"The Biggest Show" in Africa: the Launching of the African Union

By Amani Daima

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 11, 2002

A South African newspaper headlined the just ended Durban Summit that gave birth to the African Union (AU) and buried the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) "The Biggest Show in Town." Based on its agenda, outcome of the Summit and the encomiums, there is no doubt that the launching of the African Union on 8 July 2002 was the "Biggest Show" in Africa.

The dazzling "Show" took place at Durban's Absa rugby stadium in which 25,000 people were entertained by Zulu warriors dressed in traditional attire, a parade of bare-breasted Zulu maidens, and parachutists descending from the sky. The festive crowd was serenaded by a choral ensemble which mimed a recording of the new African Union anthem "Unity Afrika," specially composed by veteran, award-winning South African musicians, Caiphus Semenya and Jonas Gwangwa. There was also a fighter jet flyover that streaked orange smoke across the sky and a 21-gun salute. Also to glitz the pageantry were Bafana Bafana, South African national team and the "Lions of Teranga" - Senegalese football team and Africa's most successful in this year's World Cup.

In attendance were heads of state and government from African countries, the venerable Nelson Mandela and his Nobel Peace prize co-recipient F.W. de Klerk, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and other luminaries. Among the noted absentees was Ivorian leader, Laurent Gbagbo, who was kept away by continuing political instability in his country. Also absent due to political problems in their countries were Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and Liberian leader, Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor had also been informed that due to the UN travel ban on his cronies and immediate family members he could not bring along his two sons.

As in the last summits in Algiers, Lome and Lusaka, Libyan leader, Muammar al-Gadhafi, in his usual character, tried to steal the "Show" from the host when he landed in Durban with a fleet of planes carrying 60 armored vehicles, his own security detail, and 2 camels.

Throughout the summit Gadhafi was distinguished from other African leaders by his flowing brown robes and finely hand-embroidered gold kente cloth, his enigmatic smile and his no-holds-barred attacks on the West for taking advantage of Africa.

Gadhafi, the man credited with jumpstarting the concept of African Union, opted to isolate himself by staying at a villa about 15km outside Durban and not at the Durban Hilton where the other heads of states had been booked under heavy security. The South Africans had made it clear to Col. Gadhafi that they will be in charge of all the security of all the delegates when they scuffled with his imposing female and male bodyguards on arrival at the airport for the summit.

Gadhafi's tirade against the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) was taken as a reaction against the rejection of his offer to host the new organisation in Sirte. The last OAU chairman, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, revealed on the eve of Summit that he had been invited to Libya by Gadhafi and shown a village that had been built for the AU. Having been the main force and financier of the transition from the OAU to the AU Gadhafi wanted to go all the way by having the headquarters for the new organisation close by so that he can continue directing its evolution.

This motivation to take total control of the AU can also be seen as a determination to counter-balance Thabo Mbeki and NEPAD, which he regards as a "Trojan Horse" of the West to continue dominating Africa. Although South Africa had shown a keen interest in being the home of both the AU and NEPAD, it was later agreed to continue housing the new organisation on the prison land that has been home to the OAU in Addis Ababa.

Among those who gave panegyric speeches exalting the dawn of a new era was OAU's last Secretary-General Amara Essy who recalled the words of Kenya's founding President the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, to the effect that Africa would only consider itself free if an OAU meeting were to be held in South Africa. Mzee Kenyatta had expressed this hope when South Africa was still under the rule of apartheid - which ironically turned out to be the glue that held the OAU together. On his part, South African President Thabo Mbeki dubbed the event a proclamation "to the world that Africa is on the rise."

Kenya's Daniel arap Moi, in power since 1978, who in representing the views of East Africans challenged his peers to end "the motions of attending peace conferences while actively fuelling conflicts." Togo’s President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who has the dubious distinction of carrying out the first coup d'état and political assassination in Africa in 1963 and has been in power since 1967, and Gabon's Omar Bongo, who has been in power continuously since 1967, spoke for West and Central Africa respectively.

Although Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi's proposals to amend the Union's Charter to create a single African country with a single army was coldly received, he exhorted the crowd in a fractured but clear and widely cheered speech: "Africa for Africans! The land is ours! Africa is our land! You are the masters of your continent! You are proud! You are marching to glory! No more slavery! No more colonization! It's a new dawn!"

Now that all the leaders and other invited guests have left Durban the work of building the new organisation and analyzing the outcome of the "big show" has begun in earnest. While there are those who believe this was indeed a show put on to drop a letter ("O") from the acronym of an organisation, there are also others who think it was more than a show, but rather a new wind of change that is blowing from the southern tip of the continent northwards. Both of these pessimists and optimists are basing their skepticism and hope on the history of the OAU.

Remembering the OAU

Indeed there are a few people in Africa who are distraught by the demise of the OAU. The OAU that was formed on 25 May 1963 to rid the continent of colonialism and apartheid became an endangered species in 1994 when South Africa held a non-racial, democratic election that transferred power to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

Amara Essy in his short stint at the helm came to a conclusion that "the OAU is the most difficult organisation I have ever seen." The OAU has also been called many things, among them "irrelevant" and "moribund," "mediocre," "dictators" club," "Disorganisation of African Unity," and "Organisation of African Disunity." These epithets were a reflection of the utter disappointment many had of an organisation that was formed to give Africa pride and hope; but which over the years became increasingly renowned for inaction, and as a talk shop of Africa's "big men."

Although one of its aims, as its name signifies, was to unite Africa, it avoided doing so in practice. One of the key principles on which it was based on, non-interference and non-intervention, was used to turn a blind eye to horrendous and egregious acts of brutality that were taking place in almost all the independent African states.

For instance, Ethiopian Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam welcomed OAU delegates to Addis Ababa on 6 June 1983 and was in turn thanked for his "warm and generous hospitality" despite having overthrown and murdered one of the OAU's founding fathers and first Chairman Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. By the time he was ousted from power in 1991 he had exterminated thousands of his opponents in a "red terror" in the presence of the OAU that was headquartered in Addis Ababa.

Saddled with heavy debts and a hopelessly incompetent bureaucracy, the OAU seems to have spent most of its 39 years coddling African dictators rather than erasing all forms of colonialism from the continent. It not only provided sanctuary to some of the world worst dictators but also dismally failed to resolve African conflicts.

One such dictator was Ugandan Idi Amin who presided over the OAU from 23 July 1975 to 2 July 1976 while butchering thousands of his people. When President Julius Nyerere took the gallant act of ousting him from power in 1979, he was condemned by the OAU for "violating the sovereignty of a member state." Other dictators who held the chairmanship of the OAU were Col. Mengistu Haile Miriam of Ethiopia and Generals Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Moussa Traore of Mali, Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria and Gaafar Nimeiry of Sudan.

Significant Outcomes

One of the most radical outcomes of the Durban Summit is the abandonment of the "State Sovereignty" principle. There are two elements that relate to the issue of sovereignty - peer review and intervention in member-states by the AU to help stem war, conflict and other human rights abuses.

One of the principle aims of the AU is the promotion of "democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance" through a peer review process. Peer review has been one of the selling points of NEPAD; that has now been adopted as the development arm of the AU. In order to attract the industrialized countries to back NEPAD, African leaders have committed themselves to promote the ideals of good governance, democracy and respect of human rights. This commitment will be checked through a mechanism that will be put in place to monitor how African leaders are observing these ideals.

The challenge of implementing this radical idea is highlighted by the differing views of two of NEPAD's key architects. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is optimistic that all the African leaders "have agreed on peer review" unanimously and none has "backed out of it." On the other hand, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade is pessimistic that peer review would work, as it is unrealistic and "practically impossible" to implement. Wade poses a moral question that will have to be addressed before the mechanism is operationalized: What right does one president have to tell another how to lead his people particularly after having been "democratically" elected?

The second element related to sovereignty is that allowing the Peace and Security Council to set up a peacekeeping and intervention force that can be used to stop crimes against humanity taking place anywhere on the continent. This is a bold move that is aimed at overcoming the failure of the OAU to intervene in the 1994 Rwanda genocide and in other countries such as Somalia where collapsing states were unable to protect the rights of the citizens.

Thabo Mbeki, the South African president and inaugural leader of the African Union (AU), raised the concern of whether Africa is ready for these ambitious initiatives when he challenged Africans "to think and work in a new way." Mbeki is overly optimistic the transition from the OAU to the AU will be "excellent." The reality check for this exuberant buoyancy will come when the AU is called upon to reign in errant African leaders who have become used to having their own way, without owing any accountability to their counterparts in other countries, let alone the people they claim to rule on their behalf.

Other Challenges for AU

Will a different name solve the same problems? The challenges facing the AU are a tall order to fill: misrule, state decay and collapses, endemic and intractable violent conflict, pervasive poverty, autocratic rule, and widespread violations of human rights to name a few of them. In the opinion of a Rwandan human rights activist: "The biggest problem facing the AU, even before it is born, is that none of the present leaders can stand up and say, 'I am a credible leader with moral authority, and my peers should follow my example.'"

Secondly, the new organisation is also inheriting bad habits and a highly inept staff from the OAU. All but 4 members owed the OAU $53 million at the time it was put to rest. The simple question many of us have been asking is: if the member states of the OAU were unable to raise the annual operating budget of $30 million, where will they get $500 million that is estimated will be needed each year to run a prototype of the European Union?

The issue of the "half billion dollars" is a touchy one and all efforts have been made to avoid it at all costs. So far the jostling for recognition and key appointments of the organs of the AU have not been accompanied by generous contributions or tangible proposals of how to raise the operating budget. Many are hoping that African leaders will not be making another beeline north to beg rich nations to subsidize the AU as they recently did at the G8 Summit. With the worst performing economies in the world, 35 out of the 42 poorest countries in the world being in Africa, did the leaders who assembled in Durban bite more than they can chew?

Besides the "half billion dollars," another important ingredient Africa will need to run a successful union, in the words of Kofi Annan, is "great stamina and iron political will." In other words, will the Union be able to recruit well-trained and committed people to run the 17 organs envisioned in the Constitutive Act? The issue of assembling able and committed personnel is a crucial and sensitive one which if not handled carefully will undermine the performance of the new organisation.

No one is more aware of this than Essy, the man who will be heading the AU Commission for one year. During his stint as the Secretary General, Essy found out to his dismay that the OAU was a "dumping ground" for relatives of African leaders. He was enormously disappointed with the behavior of his assistants and ambassadors accredited to the OAU who were engaged in "a perpetual smear campaign."

Indecisiveness of the OAU has also crept into the AU as observed by the way it has handled the Madagascar political crisis. AU has refused to recognize Marc Ravalomanana as the new leader despite the ruling by the country’s high court that he had won the disputed December 2001 elections and despite the recognition by the most of the G8 governments as well as Senegal, which had tried to resolve the dispute on behalf of the OAU.

The AU has followed the footsteps of the OAU by taking the first irrational decision that excludes Madagascar from the Union until a new election is held under its supervision. This decision seems to have been taken to cover up the OAU’s failure to resolve the political crisis rather than in the interest of the Malagasy who have endured 21 years of misrule under Didier Ratsiraka, a dear friend to most of the AU's founding fathers.

During the planning sessions, the continent's foreign ministers were also unable to agree on the way to select the 10 commissioners who will run the public service of the organization and implement their political masters' decisions. The failure to come up with a Commission means the affairs of the AU for the next year will be run by the OAU's secretariat, which Amara Essy does not have much confidence in.

Days after the summit, there is still confusion as to when the next summit will take place. While Obasanjo had announced that the majority of the leaders had agreed that the next summit take place in July 2003 in Maputo, Mbeki overruled him when he told journalists at a final news briefing that a special "extraordinary" summit would be held in six months' time.

Also undefined was the role of the 15-member Peace and Security Council, and when to launch it. The Council, to be chaired by South Africa for the first two-year term, was the subject of much of the backroom lobbying and power plays, particularly over who gets what on it.

Another major challenge that the AU will face will be how to sell itself into the minds, hearts and souls of the African people. In view of the reality that the OAU had no effect whatsoever on the average African it is hoped that the founding fathers of the AU will not use the same approach of selling NEPAD to outsiders first before the African people have embraced it. The gigantic task of selling the AU to the African people is now in the hands of their leaders who must prove to them that the Union will change their material conditions despite the dismal failure of their governments, who are the bona fide members of the new organisation.

Although NEPAD's peer review mechanism on governance was adopted, the nitty-gritty of how it would function was left out. Another measure on the cards that was agreed on but left unrefined was that of monitoring elections. It is notable that the OAU had adopted this duty and miraculously monitored 12 elections on a shoestring budget of about $12,000.

The importance of setting up and defining the role of the key institutions such as the PSC was underrated by Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, when she said: "We are in no hurry" to set these institutions up. In other words, political factors are playing a key role in determining the establishment of the new organisation. In setting up these institutions, deep consideration is being given to balancing the interests of the various regional and language blocs of the continent. Furthermore, appointments to senior positions, the location of institutions, and positions on key committees are other issues that have to be grappled with.

For instance, the East and southern African countries claimed that the Chairman of the Commission should come from one of their regions. Their argument was that since the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the out-going OAU Secretary General Amara Essy, and UN Economic Commission for Africa Executive Secretary Kingsley Amoako are all West Africans, the Chairman of the Commission should come from one of their regions.

The Future

Is it a question of new wine in an old bottle? Not if it is considered that the Charter of the OAU and the founding principles of the AU are fundamentally different; particularly on the issue of intervention in internal affairs of sovereign states. The OAU had no authority to intervene in the internal conflicts in Africa, even those that evolved into genocidal killings. The African Union, unlike the OAU, will have the mandate and authority, through a Peace and Security Council, to act on continental crises. It however was not decided on whether and when a standby rapid intervention force will be created to back up the Council's recommendations.

There is no doubt that the AU is an over-ambitious organisation that has been modeled after the EU, which took over four decades to evolve to its present state. The mantra of the AU is new organisation, new ideals, new objectives, new leaders, and a new era for Africa. All these are laudable but realistically speaking, is it possible to teach old dogs new tricks?

It is only time that will determine the commitment of African leaders to practices that hitherto have virtually been taboos, such as being critically assessed for their political performance. But in the final analysis, it is the political will, money and a new mindset that would determine whether the Durban Summit would be remembered as the "biggest show" or the "best opportunity" for Africa to reclaim its rightful place in the global village.

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