On the Concept of Afrabia

By Ali A. Mazrui and James N. Kariuki *

 There are different levels of Pan-Africanism, varying in degrees of sustainability. Sub-Saharan Pan-Africanism is a quest for the unification of black people in Africa below the Sahara. Then there are two possible versions of continental Pan-Africanism.

Sub-continental Pan-Africanism seeks union of black states while excluding Arab Africa. This idea has been floated from time to time, but it does not seem to gather much political support. More triumphant has been trans-Saharan Pan-Africanism which formed the basis for Afro-Arab Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its successor, the African Union (AU).

Another version of sub-Saharan Pan-Africanism is sub-regional rather than sub-continental. The sub-regional variety has produced organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which in recent years has been more of an activist as a peacekeeping force than as a vanguard for economic change.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) also received a new lease on life when South Africa became a fully fledged member in the post-apartheid era. In December 1999 Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania finally succeeded in reviving the East African Community since its collapse 22 years earlier.

By far the most ambitious idea floating around in the new era of intellectual speculation is whether the whole of Africa and the whole of the Arab world are two regions in the process of merging into one. Out of this speculative discourse has emerged the concept of Afrabia.  Is the Afrabia a mere intellectual fascination or can it be realized in practical terms?

Two tendencies have stimulated the new thinking about African-Arab relations. One tendency is basically negative but potentially unifying: the war on terrorism. The new international terrorism may have its roots in injustices perpetrated against such Arab people as Palestinians and Iraqis, but the primary theatre of contestation is blurring the distinction between the Middle East and the African continent.

To kill twelve Americans in Nairobi in August 1998, over 200 Kenyans died in a terrorist act at the United States Embassy in Nairobi. Four years later, a suicide bomber in Mombasa, attacked the Israeli-owned and patronized Paradise Hotel. There too, three times as many Kenyans as Israelis perished. These incidents of unmitigated violence were mere rehearsals in microcosm of the spectacular September 2013 week-long terrorist attack on Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi where over 60 innocent people were killed.
Apart from the war on terror, Islam as a cultural and political force has also been deepening relations between Africa and the Middle East. Intellectual revival is not only a Western idiom. It is also the idiom of African cultures and African Islam. Hot political debates about the Shariah (Islamic Law) in Nigeria and the political objectives of the contemporary violent Boko Haram constitute part of the trend of cultural integration between Africa and the Middle East.

Recent legitimization of Muammar Gaddafi as a viable African leader contributed to the birth of no less a new institution than the AU. It is sometimes startling how much more Pan-Africanist than Pan-Arabist Gaddafi had become in the years preceding his death. At least before he died, Gaddafi was steadily out-Africanizing the legacy of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The fourth force that may be merging Africa with the Middle East is political economy. Africa’s oil producers need to form a joint partnership with the bigger oil producers of the Middle East.

download (2)In the area of aid and trade between Africa and the Middle East, the volume may have gone down since the 1980s. But most indications seem to promise a future expansion of economic relations between Africa and the Middle East. In the Gulf countries of the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman, the concept of Afrabia has begun to be examined on higher and higher echelons.

It was initially trans-Saharan Pan-Africanism that gave birth to the idea of Afrabia. The first post-colonial waves of Pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sekou Toure believed that the Sahara was a bridge rather than a divide.

The concept of Afrabia now connotes more than interaction between Africanity and Arab identity; it is seen as a process of fusion between the two. While the principle of Afrabia recognizes that Africa and the Arab world are overlapping categories, it goes on to prophesy that these two are in the historic process of becoming one.

But who are the Afrabians? There are in reality at least four categories. Cultural Afrabians are those whose culture and way of life have been deeply Arabized but have fallen short of their being linguistically Arabs. Most Somali, Hausa, and some Waswahili are cultural Afrabians in that sense. Their mother-tongue is not Arabic, but much of the rest of their culture bears the stamp of Arab and Islamic impact.

Ideological Afrabians are those who intellectually believe in solidarity between Arabs and Africans, or at least between Arab Africa and black Africa. Historically, such ideological Afrabian leaders have included Kwame Nkrumah, the founder president of Ghana; Gamal Abdel Nasser, arguably the greatest Egyptian of the 20th Century; Sekou Toure, the founding father of post-colonial Guinea (Conakry), and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Such leaders refused to acknowledge the Sahara Desert as a divide; they insisted on visualizing it as a historic bridge.

Geographical Afrabians are those Arabs and Berbers whose countries are concurrently members of both the African Union and the Arab League. Some of these countries are overwhelmingly Arab, such as Egypt and Tunisia, while others are only marginally Arab, such as Mauritania, Somalia and the Comoro Islands.

Finally, there are the genealogical Afrabians. These are those who are biologically descended from both Arabs and Black Africans. In North Africa they have included Anwar Sadat, the former President of Egypt who concluded a peace treaty with Israel and was assassinated for it in 1982. Anwar Sadat’s mother was Black and his father was Arabic. He was politically criticized for many things, but almost never for being racially mixed.

download (1)Genealogical Afrabians in sub-Saharan Africa include Tanzanian Salim Ahmed Salim, the longest serving Secretary-General of the OAU, and the Mazrui clan scattered across Coastal Kenya and Tanzania. It should be noted that Northern Sudanese qualify as Afrabians by both geographical and genealogical criteria.

These four sub-categories of Afrabians provide some of the evidence that Africa and the Arab world are two geographical regions that are in the slow historic process of merging.

*Ali A. Mazrui is the globally distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton.  James N. Kariuki is Professor (emeritus) of International Relations. He is a Kenyan resident in South Africa.



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