President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt is taking over the African Union presidency from President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Meanwhile, an Egyptian politician Ahmed Abou Al Ghayt is leading the Arab League. Two Egyptians are, at the same time, leaders of two world bodies.
African Union is an organisation of 55 member states that have a population of 1.2 billion with an estimated GDP of $2.2 trillion. No country outside the continent’s geographical borders is a full member of the block, though there are some honorary members such as Palestine and Turkey.
Arab League, on the other side, is an organisation of member states found not only in the Arabia, but also in Africa as well. Actually, 10 of the 22 League member states are in Africa and they belong to the African Union as well. Egypt is a founding member of both, the African Union an the Arab League. Others are Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. Populationwise, these 10 nations have more people than the rest in the League.
Of course, this is not the first time an African Arab member state takes the chair of the African Union. Being founding members of the organisation – since the time of the OAU – these states have had the chance to hold the seat too. So, it is not something new. Of the great pioneers of African unity in recent years was the late Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.
But I just felt the need to elaborate the point due to the existing reality of what the late Professor Ali Mazrui called “Afrabia”, i.e the African-Arab relations, which is far deeper and concrete than it is realized.
Absurdity of African Racial Identity
It is absurd that many people in Africa have been oriented to associate the continent with colours of the skin, namely the black skin. On one side, Africans from the Sub-Saharan Africa take a pride of being the only original children of Mother Africa. They almost reject any other person who does not look like them to identify themselves with the continent.
On the other hand, Africans from the Sahel and the North such as Mauritania, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and somehow even those in the Horn of Africa such as Ethiopia (where the AU headquarters are), Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti have also been made to believe that they are not Africans. For them too, being African is to be black. And as the stereotypes make their ways into their heads, black has always been associated with poverty and backwardness. No one wants to be associated with such vices.
I am from the islands on Indian Ocean found in the coastal East Africa. So, Sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes in 2007, I attended a seminar on Political Communication in the IT Age here in Germany and, in one session, our facilitator gave us a task which was to be done by participants from same continent, namely Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. I was surprised to see my friends from Egypt and Algeria ran to the Asia group and let me, one Malawian and one Zimbabwean to represent Africa. After the session, I asked our Egyptian friend why he did not join us, and he utterly told me: “Because I am not an African!”
These feelings are mutual. As said, only because of the colours of our skins, we tend to exclude or include others in our definition of who belongs to where. But are Africanness and blackness one and the same thing? Or, is Arabness synonymous to having some particular bodily features? Absolutely, not!
As a matter of fact, many Arab and African tribes do share a culture which recognises a family bond through blood and not through colour of the skin. As once Professor Mazrui put it: “Once you are born by an Arab father, you qualify being an Arab without having no other qualifications!” That is also true with being born by an African father.
Africa Is Big Enough For Us All
Yet again, the line between Africanness and Arabness as far as our Mother Africa is concerned is out of point. You cannot have the continent with an area far bigger than a combination of China, India, the United States of America and most of Europe and still want to describe it in line of its peoples’ skins. The continent which is surrounded by seas and oceans and bordered with other lands can not be uniform in structure. Africa is not just one small country with one tribe and one language and one culture.
Back to the concept of Afrabia within the context of the African Union, I think there is a good lesson in it. To me, it is even personal. Coming from a country so affected by politics of identity, I have seen the danger of describing our national identity through the mirror of skin colours. As cosmopolitan as it is, Zanzibar has been made to suffer from its diversity instead of blossoming out of it. In many instances, the 1964 shockwaves have been made to reflect racial hatred and misunderstandings.
It might be helpful for others to tell them the longest serving secretary general of the Organisation of the African Union, Salim Ahmed Salim, was himself a Zanzibari with Arab roots. He is an Afrabian.
But this negative politics has even interfered into our social set-up. He was once denied his right to run for Tanzanian presidency by his own political party due to the fact that, among others, “he was an Arab.”
I do well remember how – when I once attended physiotherapy clinic in Muhimbili, Dar es Salaam, during 90s, one of the doctors asked me: “How could you appear so African with the names so Arabian!? You must have been brainwashed by Arabs believing that you are one among them!”
I was just 17 by that time, unable to defend myself in the foreign city, but the words burnt me live until I poured them to my father. He told me I could have answered the doctor with a simple question: “How comes that his city, Dar es Salaam, sounds so Arabic while its dwellers were so African?” Actually the word Dar es Salaam is an Arabic name for a House of Peace. My old man’s point was clear. There has always been a link between Africans and Arabs and in many instances the link was positive.
African Union and Afrabia
The lesson that the African Union gives us is that, one can be both an African and an Arab at the same time and that does not conflict with anything. The people from Sahel and the rest of North Africa are just as Africans as are Nyamwezis, Bugandas, Shonas, Hausas or Hutus.
The term Arab is on the same level as other terms such as Bantu, Nilot and Cushite. As there is no contradiction to belong to one of these identities and simultaneously being an African, why does is matter for an Arab to be too an African?
Afrabia is, therefore, a reality to millions of Africans living in this wonderful and beautiful continent. It tells us that our Mother Africa is so big that She can contain all of us!