African political unity must be more selective

With the rise of new emerging powers in the world, Africa needs a new ‘revamped’ African Union involving member countries who meet appropriate standards around democracy and economic governance.

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 sweeping across the continent.

African continental and regional institutions were conspicuously silent when popular rebellions 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 AU mission to Libya was a massive failure.

Big powers

In the absence of leadership from Africans, the UN and traditional big powers stepped in to try to resolve the Libyan and other African crises. African institutions and leaders also spectacularly failed to deal with the crisis in the Côte d’Ivoire, where former strongman Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after losing presidential elections to Alassane Ouattara.

Again, the failure of African leaders and continental institutions in the Côte d’Ivoire crisis meant that former colonial power, France, at crucial points played a key role in mobilising international pressure on Gbagbo to step down.

Africa’s sub-regional institutions have been equally impotent. The Economic Community of West African States had one emergency meeting after another, but got nowhere close to resolving the Côte d’Ivoire crisis. The Southern African Development Community has yet to stop Zimbabwean autocrat Robert Mugabe’s tyranny against its people.

In fact, during 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 by SADC. The AU of course has not done any better in Zimbabwe or Swaziland.

Bloody conflict

The AU, the home-grown continental structure set up to offer African solutions for local problems, has failed spectacularly in lots of other African hotspots too. It has fallen far short in trying to broker an end to bloody conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan.

It did not come to grips with the crippling food shortages, fuel and inflation plaguing the continent, which is at least in part due to bad local leadership, mismanagement and lack of democracy. A common response to other common regional problems, such as the HIV/Aids crisis, or a common response to the devastating impact of the global financial crisis, has been lacking.

Not surprisingly, African countries worst hit by food shortages – including Zimbabwe, Egypt, Cameroon, Gabon, Ethiopia – are also among those governed the most autocratically, and where the AU’s silence has been most deafening.

For all the rhetoric of ‘African unity’, AU member states have rarely voted together in international fora to safeguard common African interests. The ‘unity’ record of regional institutions such as SADC and ECOWAS are similarly compromised. Individual African countries are usually often bought off by big and former colonial powers.

China picks & chooses

Continental and regional institutions have had no uniform mutually beneficial policy towards interacting with outside powers. The only unity has often been of Africa gangs of dictators clubbing together behind the AU, SADC or ECOWAS to shield each other against criticisms by ordinary Africans, civil groups and outsiders when battering their citizens.

For example, China picks and chooses its policies for different AU member states – buying off individual leaders – to prevent a united African response. Africa has been divided on how to respond to the European Union’s economy undermining economic partnership agreements (EPAs), with some countries rejecting it and others embracing it. EPAs force African countries not to trade 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 those refusing to sign up and prevented them from playing African countries off against each other. – PAMBAZUKA NEWS

William Gumede is honorary associate professor, Graduate School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. His forthcoming book ‘The Democracy Gap: Africa’s Wasted Years’ is released later this year.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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