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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 January 2007, 09:55 GMT
Viewpoint: African unity still a dream
By Gamal Nkrumah
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

African Union peacekeeper in Darfur
Darfur has been striken by the conflict between 'Arab' and 'African'
My father, Ghana's first President Kwame Nkrumah, was a trendsetter in more ways than one.

One of his most outstanding legacies was a political commitment to African continental unity. The Arabic-speaking states of North Africa were, in his vision, no less African than those predominantly non-Arab states south of the Sahara.

With his initial encouragement, Arabs have since become active participants in the politics of Africa.

Nkrumah's was no easy mission. There were many in Africa and in the West who wished to extricate Arab countries from costly African commitments and interventions south of the Sahara.

But Nkrumah's special friendship with the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser - after whom I was named - was instrumental in cementing Arab-African ties.

Tempestuous relations

Nasser was a strong advocate of the African component of the Egyptian national composition, the first Egyptian leader to take such a view.

According to him, Egypt's national make-up is composed of the intersection of three circles - the Arab, the Islamic and the African.

Gamal Nkrumah
The destinies of "Arabs" and "Africans" have historically and geographically been inextricably intertwined
Be that as it may, relations between Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans have often been uneasy - and at times even tempestuous.

The precise nature of the role expected to be played by Arabs in pan-African politics was at first only dimly understood.

Self-styled "Arab" Somalia fought non-Arab Ethiopia. "Arab" Mauritania went to battle against non-Arab Senegal.

The so-called borderlands of the Sahara and the Sahel have become a veritable frontline where "Arabs" and "Africans" bitterly engage in war.

The focus of much of the fighting has traditionally been Sudan, a member of the Arab League, a body that groups 22 states - including not only the Mediterranean North African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, but also Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoros.

Geographically the largest African country, Sudan has been embroiled intermittently in civil war since its independence in 1956.

The international media persists in propagating confusing myths and half-truths about the war between the "Arab Muslim north" and the "black African south". But the north is not composed entirely of ethnic Arabs, and most of those classified as "Arabs" are far darker in complexion than many of the Congressional Black Caucus members.

Similarly conflict in Sudan's province of Darfur is depicted as between "Arabs" and "black Africans".

There has been a perceptible change in attitudes and perceptions over the years of tensions between "African" and "Arab", but these incremental changes have on the whole been rather negative.


In the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the sudden price hikes of crude oil, African countries began sizing up the readiness of oil-rich Arab countries to offer economic aid and financial assistance.

African countries had high expectations of Arab largesse, but were sorely disappointed.

Migrants heading to Europe from Senegal
Sub-Saharan migrants head to Morocco on their way to Europe
Not only was money not forthcoming, but it became apparent that Arab countries were developing countries, after all, and incapable of lending a helping hand in the area of technical expertise.

Arabs, in turn, quietly brooded over the consequences of not being able to measure up to African expectations.

Summits have reconciled enemies before: Chad and Libya; Sudan and its numerous neighbours.

But there is no escaping the fact that what are often mistakenly dubbed "Arab" versus "African" conflicts have disturbed the placid surface of Nkrumah's vision of African continental unity.

African governments north and south of the Sahara cannot be absolved of responsibility.

And recently, friction has arisen due to the influx of African youth into Arab states.

Their main goal of immigrating to the West - and in particular Europe - necessitates a long and uncomfortable sojourn in North African transit points.

The stories that filtered back are harrowing: death at sea, slave labour, prostitution and narcotic trafficking and an alarming wave of racism in North Africa.

Nevertheless, the destinies of "Arabs" and "Africans" have historically and geographically been inextricably intertwined.

The only way forward for Africa is continental African Union as envisaged by Kwame Nkrumah.




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