15 January 2012

Africa: New Building Must See New Spirit, New African Union


The just-begun year will mark the first 10 years of the African Union (AU). This eventful decade has ended with a momentous year of uprisings, popular protests, and more than 28 elections that have changed Africa and the world. In light of this, the upcoming AU summit will provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on the eventful decade.

The composition of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government will offer a chance for the Union to reposition itself for the second decade with three long-serving dictators already toppled by the North African uprisings and with more new democratically elected leaders joining the club. As another milestone, the summit will also inaugurate the new massive, 28-storey building as the new AU Headquarters, funded and built by the Chinese.

Since its establishment in 2002, the Union has been tasked with carrying out the very ambitious project of realising a peaceful, integrated, prosperous Africa. This is to be achieved through its four strategic pillars: peace and security, development and integration, shared values, and capacity building.

On the one hand, it has been busy setting norms and building institutions. With more than 200 conventions, strategies, and institutional mechanisms, the first 10 years can be called a decade of norm setting and institution building.

To realise the four pillars, it has built architecture that provides normative and institutional framework, at the heart of which the lie the peace and security architecture, governance structures, and ministerial commissions.

On the other hand, it has to deal with long-standing and emerging issues of peace and development. Albeit with varying degrees of success and pace, it has tried to respond to urgent conflict situations and human security problems, such as the conflicts in Darfur and Somalia, climate change negotiations, elections, and displacements of populations across the continent.

It is now time to assess the successes and challenges of the first 10 years and propose areas of improvement for the coming years. Such assessment needs to be taken at a different level against the overall strategic plan and the four pillars.

For the sake of comparison and lessons from outside, the examination of the progress of similar regional organisations of governance such as the European Union and the League of Arab States is helpful.

All global or regional governance organisations have four core functions norm setting, diffusion, implementation, and supervision. As it appears, the AU needs to focus its second decade on ending norm setting, moving fast to norm implementation, and repositioning itself to become the foremost driver of change and promoter of democracy in Africa.

Since its establishment, the Union has been mainly focused on policy formulation and, to some extent, on norm diffusion, by way of popularisation and dissemination of policies and conventions. Consequently, it has more than 200 advanced legislative and policy frameworks on several issues, including on democratic constitutional governance.

It has more than 43 treaties and conventions, of which almost half have not yet entered into effect, due to the lack of 15 ratifications. With significant achievements in its norm setting functions, it has propelled Africa to the forefront of developing innovative conventions that considerably contribute to international law.

Its convention on the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons in this term, dubbed the Kampala Convention, is exemplary. With significant contributions to international law for the first time, Africa has provided normative and institutional framework for the protection of more than 20 million internally displaced persons. It has filled a protection gap that has existed for a long time within international legal framework.

While these developments mark a highpoint in its achievements, the successes in the norm setting front were not matched by efforts to effectively implement the norms. Currently, the most binding constraint is the gap between the norms set, on one hand, and their implementation, on the other - a norm implementation gap.

That is why introducing a moratorium to end norm setting is imperative, so that it can focus with full force on implementation. The Union conducts more than 300 meetings in a year, including summits, ministerial statutory commissions, and expert consultations, recent audit results show. On average, the process from drafting a treaty to adoption costs 200,000 dollars.

If this amount was utilised for the implementation of existing treaties at national and regional levels, it would significantly enhance the impact of the work of the organisation on the lives of many Africans. It has to begin with treaty popularisation, ratification, and supervision of implementation.

While norm setting can be regional or global, implementation is often local. Progress in the implementation of existing policies will ultimately determine whether or not the Union and its member states deliver their promises to the peoples of Africa.

Another most serious challenge for the AU during this eventful inaugural decade stemmed from the North African uprisings. The AU project that began with high hopes in Durban in 2002 was at its lowest point in 2011. Notwithstanding the deliberate marginalisation and hurdles imposed on it by dominant global powers and apart from its roadmap, its leadership's role was too fragmented and weak.

Many have associated the sluggishness to respond with the shortcomings in the normative framework. Yet, there is no tension between the events in North Africa and the normative framework of the AU. On the contrary, the spirit of the normative framework supports public demands for asserting the general will of the people.

The legislative intention of the declaration on unconstitutional changes of government does not apply to revolutions necessitated by the prevailing unconstitutional governance of a country. As far as public protests enjoy massive popular support and meet the credibility test, the protests remain within the rights of the people.

However, the credibility test needs to fulfil three conditions: systemic violations of substantive rights by a government, violation of the trust of the people by a government through deception or manipulation, and the absence of constitutional mechanisms to redress the problem.

When these conditions prevail, the people have the right to change the government constitutionally, if possible, and extra-constitutionally, through revolution, if necessary.

The union should have already taken the lead in promoting such changes. Yet, it failed to assume its proper role in promoting democracy in North Africa.

Given the novel and ambitious normative standards that the union began with, a decade ago, one rightly expects it to perform much better than any other stakeholder. To the dismay of many Africans, though, its record remains disappointingly low.

As it appears, the low political will among leaders and the passive role of member countries deprive it of an active role. Reversing the course calls for working with a league of democratic countries.

With a new building and a new decade, it needs a new spirit of leadership to make a swift shift of mission from norm setting to implementation. With the push for a hasty and impetuous United States of Africa over, along with its former advocates such as Muammar Gaddafi, it is time to take the project on the path of gradual but solid unification.

The AU ought to start with an integration process that focuses on the free mobility of people, services, and goods and on building the necessary infrastructure for this. Economic integration should lead the political integration process towards a united Africa.

By putting the majority of its resources in results-oriented joint projects with member states and regional organisations, the union can make the next 10 years a decade of implementation, integration, and complete democratisation of Africa.

Mehari Taddele Maru (PhD) is programme head for the African Conflict Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). He can be reached at mmaru@issafrica.org.

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