It’s time to get back to the original message behind Africa Day

Dreams of Africa.
Dreams of Africa.
Image: Reuters/Mihai Barbu
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Happy Africa Day!

Each year on May 25, the continent celebrates Africa Day. Just how to celebrate the day is open to broad interpretation. In Zimbabwe, May 25 is a public holiday, while on Senegal’s former slave port, Goree Island, a new movement dubbed “Africans Rising,” is being launched to reclaim peace, dignity and justice for Africans on the continent and the diaspora.

Elsewhere, there are concerts and ceremonies to mark the day. Africa Day is also celebrated by Africans abroad, as diaspora communities of different nationalities come together in cultural attires and swap traditional recipes.

But like many other holidays, the point and history of the Africa Day celebration seems lost on many. Its origins can be traced back to  April 15, 1958—when the first Conference of Independent African States brought the fathers of Africa’s liberation movements together. At the time, there were few independent African states, but the few leaders in attendance—from Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan, Liberia and others—were there as a collective platform to reject colonialism and find a common interest.

In a way, the meeting was far ahead of its time, imagining an interstate organization with a shared objective. It sowed the seeds of what would become the Organization of African Unity (later rebranded in 2001 as the African Union) launched on May 25, 1963 by 32 free nations, led by Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Touré of Guinea and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Every year since, Africa Day has been celebrated on May 25.

More than half a century later, colonialism is no longer the common enemy, and finding a clear message from a community of states has become more difficult. The African Union uses Africa Day to highlight certain development themes—this year it’s youth—but what that means in practical implication often gets lost. Progress remains the broad objective, but getting there is quite literally proving difficult.

Free travel, and by extension free trade, between countries remains a tall order despite the very obvious advantages it promises. A 2014 IATA study projects that opening up to 12 key air routes between countries on the continent will create “an extra 155,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual GDP.” At the moment, up to five million passengers a year face difficulties traveling between African countries due to “unnecessary restrictions on establishing air routes.” Throughout the continent, only 10 out of 55 countries allow visa-free entry for Africans or grant visas on arrival. In comparison, Americans can travel to at least 20 African countries without similar restrictions face d by Africans.

For its part, the AU says it’s aware of the problem and wants to fix it. Last year, it finally launched its continental passport but so far, the passport has only been made available to heads of state and high-ranking officials. Some countries have recently relaxed their entry requirements for Africans, as such some progress was recorded last year across the continent. Over the coming years, trade between African countries could also improve, especially given Trump’s isolationist “America First” stance. At the moment, intra-Africa trade accounts for a small share of trade on the continent but Trump’s policies could see more African countries forced to trade with each other.

It’s unfortunate that just getting together to celebrate Africa Day is proving more difficult than it did for Africa’s liberation leaders more than 50 years ago. As Africans are still trying to figure out how exactly to celebrate this cross-continental holiday, perhaps it’s time to get back to the original message behind this day and figure out what it means today. Unity is still a relevant and honorable goal, but making it practical means removing the barriers between nations.