It came up at President Obama and President Kenyatta’s July 25th joint press conference, at the top of Obama’s visit to Kenya. It came up in Ethiopia too, at the close of Obama’s two-country African tour, when he was addressing attendees at the African Union Headquarters on July 28th. Though Obama only referenced it once, describing the African Union as a pan-African institution, the need for a pan-Africanist approach to solving the continent’s economic, energy, social welfare, and infrastructure challenges was the unwitting elephant in the speeches and remarks delivered by Obama, Kenyatta, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The first sitting U.S. president to visit Kenya or address the African Union, Obama stressed the need for African partnership as a strategic solution to African problems. He advised leaders to reject “old divides between North and South” that have Egyptians and Moroccans dissociating themselves with sub-Saharan Africans. In the same speech, Obama prescribed “reforms to help Africa trade more with itself… because the biggest markets for your goods are often right next door.” He added, “it shouldn’t be harder for African countries to trade with each other than it is for you to trade with Europe and America.”
Discussing the continued plague of terrorism, which has surged on the continent in the past decade from the Lord’s Resistance Army to Boko Haram to al-Shabaab, Kenyatta noted the need for a multilateral African response. “We need to work much closer together to see how we can stabilize Somalia,” Kenyatta said, “in order to continuously decrease the area and the space that al-Shabaab and the like have to operate, and to train, and to export terror.”
After two attacks in less than two years respectively claimed 69 and 147 lives in Kenya, the East African nation cannot afford to ignore its neighbor’s governance issues and the climate of lawlessness that fostered al-Shabaab. “For a long time,” Kenyatta reflected, “[Somalia] has not had any kind of formal government.”
Obama echoed the necessity of African leaders to collaborative address conflict on the continent. In remarks just before a meeting on South Sudan and Counterterrorism, Obama praised the efforts of IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development comprised of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda, for working to resolve the violent rift between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar, which plunged the globe’s newest nation into civil war just two and half years after its Independence from Sudan.
None of these statements were shocking or new—President Kenyatta’s father Jomo was among the most vocal proponents of pan-Africanism—but the remarks brought into sharp relief the need for more aggressive efforts among African heads of state to unite around shared interests, and for African leadership to better leverage and coordinate with the Diaspora.
The discussions also revealed the need for the African Union to take a more proactive and accountable role.
Currently, the AU condemns conflicts, facilitates resolutions, and dispatches peacekeeping troops—necessary gestures—but the coalition of nations could do more to accelerate communication, commerce, and other profitable exchange between member nations. The AU should also do more to enforce transparency in African elections, stem corruption and human rights violations, and censure rogue member nations—reigning some in for the good of all. It’s simply not enough to passively observe or issue a statement.
AU response to Boko Haram’s brazen kidnapping of close to 300 girls from their school dorm was maddeningly slow—they sent troops in January 2015, nine months after the girls were stolen. But even more maddening was the initial reticence of Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan to accept the body’s, or foreign, support in fighting the terrorists that had expanded their borders from Nigeria’s neighboring Chad.
In regards to other challenges, the AU has been less than outspoken.
When Zimbabwe devolved into bloody violence in the disputed election of 2008, the AU did not challenge President Robert Mugabe’s right to represent Zimbabwe at the AU Summit that year. Tanzania’s president Jakaya Kikwete, who chaired the summit, even called the election “historic.” For his part, Mugabe, who has been Prime Minister, then President of Zimbabwe since 1980, challenged his peers to take the planks out of their own eyes before coming for his. In January 2015, Mugabe assumed the rotating role of the AU Chairmanship.
In a report evaluating the AU’s performance in its first 10 years, Mehari Taddele Maru, Head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Program at the Institute for Security Studies, wrote: “while the AU has been extremely successful in the formulation and adoption of norms and institutional frameworks, however, it rather failed in implementing these policies.” For this, Maru blamed “leadership and management deficiency, [and] lack of the will and commitment to implement already existing policies and treaties.”
And then there is the need for African governments to meaningfully involve the Diaspora in Africa’s progress. Currently, the Diaspora sends $40 billion to the continent in remittances—just under half of what Africa receives in foreign development investment every year. In his TEDxAccra talk, Ghanaian entrepreneur and connector Terry Oppong mused about how the pace of development might quicken if these monies were strategically channeled toward specific infrastructure projects. What if African governments offered tax incentives to Diasporans who send money home or donate to Africa-related causes? What if they eased Diaspora travel to the continent and gave the Diaspora an easy way to vote in African elections?
As President Obama also mentioned throughout his time in Kenya and Ethiopia, with Africa home to six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies, Africa’s growth is the world’s. For the majority of Africans—projected to total two billion people by the year 2050—to participate in this growth, African leadership needs to work seriously toward a more perfect African union; creating a climate that empowers all Africans to meaningfully contribute, regardless of class, tribe, gender, age, political affiliation, religious belief, disability, or sexual orientation.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a co-producer of Africa 2050 and the author of Powder Necklace. Named among Africa’s most promising writers, her short story “Mama’s Future” was included in the anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara.