Friday, June 15, 2007

E Unus Pluribum

Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe paid a leisurely visit to Tripoli this week for a warm tête-à-tête meeting with his Libyan counterpart, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. On the agenda? Qaddafi's favorite topic, of course: African unity. What did two of Africa's longest serving dictators propose? Why, uniting the entire continent under a single government for the purpose of "solving [Africa's] own problems". You don't have to guess too hard what it means when a pair of utterly unrepentant dictators are both calling for when they suggest ruling an entire continent under a single government.

To western ears at least, the phrase "African unity" has a peculiarly soothing ring to it to western ears. To American ears in particular, applying the word "unity" to "Africa" conjures up images of "problems" solved by "togetherness", even though both are hopelessly ignorant misconceptions. The first misconception is that there's some sort of monolithically identifiable entity of "Africa" that is universally hungry, poor and maladjusted. The second notion is that this place would somehow become "fixed" if only there could be "unity". Both notions are complete rubbish.

Africa is a mix of many nations and even more peoples. Some of them are together by choice, but most are not. The borders of most modern African nations were hobbled together by 19th century European technocrats half a world away, with practically no concern for whom they wished to associate with, or how they wished to lead their lives. Some nations have managed to make these curious new artificial nation states work. After all, if Belgium can do it then why can't Kenya? More often, however, this is not the case, nor should it be the case. Because there are so many "Africas" and countless different African peoples, no single possible government could ever hope to represent them all.

Africa, unlike the United States or Australia or China, does not have a single dominant culture, political tradition, or even a common language. This was the case in Africa before European colonialism, during colonialism, and will continue to be the case well after colonialism in Africa passes from living memory. In our frenzy to deny a pluralistic identity to people in Africa, we are essentially infantilizing an entire continent. There is no more a pan-African identity than there is a pan-Asian one, or pan-American one. Frankly, heterogeneity has a far better track record than artificial unity. Many have tried to cobble such an identity together, but have invariably failed, and usually for reasons they don't even seem to be able to understand. I'll give them a hint. Identity and culture transcend mere incidental geography, and the individual is naturally resistant to being subsumed into a group. In other words, "it would be nice if you'd ask us if we even want your artificial unity".

If your next door neighbor were a con-artist, would you open a joint checking account with him? Of course not. So I'm not clear how anyone in their right mind would still hang on to the "African unity" shibboleth when the greatest and most visible supporters of the concept just happen to be dictators like Qaddafi and Mugabe.

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