17 July 2012

Africa: AU Has to Be Relevant to Ordinary Africans


The stalemate in electing successor to Jean Ping as African Union (AU) Commission Chair brought to sharp focus the role of the continental body in the fast changing world, where regional integration is the trend.

With greater integration gaining currency across the globe, several questions as to parameters of integrating and its sustainability have been asked. Formed to succeed its loathed predecessor, the OAU, which was synonymous with Africa's dictatorship, the AU was expected to set the bar higher for good governance and respect for human rights in the continent.

Indeed, closer scrutiny of the preparatory processes and the text of AU's Constitutive Act, show that concerns over poor governance threshold, which often attracted foreign intervention, were alive. This must have motivated formation of AU Peace and Security Council in 2003 and the merged African Court of Justice and Human Rights in 2008. Yet despite existence of all these institutions, the AU's record on governance and human rights so far is at best inconsistent. From the Libyan crisis to continued human rights violations in Eastern Congo and Sudan, the AU still seems to overemphasise 'sovereignty' of its members in a world that long accepted universality of human rights. Its courtship with tyrant regimes is also on the rise going by the consistency in electing presidents with appalling domestic credentials to its rotational position of AU chairperson. Unnerving recent examples include Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang-Nguema and fallen Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi.

Even in those rare situations that the AU has somewhat been more active like the post election crisis in Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire, the follow-up mechanisms are weak, thus reversing possible gains made. In fact, in both Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire, it's doubtful whether the AU could have engaged were it not for overwhelming international pressure due to geopolitical importance of the two countries. In the case of Cote d'Ivoire, the role of ECOWAS, and not AU, was unquestionably more effective in ending increasingly intolerant regime of Laurent Gbagbo. Of course its East African equivalent, the EAC, does not give a damn matters human rights and democracy as alternative voices are crashed in literally all its member states. Even the potential new member, the republic of South Sudan, seems to prefer brutal crashing of any dissenting voices to rule of law and structured national reconciliation.

With this trend of ineffectiveness and inconsistency, it's interesting to listen to AU lament continued 'foreign' intervention in the continent. AU has zero record in prosecuting its own criminals. The conservative forces in the continent's leadership that have perennially benefited from the status quo of wanting governance standards are quick to invoke 'sovereignty' as defence ignoring responsibilities that come with it. It has been, for instance, sad seeing despicable sufferings in Sudan, Somalia and many other countries as the AU's leadership drags its feet in shuttle diplomacy. That can hardly be the way to go in the 21st century where traditional geographical borders have whittled away to the forces of globalisation and power of social media.

This is why the stalemate ought to be put into perspective instead of reducing it to pure numerical and economic pandering, apparently between former French colonies and Southern African states. Neither should be allowed to follow the traditional path of rewarding cronies by elevating them to the 'safety' of continental diplomacy.

Indeed, what is at stake here is an opportunity for the AU to play 'catch up' to other regional bodies, notably the EU and ironically ECOWAS, that have proactively prioritised high governance and human rights benchmarks for its membership. That calls for determined political will from the Commission itself to effectively lobby for pre-emptive intervention in situations of imminent human rights violations instead of appeasing statements, especially when power grips of some its benevolent dictators is at stake. And while there is no classical résumé for Jean Ping's successor, a practical history of commitment to ideals of democracy and respect for human rights at all levels is surely an irreducible minimum. Previously, a history of open dalliance with some of the worst dictatorial regimes in Africa and non-interventionist attitude seemed be the basic qualifications.

This will need to change if the AU is to remain relevant to ordinary Africans. In any case, we all desire a stable AU that has functional institutional structures that guarantee stability and accountability in equal measures as Africa strives to regain its rightful place in global economic platform. Inevitably, that will need a leadership that above all is led by values and not unsustainable flirtations with perceptions of global power shift. It's, for instance, sobering that despite the immense resources of its member states, often corruptly stashed away, the AU could not independently construct the most basic of its facilities: its headquarters.

The writer is Executive Director of International Centre for Policy & Conflict

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