Numerous definitions of a nation or nation-states conflict with the underlying goal of the formation of the United Peoples of Africa (UPA). Pan-Africanism is predicated on the idea that the people, rather than the state, which is comprised of individual nation-states, should serve as the primary focus. In an African setting or from an African point of view, nation-building is seen as a good thing. However, this doesn’t always mean that Westphalian ideas apply.
There is a distinction between concepts of “nation” and “nation-state” in relation to Africa’s pre-, colonial-, and postcolonial histories. There is also a difference between the United States of Africa and the United Peoples of Africa (UPA), focusing on the inherent contradiction between Pan-Africanism and the rise of a Eurocentric governing system known as Federalism in Africa.
Precolonial African nation-building possesses a wealth of untapped wisdom essential for molding the present and future of Africa’s institutional governance toward a cohesive framework. We might have to rethink the current models for political and economic integration if we want to learn from the way people, institutions, and governments worked before colonialism.
Africans have repeatedly shown they can find independent nations and run them efficiently. While rejecting the legacy of colonial censure, one need not dive into the knowledge structures of the past. As a result, there is substantial weight to the argument that studying the formation of African nations, both historical and contemporary, might inform the creation of more effective ideologies and theories.
Internal political organization in precolonial times is characterized by two separate forms of government: the chiefs’ decentralized pyramidal system and the kingdoms’ centralized monarchical form. It further noted that, despite the kingdom being the supreme governmental structure compared to the chiefdoms, both have similar characteristics in their acknowledgement of the autonomy of the local administration. While chiefs may wield some political power within a tribe’s political structure, the monarchy system that grants authorized community leaders is an overly centralized form of political power.
In precolonial Africa, the concept of a nation was more malleable than it is today, yet the construction of nationhood is predicated on expansion and assimilation. As a direct consequence of this, African identity is a concoction that is cumulative and varied at the cultural, political, and social levels. According to western conceptions, a nation is an area whose residents are ruled by the same central authority. A nation can also describe a group of people who share a common ancestry, culture, and (often) language. In contrast, while all variables were equal in precolonial Africa, the concept of territory remained unsolidified.
Colonialism led to the establishment of territorial demarcations, but not with the aim of establishing contemporary systems of government; rather, these demarcations functioned to isolate colonies from one another. The systematic breaking apart and breaking up of the institutions caused a lot of damage to the indigenous governance system, which hurt the economic, social, and cultural institutions.
Colonialism paralyzed the economic power and political institutions of the time, replacing them with ones better suited to the unrestrained exploitation of Africa’s primary products or cash crops. Also, putting control of African society in the hands of colonial administrations was one of the biggest things that made it impossible for native people to choose their own fates.
One of the most significant historical obstacles that colonial powers brought with them was the creation of divisions among citizens into political, ethnic, and religious institutions. As a result of its foundation in the colonial architecture of divide and rule among multiple identities, notably along ethnic and linguistic lines, the current postcolonial African government system faces the very difficult challenges it was designed to address. When it comes to building postcolonial nation-states, we have seen that politicians and intellectuals do not consider these fundamental roadblocks.
Postcolonial Africa’s state construction is primarily divorced from precolonial African administration model experience and knowledge; rather, it is borrowed from colonial frameworks, particularly European imperial ideals. As a result of a preoccupied attitude and a lack of self-confidence, there are no obvious governance options available to African leaders at this time; instead, they must remain within colonial frameworks.
The difficulty was that anything associated with European or western thinking was civilized, while everything related to indigenous African governing systems was backward and obsolete. For this reason, every African country’s governance, judiciary, and constitution, from west to east to south to north, are carbon copies of their respective colonial overlords. Even a nation that asserts it has never been colonized can’t hide from the truth, and Ethiopia is no exception.
Thoughts about indigenous vs. Eurocentric governance systems?
In contemporary political theory, ethnic and linguistic identities are not always congruent with fundamental ideas on the function of governance in the administration of the nation-state. Concerns about diversity in the context of self-governance and living together can only be solved through real consultation between all parties. Forcing everyone to speak the same language or follow the same cultural norms is not only bad for people’s ability to create their own identities and act on their own, but it may also hurt relationships between people.
States in Africa composed of distinct ethnic groupings, clans, or tribes, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, Somalia, and South Sudan, are confronted with severe obstacles. Without a doubt, the ethnic and linguistic diversity of Africa is a source of beauty and wealth. During the colonial era, intra-ethnic ties became more tainted in order to foster a system of divide and rule. The disruption of a local knowledge system meant to settle a disagreement between two different groups of people also made things worse.
From bad to worse, postcolonial Africa adopted a Eurocentric federal government structure to solve a problem produced by the same colonial masters. The dominant theory of government was federalism, which decentralized power to previously fragmented ethnic and linguistic identities. The indigenous government system, on the other hand, has never been used, and neither political leaders nor academics see it as a way to bring together the different ethnic groups and languages in Africa.
Despite complex circumstances and enduring community-relationship issues confronting African federalism, the continent has embraced federalism. In Africa, the concept and actuality of federalism are hotly debated. Whether or not Africa is a good model for a federal state, and whether or not it should be or become one if it is not already, are two topics that generate strong opinions and strong convictions amongst scholars and experts alike.
It has not been possible, due to the federal structure, to forestall unforeseen consequences or satisfy the yearning for self-government by extending territorial autonomy along ethnic and linguistic lines. Ethnic allegiance is the consequence of ethnic and language federalism, which contributes to the ethnicization of the system, produces continual tension, and strains interethnic relationships. Additionally, in postcolonial African politics, ethno-territorialization and nativization are institutionalized via a federal governance system without regard to the core social fabric. This is done without taking into account the history of the communities.
This only serves to separate people further. Isolationist governmental institutions promoting an “us versus them” mentality significantly contribute to ethnic violence. In precolonial Africa, the notion of the nation-state was distinct from the federalist view prevalent in the West. The sub-states are not structured according to ethnicity but feature a highly decentralized, hierarchical structure.
The underlying conceptual incompatibility between Pan-Africanism and Federalism
Pan-Africanism seeks to promote solidarity and collaboration among all people of African descent, regardless of their geographical location. A single economic society, as a power conferred by the people for the people, can construct a sovereign regime of truth that can act across Africa. As Benedict Anderson demonstrated, the fundamental concept is based on constructivism and a specific type of pragmatic nationalism that saw African constituents as communities.
One could wonder where and how pan-African principles, the African indigenous government system, and Eurocentric federalism are in conflict. Numerous arguments might be made, some of which have already been described as fundamental differences. The underlying inconsistencies of governance can be explained. Only through a supranational entity can pan-African identity or unity be created. This institution can serve as a supreme administrative structure that derives its authority from the sovereignty of African states.
Considering these realities, the implementation of federalism at the national level contradicts the pan-African supranational body in two ways. Primarily, it complicates the interaction between ethnic, national, and supranational identities and regional supranational entities by producing “states within states.” Also, substate, national, and transnational identities are at odds, and the costs of doing business and dealing with bureaucracy are very high.
Unquestionably, federalism is a desirable idea in the dual senses of devolution of power from what would otherwise be centralized and unitary states to lower levels of governance and a transfer of authority upwards from the state level. But big ideas like “United Peoples of Africa” are seen as impractical and harmful because citizens need more power than sovereign states to do things that are more constructive and helpful.
A profound argument can be made for indigenous governance systems versus Eurocentric notions. This argument needs to be expanded upon further so that we have a more refined governance concept. Based on precolonial knowledge systems, Kidane’s indigenous alternative unification theory aspiration presents three tiers of governing structures: Mojo-Oda, Debo, and Umoja-Jamaa. Such an indigenous governing structure based on African philosophies would make the development and unification of Africa a reality.
The justification for implementing a kind of African indigenous governance is that it will reestablish African collective leadership competence and place accountability and responsibility at the center of the organization’s culture. As a result of the absence of a consolidated, harmonized governance framework at the national level throughout the continent, there are a few obstacles to using one’s full imagination.
A multiethnic state such as Africa must avoid territorial autonomy based on ethnic and linguistic administration in order to prevent harmful consequences. The geographical partition in Africa should take into account the multiethnic and linguistic makeup of the continent in order to establish national and pan-African identities.
Ethnicity should not be the primary consideration in state territorial design; the criteria for designing state territorial structures are not mutually exclusive. Also, the integration of a popular ethnic group into a single subnational state is a significant obstacle for African politics in terms of fostering ethnic allegiance; it produces conflict and strains interethnic interactions.
Seife Tadelle Kidane (PhD) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC); Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Johannesburg.
Contributed by Seife Tadelle