Time for a radically new African Union

By Richard Lee | July 27th, 2011

Time for a radically new African Union: Only credible candidates may apply

By William Gumede

There cannot be any clearer illustration of the impotence of Africa’s continental and regional institutions to find local solutions to the continent’s problems, than their numbing inaction in the face of the wave of popular rebellions against dictators in North Africa.

Africa’s continental and regional insti- tutions were conspicuously silent when popular uprisings kicked out autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. They have been equally clueless in dealing with the crisis in Libya, where people are rebelling against their ruler, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and he is fighting back violently. The major African Union (AU) mission to Libya was a massive failure. Intended to resolve the crisis, the AU delegation was comprised of African leaders, including South African President Jacob Zuma, who had all been allies of Gaddafi in the past and were therefore too compromised to come up with a fair deal.

For a long-time now there have been allegations that Zuma’s campaign to dislodge former African National Congress (ANC) leader Thabo Mbeki was financed by Gaddafi. The other members of the delegation – President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali and the Chairperson of the AU itself, Jean Ping of Gabon – have all benefited from Gaddafi’s largesse in the past. When they got to Tripoli, the AU mission appeased Gaddafi, offering him a peace plan that would have kept him in power and that was rightly rejected by the Libyan opposition. In the absence of leadership from Africans, the United Nations and the traditional big powers stepped in to try to resolve the Libyan crisis.

African institutions and leaders also spectacularly failed to deal with the crisis in the Ivory Coast, where former strongman Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after losing presidential elections to Alassane Ouattara. A panel of African presidents from South Africa, Chad, Mauritania and Tanzania failed in their negotiations. Once again, African leaders and continental institutions opted to sit on the fence and watch as another African country erupted into violence. Eventually, Gbagbo was forcibly removed from office by Ouattara’s supporters. And once again, instead of African leaders and continental institutions playing a key role, it was left to the former colonial power, France, to intervene at crucial points and mobilise international pressure on Gbagbo to step down.

Africa’s regional institutions have equally been impotent in dealing with local crises. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had one emergency meeting after another, but got nowhere close to resolving the Ivory Coast crisis. At these gatherings, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan promised ‘united action’, which never materialised. At one point, Jonathan even said of ECOWAS, “I have no doubt we have the will, the commitment and the collective resolve to bring to an end the unfortunate crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.” But clearly, these attributes were lacking. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has yet to stop Zimbabwean autocrat Robert Mugabe’s tyranny against his own people. In fact, at crucial moments, SADC and regional leaders have actually reinforced Mugabe’s power. Similarly, in Swaziland, King Mswati has battered his people, but still receives the red-carpet treatment from SADC and his fellow rulers. The AU, of course, has not been any better with regards to Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

The AU – the home-grown continental structure set up to offer African solutions to African problems – has also fared dismally in a host of other African hotspots. It has fallen far short in trying to broker an end to the years of bloody conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. It did not come to grips with the crippling food and fuel shortages or the high inflation that plagued the continent – all of which were, at least partly, due to bad local leadership, mismanagement and lack of democracy. Unsurprisingly, African countries worst hit by food shortages – including Zimbabwe, Egypt, Cameroon, Gabon and Ethiopia – are also among the continent’s most autocratic, and are where the AU’s silence has been most deafening. Common responses to other common regional problems, such as the HIV and AIDS pandemic and the devastating impact of the global financial crisis, have also been conspicuous by their absence.

For all their rhetoric about ‘African unity’, AU member states have rarely voted together in international fora to safeguard common African interests. The ‘unity’ records of regional institutions such as SADC and ECOWAS are similarly compromised. Individual countries are often bought off by big new powers or by their former colonial rulers. Indeed, continental and regional institutions possess no uniform, mutually beneficial policy towards inter- acting with outside powers. For example, China picks and chooses its policies for different African countries – deliberately buying off individual leaders to prevent a united African response. Africa has also been divided about how to respond to the European Union’s economy-undermining Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which have been rejected by some countries and embraced by others. EPAs force African nations not to enter into trade deals with countries or regions competing with the EU. A common response from African continental and regional institutions would have made it difficult for the EU to punish nations that were not signing up or to play countries off against each other.

Indeed, the only signs of real unity have occurred when Africa’s gang of dictators have clubbed together behind the facade of the AU, SADC or ECOWAS to shield each other from criticism by ordinary Africans, civil society groups and outsiders while they are battering their citizens into submission.

It is now a truism that Africa’s prosperity in an increasingly uncertain, rapidly changing world depends on even closer political, economic and trade integration between countries. Africa’s future prosperity lies in individual countries pooling their markets, development efforts and attempts to seriously build democracy. For hundreds of years now, African countries have been pawns in the hands of the big powers, which have meddled in their domestic politics, caused civil wars and exploited their produce, commodities and environment. African countries desperately need the stability, security and the independence to make policies freely that only a continental ‘pooling of resources and cooperation’ can provide. African countries will have to come up with common strategies to leverage, for example, China and other emerging markets’ increased trade and investment interests in Africa.

But the current leadership of regional and continental institutions are too discredited, the institutions too toothless and the rules for membership too lenient. The solution is to radically overhaul regional institutions such as the AU and SADC. African countries will have to bring new energy, ideas and leaders to make regional and continental institutions work. The ways in which many African leaders and institutions generally think about closer integration is outdated. The idea of pan-Africanism in which all African countries will join together in a happy family is unworkable, unachievable and simply silly. To continue clinging to these concepts will mean that Africa is unlikely to reach its full potential in this generation and will not become as prosperous as say the East Asian tigers.

The current wave of rebellions against dictators that started in North Africa, the global financial crisis, and the rise of emerging countries such as China, Brazil and India, which is likely to remake the world, offers a critical juncture for African countries to pursue thorough-going reforms of continental and regional institutions. In fact, given the rupture that the global financial crisis is causing to nations, the continent may end up poorer unless it changes direction. But how? For starters, African unity must be selective.

The basis of a revamped African Union must start with a small club of countries that can all pass a double ‘stress’ test based on the quality of their democracy and the prudence of their economic governance. When former South African President Thabo Mbeki launched the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) in 2000, it included a peer review mechanism through which African leaders could monitor their peers to see if they were adhering to good governance and were genuinely democratic1. However, the peer review mechanism was voluntary and leaders could opt out without any consequences. Basing membership of continental and regional institutions on such loose criteria is wrong.

When the final decision was made on the structure of the AU in 2001, the group led by South Africa, which wanted the AU to be more like the EU with selective membership based on meeting certain democratic and development criteria, was defeated by countries led by ‘big men’, including Libya and Zimbabwe. This has proven to be a very costly loss. The AU has no minimum entry requirements for countries in relation to the quality of their democracy or economic management. Countries like Zimbabwe and Swaziland (and many others) can join even though their governments boast appalling human rights records and have spectacularly mismanaged their economies. This means that Zimbabwe and all the other rogue regimes across Africa can be fully-fledged voting members and help to determine the outcome of crucial decisions.

The AU must start from scratch with a three-track membership system. Along with a core club of ‘first-track’ countries that meet the minimum democratic and economic governance criteria, there should be a ‘second-track’ of states, which did not make the grade in democratic and economic management terms, but which are serious about pursuing the new objectives of the AU. This second group would be set basic targets to reach before they are allowed into the elite group and each country would be assessed on an annual basis to ascertain when it had achieved the minimum requirements and was ready to join the club. The rest, the ‘third-track’ of nations, would be the continent’s assortment of dictatorships. They would be shunned.

Read the rest of William Gumede's controversial piece here and then join the debate

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