African Union moves away from democracy
The rumour on the twittersphere on the Sunday in which the African Union summit was in full swing was that the panel selected to mediate on the Côte d’Ivoire crisis was to include Robert Mugabe. That such story emerged – and it was given credibility – stands as testimony of the low image which African citizens and commentators have of the continental institution. Mugabe never made it to the panel, but the AU summit ended nonetheless with a number of significant decisions. These included the change of stance on Côte d’Ivoire – from calling for Gbagbo to step down to seeking a negotiated end to the crisis (read “power-sharing agreement á la Zimbabwe”) – ; the election of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang as AU president; and backing Kenya’s call to defer the International Criminal Court indictments against six top officials involved in the country’s post-electoral violence in 2008.
Neither of these decisions is likely to boost the institution’s image on the continent or within the international community. These decisions partly respond to internal AU dynamics and partly to the international context, but the message appears unequivocal: Africa rejects external interferences on its own affairs. In choosing Obiang as president the AU is not making any new move; it simply adheres to the long-standing principle of non-interference. Obiang is president of a sovereign nation (which he’s ruled and with an iron fist for over three decades) and therefore qualified to lead the continental body – like Muammar al-Qaddafi did two years ago – regardless of the outcry this may cause.
In backing Kenya’s call to the UN Security Council for a one-year suspension of the ICC cases against the “Ocampo’s six”, the AU is sending a stronger message, but one not without certain legitimate resonance. Since coming into being in 2002 the ICC has only accepted African cases – and numerous episodes of violence on the continent have been followed by the prosecutor declaration of “being monitoring events closely”. This has, for many, turned the ICC into “Europe’s court for Africa”, and as far back as 2008 some voiced the need for the next court case to be non-African. The dynamics have continued however, and resentment towards the court’s actions is growing.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the AU summit however, is the volte-face on Côte d’Ivoire. Back in December the AU’s position was firmly (albeit quietly voiced) in line with ECOWAS, the EU and the UN in declaring Alasane Ouattara the legitimate winner and calling for Gbagbo to step down. As the post-electoral confrontation has dragged over time, the likely solutions have changed – the option of a swift military intervention has given way to a longer waiting game – and so has the framing of the conflict (thanks partly to a well-orchestrated diplomatic campaign by Gbagbo’s camp) which is now portrayed as a case of international meddling on African affairs – an argument unintentionally boosted by Sarkozy’s presence in Addis Ababa over the weekend.
Intra-AU dynamics have been at play in changing the continental position, most notably as Angola – a country with growing regional importance and one of Gbagbos’s firmest backers – has seen its position supported by other heavy-weights like South Africa, Ghana and Uganda. On the other camp, Nigeria has continued to maintain its call for Gbagbo to step down. An internal reading of the decision drives home the point, made many times before, of the need for the Nigeria-South Africa axis to work if the AU is to realise its full potential. Towards the rest of the world, the African Union’s new position reasserts the continent’s rejection of external interference and the sacrosanct nature of state sovereignty (playing devil’s advocate, we could say now more important than ever, in prevision of the revolution winds blowing on the north of the continent turning southwards…). That the only way the AU can find to emphasise its role and the continent’s position in the world is by waving on its support for democratic reform is testimony not only to the limits of the current African leadership, but also of the work still needed in strengthening the relationship between the international community and the continent.