AU fails Zimbabweans once again

BY WILF MBANGA In July 2002 the reinvention of the African Union amid the ashes of the discredited 40-year-old Organisation of African Unity was hailed internationally as a triumph. It was seen as a vital leap forward into the 21st Century for the 'dark continent' - with its tragic millions of pover

ty-stricken, starving, diseased peoples, and its elite coterie of portly, be-medalled, aging dictators. Colonialism was dead and gone. In this one area the OAU had succeeded. At its founding in 1963, its main goal was to rid the continent of colonial oppression and exploitation. Freedom for Africans and one-man-one-vote were the rallying cries. Some 40 years on, the challenge was different, and yet eerily the same: power concentrated in the hands of a heartless few, determined to exploit the many for personal gain. Was Africa free? How did freedom taste? Where did the OAU go wrong? The colonialists had been replaced by a new breed of African liberator/heroes, most of whom proceeded to plunder the resources of their nations and oppress anyone who dare oppose them. All pretence at democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law was cast aside. Coups, not elections, changed governments. The OAU’s founding principle of respect for national sovereignty became its Achilles heel – allowing the excesses of dictators like Idi Amin, Mengistu and Mugabe to be swept under the carpet. As the hopeful new millennium dawned on an Africa riddled with war, corruption, debt and disease, the OAU had become a sick joke. Enter the AU. With much fanfare and rejoicing the new body proceeded to establish and impressive array of organs and instruments purporting to deliver human rights to the continent’s oppressed millions. It signified, on paper at least, a new commitment by African states to tackle issues of importance to the continent. The Constitutive Act of the AU explicitly espoused the promotion of “democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance” and the promotion and protection of “human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments”. Most significant was the agreement by member states to limit their sovereignty with specific regard to respect for democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law. ‘Good governance’ and ‘peer review’ were the new buzz phrases. In a further erosion of state sovereignty, the AU even gave itself some teeth, allowing it to condemn and reject any unconstitutional change of government and to impose sanctions against any member state for failure to comply with its decisions and policies. Goodbye to coups and counter coups! Tragically, it soon became apparent that the real implications of all this for ordinary Africans remained limited and remote. One of the first individual test cases was Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Gabriel Shumba, who was arrested and tortured by the government for defending in court a member of the opposition MDC party. The Zimbabwean judicial system failed him. He was threatened with death and fled to South Africa. In 2003 he approached the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) directly. That body heard his case, in which he said the torture violated the African charter on rights, in Banjul, Gambia, in November 2005, but deferred its ruling to May this year. “Nothing about the AU has changed but the name,” said a bitter Shumba. “We can only conclude that the African system as a legal system to enforce rights is hopeless.” He said the only value of appealing to the commission was the resulting international publicity. He has abandoned seeking recourse in Africa and has taken his case to Canada. Then there was the fiasco over the long-delayed presentation to the AU Assembly in July 2004 of the ACHPR’s 2002 fact-finding mission to investigate human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Howls of protests from the Zimbabwean delegation, supported by the South Africans, resulted in adoption of the report being postponed. “This indicated a clear lack of political maturity at the AU to hold member states accountable,” said Zimbabwean political commentator Brian Raftopoulos. “Instead of defending and supporting the work of its own independent human rights institution, the AU Assembly chose to accede to the demands of the Zimbabwe government. Even when the Assembly adopted the report at Abuja in January 2005, it did not adequately hold Zimbabwe accountable. “What it ought to have done was to publicly express concern at the human rights situation in Zimbabwe and request the Government to commit itself to implementing the recommendations of the African Commission. This would not only have allowed the Assembly to monitor implementation of the recommendations in future but would have also bolstered the confidence and role of the commission,” he said. Hopes were raised again in November 2005, that perhaps, after all, the organisation did have some teeth when it openly condemned Zimbabwe’s human rights record and pressured Harare to stop evicting people from their homes under the controversial Operation Murambatsvina (clear out rubbish). At that meeting, the commission said it was “alarmed by the number of internally displaced persons and the violations of fundamental individual and collective rights resulting from the forced evictions being carried out by the government of Zimbabwe”, and urged President Robert Mugabe to allow an African Union delegation to go on a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe. The report also called on the Harare government to repeal several repressive laws, to stop the forced evictions immediately and to allow “full and unimpeded access to international aid to help the victims”. But nothing has happened. And at its latest meeting in Sudan, an unseemly brawl over the chairmanship issue eclipsed all discussion of such vital issues as war and peace, famine and starvation, oppression, unity and economic development. Just like its predecessor, the AU had failed the people of Africa. Only 30 of the 53 leaders attended the summit. Several of them will not sit in the same room as other with whom they are engaged in bitter border struggles or outright wars. Normally, the host country assumes the chairmanship for the ensuing year. But this became an issue because Chad accuses Sudan of hosting rebels trying to unseat the government and other African leaders are alarmed at the crisis in the Darfur region where hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions are homeless. While the leaders were squabbling the UN food agency announced that 43 million Africans would need food aid this year – worth US$2 billion. At the same time, eight UN peacekeepers were killed in the DRC by Ugandan rebels. These issues were not addressed. “Africans are angered by the continued unwillingness of African rulers to deal with human rights issues. The fact that they held the latest summit in Sudan in the first place shows their disdain for human rights,” said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of Zimbabwe’s National Constitutional Assembly. “The fact that they are passing the AU chairmanship to a coup leader in Congo makes them laughable. Where do Africans turn now?”

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