Ambitious plan for a new Africa: Welcome to the U.S.A (that's the United States of Africa)

A growing number of African leaders share a dream: of uniting their continent in a single, 53-state federation. Tomorrow, they meet in Ghana to discuss turning it into reality. Is a new superpower in the making? Claire Soares reports

This is the United States as you've never seen it before. With 53 states, and more than 2,000 official languages, it's also home to some pretty famous pyramids and there is scarcely a McDonald's to be seen. It's the USA II - the United States of Africa.

It's an incredibly ambitious idea but, perhaps surprisingly, not a new one. In fact, it's been around since the time colonial masters held sway. But now, 50 years after Ghana became the first black African state to win independence, leaders from across the continent are gathering in Ghana's capital, Accra, to discuss making the dream a reality.

In a world of increasing globalisation, where the small guys often get drowned out by the bigger players, especially on issues such as trade, some African leaders believe the only way for the continent to prosper is to unite. They want to replace the current African Union (AU), a largely administrative group for the 53 countries from Egypt to South Africa, with a proper African government that would control a two million-strong continental army, direct the fight against Aids, and speak with one voice in international negotiations.

"The battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for our generation - the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa," Alpha Oumar Konare, head of the AU, said before the meeting.

Spearheading the charge towards "One Africa" is a leader who often wears clothes emblazoned with the outline of the continent - Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, or to give him his full title, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Col Gaddafi has travelled to the summit, which starts tomorrow, by land trying to drum up support and persuade his counterparts that a USA is the only way forward because "the voice of the people must be heard at last".

He already has Ghana and Senegal, the oases of stability and democracy in the otherwise turbulent west of the continent, on board as well as those with more dubious international reputations like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

But crucial African heavyweights like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are either keeping studiously quiet or have professed themselves against rushing into a union. "Before you put a roof on a house, you need to build the foundations," the South African President Thabo Mbeki apparently told diplomats.

The United States of Africa was first coined more than 80 years ago by the activist and poet, Marcus Garvey. "Hail! United States of Africa - free! Hail! Motherland most bright, divinely fair! State in perfect sisterhood united. Born of truth, mighty thou shalt ever be," was the start of his poem penned in 1924.

Although born in Jamaica, Mr Garvey felt himself to be an African at heart. Almost single-handedly he created a "Back to Africa" movement in the United States, touring the country urging African-Americans to be proud of their race and return to Africa. But he was not just a man of words. He launched a Black Star Line steamship, which he hoped would help transport Africans back to their ancestral homeland, and also kick-start a worldwide African-run economy, shipping goods and raw materials between North America, the Caribbean and Africa.

It ultimately proved to be a fiasco as a business, but the Black Star Line was an important symbol of black potential. And the man who inherited the Pan-African mantle, Ghana's first post-independence president Kwame Nkrumah, ensured the hope lived on.

Nkrumah graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania shortly before Garvey died, and was gripped by the concept of One Africa. When he became president in 1958, one of his first acts was to buy the Black Star boat back and get it sailing the seas again. Even today, on the streets of Accra, a steamy ocean-side metropolis, the black star is everywhere - from the centre of the red, yellow and green national flag, to the Michael Essien shirt and the Black Star national football team.

The summit in Ghana, from tomorrow to 3 July, and its single-item agenda, Grand Debate on Union Government, is something of a tribute to the country's first president. During Nkrumah's first year in office, he gathered together politicians, trade unionists and students to discuss the "African non-violent revolution" and after the 31-nation Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had been formed in 1963, he kept pushing his peers to go still further. "The emergence of such a mighty stabilising force in this strife-torn world should be regarded ... not as the shadowy dream of a visionary, but as a practical proposition which the peoples of Africa can and should translate into reality ... We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late," Nkrumah declared.

He proposed a formal declaration that the African nations present "here and now agree to the establishment of a union of African states" but he didn't win many, or rather, any converts. And soon he was arguing with Tanzania about African socialism and criticising Francophone countries for still relying on their colonial masters.

This time around, there is a broad consensus that a united Africa is a good thing, but the proposed time frame of reaching that goal by 2015 is seen by many both inside and outside the continent as far too hasty.

"It's definitely something to aim for, a worthwhile endeavour for the future, but we have a lot of work to get to that point," Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's former finance minister, anti-corruption crusader and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in the US, told The Independent.

"Just look at the EU - it took them years. First we need the key countries to be politically and economically strong, and we need to put regional infrastructure projects in place. Once you've got that momentum, then we can start talking about a proper union," she added. And she has a point. Even in the EU, which now has 27 members, newcomers from eastern Europe like Bulgaria and Romania have recently been criticised for their lawlessness and gangland problems.

Bringing double the number of nations under one roof is already a challenge but when that continent is the world's poorest and least stable, it seems even more daunting.

But Africa watchers point out that there are signs for hope - freedom of expression and freedom of movement have increased across practically the whole continent, and while the recent and widely-regarded fraudulent elections in Nigeria were a step back, democracy is gaining an ever-increasing foothold.

And the number of fully-blown African wars has declined. The amputations and bloody civil massacres in Sierra Leone and Liberia have given way to a fragile peace, although there are still worrying hotspots, most notably in Darfur and Somalia.

Although the OAU was rebranded as the AU in 2002, it has continually struggled to shake off its image as a talking shop where rhetoric and bombastic speech thrive, but little action is taken.

Most recently its inability to persuade any country other than Uganda to send troops into Mogadishu to patrol the streets and the lack of pressure placed on Sudan to end the Darfur crisis have weakened its credibility. And the lavish sums spent by the rotating hosts of the twice-yearly summits have done little to make the organisation feel close to the 850 million ordinary Africans it is supposed to represent. The tendency to excess started in 1965 with Nkrumah, who built a palace with 60 luxury suites and a 2,000-seater banqueting hall just for a summit. Last year Col Gaddafi arrived in Sudan with a fleet of shiny cars that stretched around the perimeter of the whole conference centre, and flew in hordes of female bodyguards.

Among Africa-watchers and some citizens there's scepticism about how such a proposal might be turned from dream to reality, given the tendency of the continent's leaders to cling on to power.

"It's a good idea. It would be nice to go from Monrovia to Cape Town without needing a visa, for example," said Ansu Konneh, a journalist in the Liberian capital. "But you know Africa's leaders, they are so power-hungry and they wouldn't want to lose any of their privileges. I don't think they would feel secure having a continental president."

One man who has already put himself forward for the role of African president is the Senegalese music star Youssou N'dour. "I pledge in front of you, student youth of Africa, to stand as a candidate to head the Union African government if the project is endorsed at the heads of state summit," he declared at Dakar University this week.

His ambition is likely to remain the stuff of fantasy, but the United States of Africa is definitely on the table. "When spiders unite, they can tie up a lion" goes an old Ethiopian proverb. Most African leaders feel that to be true. But whether they spin that single web and how long it takes, is another matter.

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