"Before you put the roof on a house, you need to build the foundation," South African president Thabo Mbeki reportedly told diplomats at the summit meeting of the African Union in Ghana two weeks ago.
Others were just as quick to ridicule the summit's declared goal of creating a unified African government by 2015.
It may never happen - but it might, and it would be a very good idea.
"The emergence of such a mighty stabilizing force in this strife-torn world should be regarded... not as a 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," Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, declared almost half a century ago.
Nkrumah was advocating a pan-African government instead of the jigsaw puzzle of states that came into existence as the European imperial powers left their colonies in Africa.
He was asking for the moon: the independence struggle was waged within the borders of each colony, and the leaders who emerged had their power bases inside those borders. Wider unity would have dethroned most of those leaders, so it did not happen.
But now the unity project is back.
The African Union was created five years ago out of the wreckage of the discredited Organization of African Unity with the goal of making Africa's rulers accountable. Now it is trying to revive the project for real African unity
There is no shortage of Africans who argue that unity is merely a distraction from urgent and concrete problems like Darfur and Zimbabwe. Maybe they are right, but what if those crises are just symptoms of a deeper African problem?
In the 1960s, when most African countries gained their independence, they had higher average incomes and better public services than most Asian countries. Kenyans lived better than Malaysians; people in the Ivory Coast were richer than South Koreans; Zimbabweans were healthier, longer-lived and better-educated than the Chinese. And there were more and worse wars in Asia than in Africa.
Now it's all dramatically the other way round, but why?
The answer must lie in the system. And the most striking characteristic of that system is the sheer number of independent states within Africa: 53 in a continent that has fewer people than either India or China.
This is where the discussion usually veers off into a condemnation of the arbitrary borders drawn by the old colonial powers, which paid little heed to the ethnic ties of the people within them, but that is not the point at all.
The point is that at least half of Africa's 53 countries have greater ethnic diversity within their borders than all of China. A few, like Nigeria, approach India in the sheer range and diversity of their languages, religions and ethnic identities.
Rational borders that give each ethnic group its own homeland, cannot be drawn in Africa. Even if you refused that privilege to groups of less than half a million people, you'd end up with over 200 countries.
So the old Organization of African Unity decreed that the colonial borders must remain untouched, because the only alternative seemed to be several generations of separatist ethnic wars.
The problem is that quite a few of those separatist ethnic wars happened anyway, and many other African countries avoided that fate only by becoming tyrannies where a "big man" from one of the dominant ethnic groups ruled over the rest by a combination of patronage and violence.
Time was wasted, lives were lost and things went backwards. Africa needs to change this system.
Over 200 ethnic groups in Africa have over half a million people, and no single group (except the Arabs of North Africa) amounts to even 5 per cent of the continent's population. Even in Europe, eight languages account for 75 per cent of the continent's population. Africa is different, and maybe the nation state (or, rather, the pseudo-nation state) is not the answer there.
The African federalists imagine a solution that jumps right over that problem: a single African Union modelled on the European Union.
Then politics would stop being a zero sum ethnic competition (at least in theory) and start being about the general welfare. And, in theory, the continent would start to fulfill its potential.
We will all be a good deal older before the African Union, or whatever it's eventually called, becomes more than a dream, but in the end it may.
As Alpha Oumar Konaré, former president of Mali and head of the African Union, said at the start of the summit: "The battle for the United States of Africa is the only one worth fighting for this generation - the only one that can provide the answers to the thousand-and-one problems faced by the populations of Africa."
Gwynne Dyer?s new book, The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq, was published in Canada last week by McClelland & Stewart. His column appears in NOW every week.