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On July 6, 2024 the Alliance of Sahel States issued its Final Communique that operationalizes a Confederation of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. While popularly trumpted as a great step forward for Panafricanism and the formation of a United African States, some question the move. On November 24, 2014 Joomaay Ndongo Faye addressed the topic:

What form of union?

In his acceptance speech as the First President of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)  Emperor Haile Selassie said; “but while we agree that the ultimate destiny of this continent lies in political union, we must at the same time recognize that the obstacles to be overcome in its achievement are at once numerous and formidable. Africa’s peoples did not emerge into liberty in uniform conditions. Africans maintain different political systems; our economies are diverse; our social orders are rooted in differing cultures and traditions. Furthermore, no clear consensus exists on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of this union. Is it to be, in form, federal, con-federal, or unitary? Is the sovereignty of individual states to be reduced, and if so, by how much, and in what areas? On these and other questions there is no agreement, and if we wait for agreed answers, generations hence matters will be little advanced, while the debate still rages.” 

Since many sincere believers in the need for the political unification of the African Sates are still skeptical on the feasibility and/or viability of such union, the concerns raised in this portion of the Emperor’s speech deserve the attention of those who are today interested in campaigning for a political union between the African States that will be; “of, for and by the people” of African descent.  The focus in this piece is on the passage; “Is it to be, in form, federal, con-federal, or unitary? Is the sovereignty of individual states to be reduced, and if so, by how much, and in what areas?”   Our goal is to prove that federalism is the form of union that can best serve the interests of the Africans while infringing as little as possible on their diversities.

The main point the Negus seems to be making in this portion of his speech is: yes African Unity is what everyone wants but because of the disparities- cultural, economic and political-, between the African States, how can this unification be achieved and which of the three forms of union mentioned by his Highness can best suit the Africans?  The Negus seems to be also concerned about his future as Emperor if the central government of the union takes away from him the guardianship of key elements of his empire’s sovereignty.  It is not far fetch to believe that he voiced the concern of many of his peers who voted against the Nkrumah plan.  It is also fair to assume that even if it is not clearly stated, the reluctance of most of  those among the ruling class in Africa who have voiced their opposition to the political unification of African States has roots in their uncertainty in their future role in the United African States. 

By Unitary Union I assume that the Negus is referring to a form of Union in which all the sovereignty of the present States will be surrendered to the Central Government.  In Wikipedia a unitary state is defined as; “a state governed as one single power in which the central government is ultimately supreme and any administrative divisions (sub-national units) exercise only powers that their central government chooses to delegate. The majority of states in the world have a unitary system of government.  In a unitary state, sub-national units are created and abolished, and their powers may be broadened and narrowed, by the central government. Although political power in unitary states may be delegated through devolution to local by statute, the central government remains supreme; it may abrogate the acts of devolved governments or curtail their powers”.  

For anyone who has a basic understanding of the complexity of power sharing in a democratic republic, a Unitarian State can not enjoy the necessary level of legitimacy which will allow it to efficiently rule an entity that will be as vast and as culturally diverse as the United African States.  The most serious issue that this form of Union poses is that cultural diversity, one of the riches of the African continent, will be in great jeopardy.  This form of union will also be a threat to the respect of minority rights, an important ingredient for the viability of vast democratic political entities.  Another serious problem for a Unitarian union is the differences in the levels of political development of the various African states.  A unitary system, where member states are required to adopt the same constitution, therefore the same form of government, will seriously infringe on the States’ Rights. This infringement on the States Rights will certainly be a serious impediment to the acceptance by many African States of joining the union.  Throughout history, the only times that a unitary system covering vast areas have been sustainable was when central power mostly used force to keep peace.  A revisit of the Ghana and Mali empires shows that these empires were not unitary systems.  Yes, the Emperors were at the top of the political pyramid but they did not infringe in the way the Kings, under their control, run their states.  Contrary to Europe where English and French were imposed as the languages that everyone must speak, in Mali and Ghana people kept their languages, their cultures and even their political systems.  In a nutshell the Unitary System is foreign to most of the African cultures. The confusion between Pan Africanism and African Federalism has caused many to believe that Unity meant Uniformity.  No plan to unite the African people shall tamper with the continent’s cultural diversity.

The con-federal form of Union is an agreement codified in a Treaty, like the Maastricht Treaty or the African Union Charter, which States sign when they accept to consult in some of their domestic and foreign policies. In most cases it is strongly suggested, not mandatory, for the member states of a con-federal union to implement the policies of the union.  The EURO for example is not the currency of all the EU’s members. The American colonies had adopted this form of Union between 1776 and 1789.  It is the form that countries in Europe have adopted under the European Union.  The OAU and the African Union are embryonic con-federal systems. The major difference between the European Union and the African Union is that the first is a grouping of countries which in the majority of the cases are viable and enjoy a positive sovereignty.  This gives the European Union a lot more muscles than the African Union which is made up of non-viable entities with negative sovereignties. The American confederacy (not to be confused with the secessionist South which called itself Confederacy because they wanted to go back to the pre 1789 con-federal system) was as dysfunctional and toothless as the OUA has been and the AU is today, the same cause producing the same effect. Save New York, Virginia and maybe Massachusetts, the thirteen newly independent American States were non-viable entities with negative sovereignty.  The British Empire recognized their rights to political independence but continued to impose many of its policies on them.  This is very similar to what is happening today to African countries.  Because the African Union is a con-federal union of negative sovereignties many of its members are still at the mercy of their former colonizers.  The colonizers recognized their political independence but continue to infringe into their internal affairs and in some cases control and/or manage significant portions of their sovereignties. The failure of the OUA to implement the Lagos Plan of Action (LPA) and the subsequent Abuja Treaty that were both sound macro-economic policies clearly demonstrate the limits of the con-federal union’s power. The fact that the non-implementation of the LPA was due to its Conflicts with the International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Program speaks volumes and demonstrate that a con-federal union of negative sovereignties remains a negative sovereignty.  The inability of the AU to implement the NEPAD’s is another proof that a con-federal union cannot carry the economic policies that lead to the development of the African countries.  The African Union’s reliance of the G8 to provide the funds that would jumpstart the implementation of the NEPAD is a clear testimony to the impotence of this con-federal union of the African States.  No objective minded economist will disagree with the fact that a federal government of the United African States can easily acquire those funds through taxation or borrowing at a rate that is a fraction of what it cost African states today to sell bonds.

A federal Union is a political, economic and military alliance between politically independent States.  The main driving factor for such union is the awareness, by the member states, of their inability to efficiently manage all the portions of their sovereignty. In the Federal Union, three Governments Share the management of Sovereignty: The Local Government (districts, counties, departments, Regions etc), the State Government and the Federal Government.  The Distribution of Power in the Federal Union is Centripetal which means that it goes from Local=to=>State=to=>Federal.  The Local Government hands to the State Government the Portion of the People's Sovereignty it cannot manage, the State Government surrender to the Federal Government the Portions of its Resident's Sovereignty it is unable administer efficiently.  There is also what they call Concurrent Power (Taxation Powers for example). All the Powers (portions of Sovereignty) that are not CLEARLY entrusted to the Federal Government remain in the HANDS of Local and State Government. There are Cases that are called "Necessary and Proper Cases". Meaning that sometimes to protect the Federal Rights of its Citizens or Enhance their Opportunities to improve their living conditions, the Federal Government will be obliged to use Powers that are not Specifically Surrendered by Local or State Government, but these Situations are very rare.

In a federal union the search for more opportunities, security and liberty for the individuals and the groups is what serves as a cement.  However, the conflict between wanting to share a somewhat common destiny and the fierce desire to preserve their cultural identity is a constant threat to the survival of such Union and the Federal Government has to be always mindful of this fact. Between 1789 and 1865 the North and South of the United States of America battle over this issue.  In fact, this cultural battle is to this day a clear delineation between the Red, Purple and Bleu States of the Union.  It was only after the bloodiest war in their history that the Southerners were forced to accept that their way of life is in some aspects in blatant contradiction with the founding principal of the Union, the inalienability of the individual’s; “right for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  Yes African people, like all the other people around the world, want more opportunities, prosperity, security and liberty! However they are not ready to surrender their identities for these benefits.  This is perfectly legitimate.  The people’s cultural identities are sacrosanct and only they should have the right to amend them as long they do not infringe on the Federal Rights of the citizens of the Union.     

One other reason why a Federal Union is what Africans need is that in this form of union is governed by a Federal Government to which the member States voluntarily entrust specific portions of their sovereignty.  However the Federal government is directly accountable to the citizens of the Union who retain the power to select its members.  This is not the case with the con-federal arrangement.  This federal government also has the duty o protect the basic federal rights of all the citizens and residents of the Union.  But to keep the federal government from infringing on the rights of people within these states to live their lives as they see fit, issues that have to do with culture are kept away from the federal government’s reach.  This form of Union is the one that I believe can best suit the African Countries.  It is today obvious that there are specific portions of their sovereignty that they are unable to manage because of their size and/or social make up.  These can be handed over to the federal government, directly answerable to the African People, to manage them. The fact of the matter is that most of the African States have handed these portions of their sovereignty to the States of their former colonizers who are only accountable to their citizens not those of the African countries.  It is therefore clear that the African people, who will regain control of these portions of their sovereignty if they are handed over to a Federal government that will be accountable to them, have nothing to lose if African States unite politically.  They have their dignity and full sovereignty to regain.

The federal form of union is the one that the former American colonies had adopted when they came to the realization that there are portions of their sovereignty that they cannot individually manage.  Among those were foreign policy, diplomacy, security and peaceful dealings between the States when it comes to commerce and the management of their waterways. After they failed to find a way of dealing with the issues that brought tension between them at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, two of the attendees, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison agreed to jointly work on calling for a meeting in Philadelphia so that the Articles of confederacy can be reviewed and revised in order to, “build a more perfect union”.  After thoroughly reviewing the articles of confederacy, they agree that only a Federal Compact can help them build a more perfect Union.  History has proven them right. For more than fifty years Africans have been hoping for a form of union that can help them take full advantage of the natural resources of their continent. The call for the First African Federalist Congress is without a doubt a step in that direction.

Many people are concern with the possibility of uniting States at as disparate political and economic stages in their development as the various African States are.  Yes this will pose a problem for a Unitarian Form of Union.  It would have also been a problem if the different states use different economic systems.  But this is not the case.  All African States, including those ruled by left leaning political parties, have capitalism in its various forms, as their mode of production.  The major differences among them are political or cultural. This will not pose any problem to the viability of a Federal Form of Union.  States that belong to a Federal Union can have different political Systems as long as the basic principles in which their constitutions are founded on do not violate the Federal Rights of the citizens of the Union. It is perfectly possible to have Republic and Kingdoms in such union. In the European Union Kingdoms and Republic work side by side, why not in a Union of the African States?

The beauty with Federalism for the Case of Africa is that it is very flexible and can allow Countries at Different levels of political and economic development to manage together, and in a much more efficient way, the portions of their sovereignties they can't do by themselves (Macro-economic policies, Monetary Policies, Diplomacy, Security etc.).  In such union one can have Kingdoms and Republics existing side by Side as full members.   However, the Catch is that the powers of some of the African Republics and Kingdoms to violate the basic human rights of individual and groups will be curtailed.  They will have to abide by the FEDERAL CITIZENS BILL OF RIGHTS and these Rights cannot be violated by any of the Constitutions or Laws of the Member States.  The Other reason why Federalism will work well with Africa is that it will keep our cultural diversity as intact as possible. Of Course, there are Elements of these Cultures that will violate the Federal Rights of the Citizens of the Union. These elements will be dealt with as citizens bring their cases one by one to the federal courts. The prevalence of Slavery in many of the Northern African countries and the discrimination against certain minorities in other African countries will certainly be easier targets if a Federalist Compact between the African States is secured. 

Joomaay Ndongo Faye

November 24, 2014

East Windsor, NJ


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