IT IS an eloquent comment on the state of continental African politics that although Malawi has declined to host the next summit of the African Union – due to have been held from July 15 to 16, 2012 – hardly a ripple has been seen on the surface of the placid waters of the African political scene.
Many African states consider it an honour – and some go to considerable expense to merit that honour – to host the AU. So why has Malawi declined? In a radio statement, Malawi's Vice-President, Mr Khumbo Kachali, revealed that the Malawi government had received a letter from the AU, saying that Malawi had no right to dictate who could attend the summit, and that if it insisted on barring Sudan's President, Mr Omar al-Bashir from the summit, then it would be moved to Ethiopia.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese President, on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes he has committed in the dissident region of Darfur. Some African states want to ignore the ICC warrant. Others like Malawi, fear they might lose aid promised them by the rich Western countries (which support the ICC).
“Much as Malawi has obligations to the A.U, it has also other obligations”, Vice-President Kachali said. Therefore (he added) "the cabinet has decided not to host the summit" . Earlier, the new President of Malawi, Mrs Joyce Banda, had admitted that a visit by Omar Bashir to Malawi would be frowned upon by Malawi's international donors. These donors have become particularly important to Malawi, due to the economic difficulties the country is facing, which have led to a devaluation of its currency.
This issue of how a country views its national interests, vis-a-vis its attitude to what might be broadly defined as Africa's continental interests, has been one of the most difficult issues facing the “unity movement” on the continent. It was present when the founding fathers of the “Organisation of African Unity” (OAU) came to their compromise in Addis Ababa in May 1963, and decided to integrate their two groupings – the Casablanca Group and the Monrovia Group -- into a single body.
The Casablanca Group emerged in 1961, and comprised seven countries: Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Morocco. Originally, the Monrovia Group was known as the Brazzaville Group. They were Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d'lvoire, Dahomey (Benin), Gabon, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, the Central African Republic, Senegal and Chad.
These were 12 countries that had formed the African and Malagasy Union in 1960 in Brazzaville. The Monrovia Group came into existence when the Brazzaville Group was joined by Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia and Congo (Kinshasa).
The reasons why these Groups were composed as they were, are all part of the bizarre divisions which often crop up in African affairs. Scratch the surface and the old divisions show up. In 1975, in particular, over whether the MPLA Government in Angola should be recognised, the OAU nearly split in two, and ever since, even when divisions are papered over, they are never too difficult to discern.
Incidentally, this is not the first time Malawi has come up with a policy different from the rest of the members of the body as a whole. During the apartheid years, Malawi opened an embassy in Pretoria, and kept it open despite the South African racists' insistence that its staff should not use a door that opened on to the main road but should use a “back entrance” instead.
Indeed, we should not be surprised or dismayed when African countries embark on policies that depict continental unity in disarray. Even the closest of countries can have differences that divide them. For instance: in 1958, Ghana and Guinea became "best friends" and announced the Ghana-Guinea Union, which was later joined by Mali.
Yet around 1960, we received instructions at Radio Ghana from Flagstaff House – the President's Office – not to mention the name of Guinea's President, Mr Sekou Toure in any of our news bulletins!
Next, Presidents Kwame Nkrumah and Maurice Yameogo of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) took a widely-publicised photograph which showed them wielding "axes" at Paga to tear down the border between the two countries. This show of unity didn't last, however, and in August 1962, a bomb was thrown at Dr Nkrumah at Kulungugu, which was believed to have been brought into Ghana from Upper Volta. The border at Paga was not only re-erected but closed.
Meanwhile, the only constant element in African unity has been the leaders' unwillingness to make it mean something concrete for the ordinary people of Africa. They may entertain ethnic/regional prejudices, but they nevertheless want the abolition of visas, trade restrictions and transportation difficulties between African countries.
But there is opposition to even that in some quarters – the recent spat between South Africa and Nigeria over yellow fever vaccination certificates, is an example. Such problems need urgent resolution, but African governments generally approach such issues with the speed and urgency of sleepy juggernauts.
I have seen -- and lamented - the fact that Ghanaian female traders were sleeping on the floor of Lagos airport for days, unable to get back home, while their politicians flew in and out in executive jets, slapping each other on the back.
I have seen mothers with babies on their backs trying to board planes in Abidjan, or Monrovia, carrying goods that the Cote d’Ivoire or Liberia ought to be able to export to Ghana freely on an official basis, and vice versa. Our port officials do not always recognise the free trade protocol between ECOWAS members! How else could they obtain the all-important "dash"?
At one time, my radio was stolen at Abidjan airport, because they wouldn't let me take it into town without paying duty on it. (I was in transit from Monrovia to Accra and had some hours to kill during a decent stopover). The Customs people said they would keep it and I should collect it on my way back. I never saw it again. If I had pursued the matter, I would most certainly have missed my flight).
In Khartoum, Sudan, I lost 2 large bottles of Chivas Regal whisky bought cheaply at Addis Ababa duty-free shop. Sudanese Customs pretended to seize it as no alcohol was allowed into Sudan. "But I am taking it to London, not Sudan. Hold it for me at the airport and give it back when I am leaving tomorrow”, I told them.
They asked, "Do you want to incur the punishment for importing alcohol into Sudan? It is 20 lashes!" They took the bottles behind a screen and pretended to pour it down the sink, without allowing me to see what they were doing. They brought me back the empty bottles. I was born yesterday, of course. In fact, I knew that bootleg liquor in a “dry” Arab state could fetch them thrice their monthly pay any day!!
Africa's biggest problem, then, is not one of nomenclatures, philosophies and ideologies. It is quite simply a disconnect between what the people want and need, and what our selfish, myopic, political-cum-bureaucratic class is interested in obtaining for itself: power and influence over the distribution of goods and services. Until we tackle those deep-set issues, things like the holding of summits should not concern the generality of us too much.