The Africa Leadership Forum (ALF), one of the continent’s best known and most influential non-governmental organizations, stood on the brink of dissolution. Though not formally banned, it was finding it well-nigh impossible to operate at its base, the Obasanjo Farm Complex, in Otta, Ogun State.

Security officials had brusquely terminated its most recent outing at the Gateway Hotel, Otta, an international conference on accountability in governance in Africa. It was only a matter of time before         it would be slapped with a banning order and crippled.

Its founder and chairman, General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former head of state and statesman-at-large,    was languishing in prison, jailed by the brutal dictator Sani Abacha on false charges of plotting to overthrow his benighted regime.

The ALF outsmarted Abacha and relocated, overnight as it were, to Accra, Ghana, before Abacha’s agents could move to seal up and occupy its premises.

It was from there that it organised an international conference titled Africa on the Eve of the 21st Century, in Maputo, Mozambique.  From September 9-11, 1997, policy-makers, scholars, and political figures from Africa and the wider world reflected on the African Condition in the millennium that was about to end, and its prospects in the one about to commence.

One of the more engaging discussions at the conference centred on a paper on Integration in Africa.  More than three decades after the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the evidence of continental unity was sparse and the evidence for integration was even sparser, its presenter contended.  Although cross-border trading counted for much more, official trade among African countries accounted for less than 5 per cent of the total transactions for the continent.

In education, development planning, transportation, manufacturing, and in virtually all fields, every country carried on almost as if it were an island unto itself, with scant regard for the choices their neighbours were pursuing and the advantages that might be gained by an integrated approach.

“African leaders are well integrated, but African peoples are not,” the presenter said to general applause. The OAU, he reminded the assembly, was for African peoples, not just their leaders, and it was time to make it work for the people and not just their leaders.

It came to light at the conference that only Senegal had a designated Department for cooperation and  regional integration, headed by an official without cabinet rank. So, when Obasanjo went from prison to power scarcely two years later, I drew on the communiqué for a memo urging him to appoint a minister of cabinet rank to take charge of those twin subjects.

“An appointment at that level would be a strong indication of your Administration’s commitment to advancing the cause of cooperation and integration of the continent,” the memo said.

I cannot claim that it played any part in his naming Dr Abimbola Ogunkelu Minister for Cooperation and Integration in Africa.  Obasanjo has always regarded the pursuit of these goals as an imperative, and the memo may well have seemed to him like an epistle to the choir.

I was led to these reminiscences by the Economic Community West African States (ECOWAS) recent “peace mission” to Mali. Its doom was foreseeable. The peacemakers, led by our own Dr Goodluck Jonathan, were acting more like shareholders concerned to preserve their stock in a tottering holding company at all cost rather than return to basics, question fundamental assumptions, and set the organisation on a new path.

They seemed more concerned to preserve the rule of President (as he then was) Boubacar Keita than to aassuage and reassure Malians who had been saying in one strong, united voice, that they had had more than enough of him. Citing rigged elections, official corruption, deepening deprivations and general insecurity, the Opposition demanded that Keita step down.

But the mediators would countenance no outcome that did not leave Keita in power. Little surprise there; most of them have dubious legitimacy at best, and a tenuous hold on power.  Each of the countries most of them preside over is a Mali waiting to happen.  They were not going to commit class suicide by abandoning one of their own who had been rejected by the people.

Even after the military moved in and ousted Keita, and Dr Jonathan and his team, parroting France and its allies whose overbearing presence in Mali’s affair has been cited as one of the reasons for the seething popular discontent on the streets of Bamako, urged them to go back to their barracks.  Keita has since bowed to necessity and accepted his fate.

The mediators too seem to have recognised the facts on the ground and are now urging a speedy return to constitutional rule, as if it was not the brazen manipulation of that hallowed principle that has lain at the bottom of virtually every political crisis in Africa.

In its formative years and indeed well into its second decade, the OAU would have been loath to intervene in the crisis, even for the sake of mediating.  “Non-interference” in the affairs of other member-states was one of the bedrock principles of its Charter, and African leaders interpreted that term liberally to cover their sins and to preserve themselves in power.

It was indeed a sign of progress when the OAU, bowing to the growing salience of human rights in the conduct of national and international affairs, tacitly abandoned that standard in the 1990s.  Its successor,            the African Union, went one significant step better to set up a novel institution, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) to enable member-states carry out self-monitoring and self-assessment on all aspects of governance, the type that would have anticipated, and perhaps even forestalled, the convulsions that rock African countries all too often.

But the ARPM is grossly under-funded, and stands today as aspiration rather than actuality.  If the African Union is to attain the goals for which it was founded, it must as a priority, empower the ARPM to function smoothly and continuously.  The political fortunes of the African peoples and solidarity with them must be grounded on institutions, not on personalities whose own fortunes are as evanescent as rainbow gold.

So also must the pursuit of cooperation and integration in Africa.

Back in the 1960s, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was calling insistently for a continental government.  Deeply suspicious of his alleged ambition to dominate the continent, and despairing of discounting or trading in their newly won sovereignty, showed not the least enthusiasm for it.

Even today, Nkrumah’s proposal seems starry-eyed.  The idea of European Union must have seemed just as fanciful when it was first mooted in a continent laid prostrate by Word War II when it was first mooted.  But behold the transformation, the idea and its faithful pursuit, have wrought on the European landscape and indeed on global geopolitics today.

It came to life as a small-bore operation, based on common trade in coal among three relatively small countries – Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg, the so-called BeNeLux nations.  It expanded to six members and acquired a new momentum when France, Germany and France entered.  The rest is history.

History suggests powerfully that African cooperation and integration can only spring from such small beginnings.

I am thinking of a proposal made by the Beninoise intellectual and statesman Professor Albert Tévoédjrè more than two decades ago.  He called it un jour sans frontiers – a day without boundaries, allowing for free movement of goods and persons across West Africa to begin with, not just cattle and their murderous minders.

Drawing on the lessons learned, the period of free movement can be raised to two days a week, a full week, a month, and so on, until the borders literally collapse under their own contradictions.

This is the kind of arrangement ECOWAS leaders should be thinking about, not propping up yet another member of their discredited club.

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