The number of conflicts on the continent shows that Africa continues to be overwhelmed by what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences”.
The African Union and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) were named with great deliberation. They could have been simply called the Organisation of African States or any other combination of words. But instead there was an important focus on Unity in both names. Why?
Perhaps there was a keen understanding by the generation of anti-colonial leaders that created the OAU that it was disunity that ultimately led to the continent’s colonisation. Their predecessors in pre-colonial Africa spent more time plotting against, sometimes enslaving and destroying their neighbours, when a greater threat and enemy loomed on the horizon.
As the OAU/AU continues to evolve there is growing recognition that unity cannot be pulled out of thin air – it is not simply a slogan but a long process of overcoming the fissures that keep people apart.
Ethnic rivalry has been one important fissure of disunity, alongside religious and other ideological differences. These have been the underlying reason for many of the conflicts afflicting the continent. But perhaps more important has been the competition for economic goods. The collapse of oil and other commodity prices probably means that the “Africa Rising” moment may be affected and that with economic retrenchment, a rise in the number of conflicts may be expected.
But Africa can overcome the fissures of disunity by a renewed focus on what unites us and is in all our interest – a prosperous common homeland which nurtures and allows its citizens to flourish. However, how do we develop an effective neighbourhood policy? The AU is underpinned by a number of important principles, however, most of us either do not know them, or if we do, do not believe in them or live our lives by them.
Also and perhaps most fatally, there has never been an entity powerful enough to police and enforce its own values. Usually a hegemonic power can define and protect the civilisational values.
Take the “Five Eyes” or the Anglosphere of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – they have had two world empires over the last 200 years, the British and the US. They have fought against each other and in the process defined some of their core values. In the war of American independence the issues at stake touched on representation, taxation, and whether the relationship between the centre and the periphery would be based on equality.
And the Civil War in the US finally rid the Anglosphere space of slavery while preserving unity. Today, under US leadership, these Anglosphere values are understood by all – even to the extent that the “Five Eyes” don’t spy on each other but only share intelligence on others.
Contrast this unity with that of the Slavs. From Poland in the north to Serbia in the South, passing over Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and the Slav hegemonic power (Russia), the Slavs’ underlying language and culture has not prevented the huge hatreds we are now seeing convulsing in places like Ukraine.
The confessional changes have bred different practices and viewpoints, enough to trigger brutal conflict in the 1990s. Similarly, the Ukrainians, though mostly Slavs, are again divided along dialect and confessional lines, easily exploited by others. A joke about the current conflict: NATO will fight Russia down to the last Ukrainian.
Africa’s confessional, language and cultural differences have led to similar divide and rule by outsiders. An important value and principle that would enable us not to be so exploited would be a simple acceptance through the AU of the principle of resolving our disputes only through peaceful means.