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African Union: a dream under construction

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African Union: a dream under construction

Planners of new continental organization ponder design, encounter scepticism
From Africa Renewal: 
Addis Ababa
Another Africa is possible," declare African civil society groups gathered in Mali (see article "Another Africa is possible"). A strong desire for change is spurring new visions of Africa's political and economic future. Photo : ©Joan Baxter
"Another Africa is possible," declare African civil society groups gathered in Mali (see article "Another Africa is possible"). A strong desire for change is spurring new visions of Africa's political and economic future. Photo : ©Joan Baxter
"Another Africa is possible," declare African civil society groups gathered in Mali (see article "Another Africa is possible"). A strong desire for change is spurring new visions of Africa's political and economic future. Photo : ©Joan Baxter

In the aging, regal Africa Hall where the Organization of African Unity (OAU) first emerged nearly four decades ago, history weighs heavily. Pointing to the large mural depicting many of the founders of independent Africa, Mr. Mohammed Sahnoun recalled the scene in 1963 when he, as an Algerian delegate, witnessed the OAU's birth. He had listened raptly as Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah propounded his generation's "dream of an African union," in which all the peoples of Africa could together recreate their continent in their own image.

"Another Africa is possible," declare African civil society groups gathered in Mali (see article "Another Africa is possible"). A strong desire for change is spurring new visions of Africa's political and economic future.


Photo : ©Joan Baxter


Such references to Africa's past strivings for unity are not an exercise in nostalgia, commented Mr. Lawrence Agubuzu, an OAU assistant secretary-general, at the 3 March symposium on the OAU's plans to transform itself into a new, more vital African Union (AU). He cited an African proverb: "If you don't know where you're coming from, you won't know where you're going to."

And where Africa is going was foremost on the minds of the hundreds of renowned African political figures and thinkers who gathered in the Ethiopian capital for the symposium. Their passionate debates continued during the five subsequent days of the annual African Development Forum, organized by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in the nearby UN conference centre. The Addis Ababa gathering came part way between the July 2001 summit of African heads of state in Zambia, which decided to begin the transition to the AU, and the one to be held this July in South Africa, scheduled to formally inaugurate the Union.

It was a good time for taking stock, and asking serious questions. What, participants asked, has the current OAU Secretariat done to prepare for the launch? How will the AU help promote the continent's political and economic integration? Most importantly, will the Union be any better than the old OAU in representing the interests of ordinary Africans, following the repeated failures of African governments and regional organizations to realize the early aspirations for unity, social progress and people's participation?

OAU Secretary-General Amara Essy, along with many of his colleagues, acknowledged that the African Union is still a work-in-progress, and will remain so well beyond its official inauguration. Mr. Essy also affirmed that the AU "cannot be an affair only of governments," and that the involvement of all of Africa's "living forces" will be essential to its success. But many participants, especially from African civil society organizations, were not easily convinced. They cited both the continuing uncertainties about the Union's planned structures and the recurrent failure of several generations of African leaders to live up to their promises. What, they asked, will be different this time around?

From outside the continent, there also are pressures. In an increasingly competitive world economy, Africa's small, poor countries, each on their own, will have a very hard time attracting investment or breaking into new markets. The European Union -- an example constantly cited throughout the symposium and the forum -- has shown how greater unity at the regional level can enhance leverage on an international scale. Africans too are in a hurry to unite, Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary-general of the OAU, stressed. "And frankly, we have to be in a hurry -- the world is not waiting for us."

A changed continent

For many, however, such eagerness to push ahead should be tempered by the sobering experience of the past four decades. The enthusiasm of the OAU's first years has long since disappeared. "Africa has seen many false starts in past decades," observed Mr. Abdul Mohammed, special representative of the UN Children's Fund to the OAU, in part because both governments and existing regional organizations "tiptoed around reality." Since African citizens had so little input into national and regional affairs, it often was possible for just a handful of officials to make commitments which bore little relationship to actual priorities and which the governments could easily ignore, added Mr. Agubuzu.

Others had a much harsher judgement of the OAU's conduct. In the eyes of many ordinary Africans, the organization once was little more than a "trade union of dictators," stated Mr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, chairman of the Kampala-based Pan-African Movement, a civil society group. Nigerian playwright and Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka echoed that view, stating that the OAU must cease to be a "collaborative club of perpetual self-preservation."

Some sought to remind the participants of the context in which the OAU tried to function. With parts of the continent still colonized or under apartheid into the early 1990s, much attention had to be devoted to supporting the freedom struggles, and the OAU Liberation Committee deserved credit for helping bring them to fruition. Mr. Sahnoun also recalled that this was the era of the Cold War, when "history was put in an icebox" and the big powers tended to back undemocratic, repressive governments.

Moreover, added Mr. Adebayo Olukoshi, executive director of the Dakar-headquartered Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), African governments were obliged by external international financial institutions to carry out structural adjustment programmes. These undermined state capacities and cut across previous efforts, such as the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, to achieve greater economic integration.

Current OAU Secretary-General Amara Essy (left) ponders the transition to the African Union with his predecessor, Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim.


Photo : ©ECA / Antonio Fiorente


Now, with more democratically elected governments throughout the continent and with a greater determination by African leaders to reassert their control over economic policy, the conditions in Africa have become more favourable for building continental unity, participants observed. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi emphasized that by the same token, the agenda of the AU will be different from that of the OAU: it will not be preoccupied with freeing African territories from colonialism or focusing overwhelmingly on protecting national sovereignty, but can set its sights on "creating one political and economic space, on integration."

If that goal is now widely shared among African leaders, they do not all agree on precisely how or how fast to move toward it. According to Mr. Said Djinnit, an OAU assistant secretary-general, the negotiations preceding the decision to establish the African Union were complex. Some African leaders favoured the status quo, while others wanted to move quickly to a "United States of Africa." The 1999 OAU declaration in Sirte, Libya, to form the African Union therefore represented a compromise, with some elements reflecting the desire for a stronger "supra-national entity," but others continuing to uphold key aspects of national sovereignty.

Who lays the foundation?

When the African Union is formally launched at the South Africa summit, it will not actually be a completed structure, simply part of the foundation and perhaps a support beam or two. The plan for the AU calls for the creation of 17 separate organs, but only a few can be built in time. According to OAU officials, the four priority institutions they are now focusing on are:

  • the Assembly of heads of state and government, which will meet at least once a year,
  • the Executive Council, composed of foreign ministers, which will meet at least twice a year,
  • the Permanent Representatives Committee, comprising the African ambassadors resident in Addis Ababa, and
  • the Commission, essentially the secretariat that will see to the Union's day-to-day functioning.

All of these are basically similar to the governing bodies of the OAU, although some of them with altered or expanded authority. Other institutions will come later, including the Pan-African Parliament, the Court of Justice, the Economic, Social and the Cultural Council, and various specialized technical committees and financial institutions.

However, many civil society participants had limited confidence in the willingness of African governments to live up to their commitments. African leaders, argued Mr. Abdul-Raheem, suffer from a "credibility deficit," and therefore the decision to create the AU has generated widespread cynicism. "I don't believe in the African Union," proclaimed Mr. Thomas Tchetmi, president of the Association for Communication Development among Youth in Cameroon.

Most other civil society representatives did in fact believe in the AU, but not necessarily in the way the OAU is directing its creation. The four AU organs now listed as priorities are all government bodies, noted Professor Maria Nzomo of the University of Nairobi. She and other participants urged the rapid establishment of both an elected Pan-African Parliament and the advisory Economic, Social and Cultural Council. The council would be comprised of socio-economic and professional associations and other civil society groups, representing a "radical departure" from the strictly governmental institutions of the OAU, noted Mr. Ben Kioko, an OAU legal counsel.

According to OAU officials, although conditions do not yet exist for Africa-wide elections, a Pan-African Parliament can nevertheless be created on a provisional basis, with each existing African legislature designating five deputies, one of whom should be a woman. This latter requirement stirred a flurry of questions. Since the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing recommended that women comprise at least 30 per cent of national parliamentary representatives, asked Ms. Nzomo, why should the Pan-African Parliament do any less? A consensus statement of the 3 March symposium urged that such a parliament meet the Beijing commitment, and also recommended that the African Union establish an advisory commission on gender.

Restrictions on travel within Africa was another civil society concern. Although citizens of some European countries can travel to Africa without visas, Africans often have to wait weeks to obtain visas to visit neighbouring countries, if they can get them at all. "Let our people move freely," demanded Mr. Abdul-Raheem, eliciting widespread applause.

Non-interference or 'non-indifference'?

Among the most basic questions asked by many participants was whether the AU can help in holding African leaders accountable to their people. As Justice Amina Augie, a Nigerian judge, insisted during a public interchange with Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia, Africa needs an AU "that will frighten our heads of state not to overstep their bounds."

Responding to the concerns of Ms. Augie and others, Prime Minister Meles said that the AU can help on two counts. First, by setting standards of economic and political governance by which the performance of African governments can be objectively assessed, and second, by setting up a "peer review" process through which their counterparts elsewhere in Africa can "encourage" them to do better. Such peer review, he said, is still a "work-in-progress," and further discussions are needed to determine how it might operate.

Women need to comprise at least 30 per cent of the new Pan-African Parliament, argues Professor Maria Nzomo of Kenya.


Photo : ©ECA / Antonio Fiorente


Ms. Nzomo worried about the limitations of any such effort, since the AU's Constitutive Act includes a clause from the old OAU Charter prohibiting any African government from interfering in the "internal affairs" of its neighbours, a stipulation that often stifled criticism of fellow African leaders. Mr. Soyinka challenged Africa's leaders to not remain silent about the political conflict in Zimbabwe or the violations of women's rights by some states in northern Nigeria.

Mr. Djinnit pointed out that while the AU did continue to subscribe to the principle of non-interference, its Constitutive Act also incorporated another "very progressive" provision establishing a "principle of non-indifference." Unconstitutional seizures of power, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity can all trigger action by other African leaders. Moreover, if domestic instability leads to refugee flows, rebel incursions and other repercussions for neighbouring countries, then intervention may be warranted to reestablish regional security.

This is one reason why a chief goal of the AU will be to greatly strengthen the conflict prevention and resolution mechanism it is inheriting from the OAU. Africa, asserted Mr. Djinnit, has to develop a "common defence policy" and bolster its ability to mediate and resolve conflicts within and among countries. To symbolize the high political priority of this effort, he suggested that the mechanism be renamed the "Peace and Security Council" under the AU.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Meles pointed out, the AU can at best provide a more "conducive environment" for the advancement of peace, democracy, human rights, and sound economic policies that promote development. "Don't expect the AU to solve all the problems of African states," he told the participants. "Individual states have to address these problems. Each state should be accountable to its own domestic constituency. The basic solution is country-based."

Non-governmental participants accepted this challenge, and vowed to help bring about change in their own countries. "African civil society should help to set standards for institutions and governments to deliver on their commitments, and monitor their performance," declared the symposium's consensus statement. "We emphasize the involvement of the widest range of citizens and civil society in the process of creating the African Union."

"Africa must unite," began the statement, echoing President Kwame Nkrumah's words four decades earlier. "At the dawn of the 21st century, economic and political integration is imperative for Africa's future."

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