot more to be done. We are still agonizing over sovereignty."
Zulu discussed more practical obstacles to the idea.
"When you call for one president, you are calling for ministers to serve under them, one parliament and one legislative process,” she added.
“There are too many things that divide us on political, social and economic levels. We need to have a common agenda and approach to human rights and development before we can talk about one president. We need to deal with democracy on the continent and leaders who think beyond themselves."
Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, took an even more skeptical view of African unity.
"The idea that one government could rule the whole of Africa at this stage is silly and unworkable,” he told the Guardian.
“They need to build from the bottom economically rather than imposing a notion of unity from the top down; it's absurd. It is a dream of totalitarian fantasists, not the people. Africa is becoming increasingly local. I'm in Kenya at the moment and the forthcoming election is all about ethnic arithmetic."
While murderous tyrants like Gadhafi and Mugabe are hardly credible voices for peaceful unity, other more “respectable” Africans have also advocated for one African state.
Alpha Oumar Konaré, former President of Mali and former chairperson of the African Union Commission, supported the notion during the commemoration of Africa Day in 2006.
The former President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, even set a target date for the formation of the United States of Africa -- as early as 2017.
"We ask … for the establishment of the United States of Africa, the only solution to free our peoples and ... make Africa a major cultural, economic, political and social whole, which will be respected," Wade once said.
Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s Minister in the Presidency in charge of the National Planning Commission, said unifying African – at least economically – would be crucial to the continent’s survival.
“Its not about EU, not about the U.S. (United States), not about the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank, its about us and the way we relate to each other, and in this context it is fundamentally important that we talk to each other as Africans about some of the hard truths that confront us,” he said at a conference in Harare last November.
“As individual countries, we will not make it in the world. We will be picked off and become markets for the rest. So we can’t look to the rest of the world. We have to look to each other in our neighborhood and understand that’s where change will be driven from. As we learn from Europe we look at ourselves in understanding what we should not do.”
In the unlikely event the African continent united into a single sovereign state, geographically it would comprise the world’s largest nation (even bigger than the Russian Federation). In terms of population, Africa’s 1 billion people would rank it third in size behind China and India.
However, such vital statistics as population and economic power are wildly uneven across the continent.
For example, almost one-third of the continent’s entire population currently lives in just three states: Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt.
In 2011, according to the IMF, Africa produced a total GDP of about $1.9 trillion (roughly equal to that of India or Russia). However, just three countries -- South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt – account for almost half of that amount, suggesting that economic power is concentrated in very few hands and many nations lag hopelessly behind.
For example, consider that the Democratic Republic of Congo, which boasts a large population of some 68 million and some of the world’s richest natural resources, delivered a GDP in 2011 of only $16 billion – meaning South Africa (with a population of about $51 million) has an economy 25 times bigger.
Thus, in a “United States of Africa,” South Africa would likely enjoy far greater economic and political influence over continental affairs than DR Congo would.
On the whole, 40 percent of all people on the continent – some 400 million people -- live below the poverty level, according to the African Development Bank Group. Again, poverty rates diverge wildly across the continent – for example, in Chad and Liberia, close to 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line, while in North African countries, such rates are much lower.
It is also a continent ravaged by a massive health crises, including high rates of HIV/AIDS, infant mortality and malnourishment (particularly in the sub-Saharan region).
Yet another obstacle to African unity lies with the contentious issue of race – not only between Arabs and Berbers who predominate in the north and the blacks of the central and south; but between the numerous tribes within various countries themselves.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.