African national flags

Of all the trade carried out by African countries, only about 16 percent is with other African countries. For Europe and Asia, that number is 69 percent and 59 percent respectively. Most African countries have a non-African country (often China) as their main trading partner. Besides, a big chunk of the 16 percent of trade that is intracontinental deals in goods of extra-continental origin.

For a continent that is rightly touted as the demographic and economic future of the world, this is very feeble showing. It is particularly sad because the economic dividends won for countries by trade are undeniable, despite the headwinds it is currently running into with the US-China trade war. Though it has no monopoly on them, trade holds some of the most powerful keys to economic growth.

This is the motivation behind the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). So far signed by 54 of Africa’s 55 countries (Eritrea is the sole exception, but probably not for long) and ratified by 24, the AfCFTA bears many promises.

Its experts produce mouth-watering numbers. By 2022, the project is expected to increase intra-African trade by anything from 53 percent to 60 percent. It will make Africa the world’s largest free trade area by number of countries. Encompassing a rapidly growing population of 1.2 billion and a combined GDP of USD 2.5 trillion, it will also make Africa even more attractive for foreign investors.

Of course, there are many hurdles to be jumped before these goals can be achieved. A lot more infrastructure is needed. Other regional trade agreements need to be harmonised. The scope of AfCFTA itself requires further definition. These notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the agreement is a major achievement of collaboration among African countries.

On top of these promises, the agreement also carries a vast political ambition – the dream of African unity. Trade, as the initiative envisions, will tie the continent together around a common destiny. This will make it easier to set in place the other structures needed to turn the continent into a united polity. While economic growth is attractive in its own right, I think this second premise is much more intriguing.

I cannot back this up with raw numbers, but the dream of African unity resonates with a large number of the people who call this land home. Over the last 50 years, it has been talked up by African nationalists of all kinds. It is a big part of the reason Muammar Gaddafi, with his vision of a United States of Africa, was so popular across the continent.

Even yours truly feels this dream tugging at the strings of his heart. I cannot wait for the day when, without relocating from Kenya, I can call the same country home as the people of Senegal, when I can wake up and embark on a road trip to Kinshasa with my visiting friend from Zimbabwe without worrying about border queues.

However, despite its appeal, this dream is shrouded in shadows. Africa has never been a united continent. Historically, the continent has been home to most of the major ethnic and racial groups of the world. Currently, the internal diversity of Africa’s peoples is one of the world’s riches. Only Asia rivals Africa in the total number of languages that are in current use.

Northern Africans have more in common with Eurasians than with the continent south of the Sahara. South Africa is a verdant mix of European and native heritages. But even those who claim native roots have never been united. Though ancient times saw the rise of vast empires all over the continent, like Ancient Egypt, Mali, Ethiopia and Great Zimbabwe, none ever got close to holding sway over a significant portion of the continent.

For all of its history, Africa has been a patchwork of polities as diverse as they have been many. Intercommunal warfare has been a persistent feature, if the oral traditions of most communities are anything to go by. Consequently, boundaries have been in a constant state of flux, though they have always existed.

European colonialism reworked, simplified and solidified these boundaries. Since then, boundaries between African countries have been nigh sacred, defended in the name of national unity through brutal civil wars, and rent only with great difficulty in Ethiopia and Sudan.

This history means that there is no common African identity, no African essence. Any perceptive visitor to two parts of Africa will notice more differences than similarities. Of course, this can be said of any part of the world, but it is particularly poignant in the case of Africa.

While I recognise that it is often necessary to talk of it as such (I do it all the time, and I am doing it here), the idea of Africa as one thing, with a common essence, has been the conceptual foundation for a lot of the intellectual and economic abuse of its very diverse peoples throughout history.

But if there is no common identity for African peoples, why do most of us still hope to turn this vast continent into a country? Is this not an irrational fixation on an idealised identity, one which none of us has experienced except in opposition to the rest of the world? How do we define a common identity at such a large scale?

If Europe, which is significantly less diverse than Africa in all the measures that count, has so far failed at this kind of political project, by what stretch of the imagination can we even hope to pull it off? And, if we ever succeed, how will we define our shiny new country?

These are questions to which I do not have an answer. I can only hope that we will engage in an honest conversation about them as build out this venture. The task of crafting a new identity for Africa is a vast one. We cannot afford a major conceptual mistake at its foundation.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.