Although the dream of a United States of Africa has been situated in African intellectual history for nearly 100 years, the first substantial attempt to bring that dream to life was an ambitious project spearheaded by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.
After leading Ghana to independence in 1957, Nkrumah thought the feat was “meaningless unless it is linked up to the total liberation of the African continent”.
It is very necessary to point out that this famous quote was uttered on the eve of Ghana’s independence to a jubilant crowd who had not turned up for a lecture on Pan-African philosophy. But Nkrumah, the first leader of a free sub-Saharan African country, could not help himself but state one condition under which Ghana’s independence would be more fulfilled – be a lightning rod for other independence struggles on the continent.
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Soon after Ghana, Guinea defied French colonial expectations in another intriguing story in 1958 to become only the second country in sub-Sahara to declare independence. Mali too, led by Modibo Keita, left the France Federation two years after Guinea, and the newly-independent African nation joined the Union of African States (UAS), previously Union of Independent African States (UAIS), comprising its two West African neighbors Ghana and Guinea.
The UAS was historically the first move towards a post-colonial Pan-African organization in Africa. It was formed pragmatically as a strong bilateral relationship between Ghana and Guinea in 1958 but in 1959, the two countries entered into another alliance with the never-before-colonized Liberia to enact the Union of Independent African States.
Liberia’s interests in this stead and the UAIS were rather short-lived. And so when Mali joined Ghana and Guinea’s UAS in 1960, the West African trio became the near-crystallization of a political and economic union in the form of what Nkrumah had always preached.
The UAS was, for its time and place, a dream equally beautiful and scary. Juxtapose the Union with, for instance, the European Commission (EC), which was founded by historically free European states in 1958 as a Pan-European effort at political, social, and economic integration, and you will come to the conclusion that UAS was somewhat too heavy for the shoulders of three infant nations in exploited Africa.
The idealism, however, needs to be applauded. In the founding charter, the UAS promised to establish a single currency and common central reserve bank for members as well as develop shared citizenship for peoples of member states.
None of these things were anywhere close to fruition, sadly. While the threat of neocolonialism lingered, much of the UAS’ problems were due to foundational deficiencies.
First, the UAS seemed worryingly like Nkrumah’s passion project rather than voluntary cooperation between equal partners. In 1958, it was Ghana that lent about $300 million in today’s money, £10 million at the time, to cash-strapped Guinea after the French threw a tantrum and left Guinea with nothing after independence.
This loan was the grounds upon which a bond between Ghana and Guinea was built.
Secondly, in spite of successful national propagandas that taught Ghanaians, Guineans and Malians that they would soon be “one country”, independence governments paid lip service to this vision. The strains of putting one’s house in order or quite literally, building one’s nation, before venturing into marriage, was a heavier cross than the founders of the UAS could bear.
Despite also being a cooperative effort between former British and French colonies, the UAS was never attractive even as a multicultural association to other former colonial territories who had been under the French or the British. This staggering fact was not lost on Nkrumah who took the chance at every continental podium to admonish independent African states about the need to unite under one tent.
We may also speak of the fact even as the UAS was established, contemporaneous Pan-African conferences and corollaries were in effect, with Ghana curiously in leadership roles. The Conference of Independent African States as well as the All-African People’s Conference were much bigger instrumental umbrellas of Nkrumah’s philosophy of continental liberation.
By 1963 when the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union (AU), was founded, there was no longer a UAS. The organization had withered and died, leaving in its wake historic cordiality between visionary states as well as some sort of blueprint for future relationships between free African states.