African leaders gathered in Ethiopia recently to mark 50 years of their cooperation under the “African Union” (AU), successor of the OAU (Organization of African Unity), with a renewed commitment to create a middle-income continent free from poverty and disease.
When the OAU was founded in 1963, ten years after the start of the European Union, it was primarily a vanguard and vehicle to pursue the independence of the African states from their colonizers. That decade saw several of them sever their ties to European lords and begin self-rule. The OAU in addition saddled itself with working for better governance in those recently independent nations; help ensure security and economic development. Fifty years on, after many fratricidal civil wars, millions dead from hunger and disease it would seem that while the OAU may have been successful in securing independence for its members, it failed in the other stated aims.
It is not too surprising the OAU had little effect in improving governance in Africa, when many of its 54 member nations were under military rule, suffering coups and counter-coups, when the likes of Idi-Amin Dada, Ugandan dictator and gross abuser of human rights was made chairman of the Union. It was the Organization of African Unity of Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor and Félix Houphouet-Boigny.
It soon became clear that for Africa to be taken serious a rebranding was necessary and this it did in 2002 when the OAU was rechristened AU. Beyond the terminological similitude to the EU (European Union) and all the grandiose implications of such a union, Africans needed to separate themselves as far as possible from their ignoble past. And it may have paid off.
Its leaders want to take their fate in their own hands aware that none but themselves can fix things. Since the late 1990s it is now customary to suspend member-states who come to power by coup d’état or benefit from any non-democratic power transitions. Those recently suspended include Madagascar, Guinea Bissau, Central African Republic and Mali, temporarily. In spite of this, African leaders can also be accused of insincerity, double-dealing and hypocrisy in the way they have handled some other leadership crisis on the continent. Libya, when Gadhafi was in trouble was one sore point of disagreement among them. There was reluctance to support the ouster of one who was a major source of funding for the Union, and one who made “African pride” even if to ridiculous levels, a trademark of his. Another more recent case is Kenya where its sitting president has charges of genocide hanging over him at The Hague. No one of the AU leaders seems to want him to face charges. Sudanese Al Bashir attends the Union’s meetings without harassment despite the atrocities he commits against his own people.
Economically, the AU has put greater store by the African Development Fund, which should provide succor to member states from within. There is still a big challenge though in the sincerity with which African leaders handle their extractive industries, where they partner with many foreign nations to plunder their resources.
Security remains one of the Union’s greatest challenges. Africa wants to reduce the reliance on non-African soldiers when the need arises to restore the peace in some troubled spot. It would therefore like to make its own soldiers form the bulk, if not all, of any intervention force. On this score it has not done too badly. African troops are keeping the peace in Burundi, the Comoros Islands, Somali and Sudan. In Somalia, the African Union has lost more than 3,000 soldiers keeping the peace. There is a plan for an African Standby Force, which should be able by 2015 to provide at least 1000 troops in 5 regions. This plan may however be hampered by finance in a Union where the bulk of its financing comes from outside Africa.