The African Union turns ten: time for a reality check*

An image of the 17th African Union Summit held last year in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (Photo: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea)

The 19th African Union Summit starts today, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the pan-continental body. Despite this symbolism, African leaders will most likely close the summit next Monday with an anti-climatic message that will be met with a collective yawn across Africa. They may even fail – for the second time – to elect a new head the African Union Commission. An underwhelming performance that contrasts with events across the continent: South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, also turns one today amidst important development and security challenges. Egypt and Senegal have overcome domestic turmoil and peacefully elected new Presidents, and Libya just held its first elections in over 60 years. Less positive developments are also visible in Nigeria, increasingly threatened by terrorism; eastern DRC, where conflict has flared up; and Mali, where a coup d’état back in Marchled to the country’s partition.

The AU certainly lacks capabilities but also, more worryingly, appears out of sync with most Africans’ preoccupations. Its focus on continental economic growth is welcome, but it needs an accompanying political narrative. The “United States of Africa” discourse that gave birth to the AU in 2002 belonged to a generation of leaders such as Thabo Mbeki and Olesegun Obasanjo that have now exited the scene. Continental unity has been reduced to a motto of “African solutions to African problems”, which struggles to translate into real actions. The EU supported this new impetus through the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) but progress remains limited. Even where greater progress has been recorded, in the peace and security domain, challenges persist with an AU dependent on sub-regional and extra-regional actors. Mali is a case in point: ECOWAS is leading the political dialogue and putting forward a 3,000 strong military contingent. And the recent UN resolution on Mali was drafted by France – a country which supported intervention in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire against the AU’s criteria.

These and other challenges have put the AU on a defensive position that converts the demand for “African solutions” into a flat rejection of external interference. This makes the AU defend regimes that not only are undemocratic, but also face domestic opposition. Sudan is a good example: whilst protesters are taking the streets against al-Bashir’s government, the AU provided him with an inestimable backing in choosing to move the location of the AU summit from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa after the Malawian President refused to host the ICC-indicted Sudanese president. This reflects the inability (or unwillingness) of the AU to recognise the magnitude of the changes taking place across the continent.

External partners also need to clarify their approach vis-à-vis the continent. The EU supports continental integration through the JAES, but carries out substantial negotiations with Africa (e.g. Economic Partnership Agreements ) on a sub-regional basis. And its vocal support for democracy and human rights is often contradicted by moves to strengthen EU ties with African regimes of questionable democratic legitimacy. Global reordering and domestic transformations will make Africa a very different continent ten years from now. The AU, the African leaders that form part of it, and its external partners should all recognise this and act accordingly or risk sinking the institution into irrelevance.

* This post was originally written for The FRIDE blog

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‘African Union moves away from democracy’ – article for Spanish FP magazine

I’m re-posting a column written originally for the spanish version of FP magazine,and which can be found on its original form here

African Union moves away from democracy

February 2011

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.