The African Union: Still an Exclusive Club

By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 15, 2003

In a previous article, "From OAU to AU: Same Old Lady, New Dress", I commented on the modus operandi of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). I was critical of its state of affairs and expressed skepticism of its future role on the continent as it changed and shortened its official name. I poked fun at the acronym, OAU, referring to it as "old and ugly".

In recounting my memories, I repeated the opinion I had had of the organization: "It did not represent the interests of the common people - certainly, it did not stand for peace, unity and people-centered development. On the contrary, it was simply an old boys' club where the so-called leaders met once a year to showcase their ill-gotten wealth. Their main focus seemed to be protecting each other, no matter what the circumstances…

"It seemed absurd and preposterous for those so-called leaders to refuse to challenge and confront dictators who were repressing their own citizens and looting their national resources and treasuries for their personal enrichment. It was easy to see the OAU as a gang of crooks and kleptomaniacs", I wrote.

Today, seemingly nothing has changed – it's business as usual. Just like Idi Amin during his reign, Charles Taylor has become a menace to the West African society. He has been referred to as a hoodlum, a gang lord, a terrorist and a host of other names not befitting a head of state. Most of the instability affecting the West African sub-region of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast has been directly attributed to him. We now know that he has already been indicted by a UN special court, effectively making him a fugitive from justice.

But unlike Idi Amin, the former resident bully of the OAU, who met his Achilles heels in the person of Dr. Julius Nyerere, no present African leader seems to have the guts to confront or challenge Taylor. They all seem to be concerned about preserving their "dictators' club. They are now lobbying the UN to drop indictment charges against their "friend and brother", although the immensity of his crimes remains quite transparent.

This may come as a surprise to some, not to me. When Taylor's indictment was unsealed and the special court asked the Ghanaian government to have him arrested and turned over, they refused to do so, citing a technicality: They had not been informed. Although many turned their anger toward the Ghanaians who they thought blew a perfect opportunity to put Taylor away, I suspected and understood that the Ghanaians may have been under tremendous outside pressure to act as they did.

This is what I wrote then: "On the surface, it may seem that the decision to not arrest President Taylor was a unilateral decision by the host country. But do we know what the behind-the-scene input of the other governments was? For example, what was the position of the Nigerian and South African governments whose presidents were present as this unusual episode unfolded"?

Since then, we now know where President Olusegun Abasanjo of Nigeria stands. He stands with Charles Taylor, because they are both members of the same club, the "dictators' club". He traveled to Monrovia in sweltering heat to express his solidarity and extend an invitation of asylum, without even consulting his countrymen.

While the US is being pressured by the rest of the world to militarily intervene in the Liberian crisis, the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, considered by many to be one of Africa's most outstanding leaders, has virtually declared his support for his disgraced comrade at the expense of the Liberian people once again. He has asked the US not to intervene militarily, saying that responsibility "really ought to principally fall on us as Africans". The question is, when? And why hasn't the AU done something about the Liberian problem up to now?

The outside world seems to be united in its conviction that Charles Taylor ought to stand trial for his alleged crimes. The United States, the European Union, the United Nations and a host of respectable international organizations including the most acclaimed Amnesty International share this view. For example this is what AI recently declared: "African governments meeting in Maputo should state publicly their commitment to cooperate with the Special Court; failure to do so will undermine the integrity of the AU".

Amnesty International has written to both President John Kufuor of Ghana and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria expressing the organization's dismay at their failure to cooperate with the Special Court and to fulfill their obligations under international law. AI also said, "The fundamental principles of justice articulated in the Act and other international standards will remain rhetoric unless African governments fully cooperate with the Special Court".

As clear as this message may sound to the rational mind, the presidents of the most industrialized and the most populous countries on the African continent remain steadfast in their support for their club mate. Their massage seems to be quite simple: We don't care about the suffering masses; we must protect our friends because we belong to the same club.

I'd like to divert my readers' attention away from Liberia for a moment and focus on Zimbabwe where they citizens seem to be having some problems with a "liberator" turned "dictator", in the person of Robert Mugabe.

In a recent story published by BBC News, Carolyn Dempster reported the so-called policy of "'quiet diplomacy' is stoking the fury of ordinary Zimbabweans who cannot see any benefits of the intervention and believe that President Thabo Mbeki has sold them out".

Job Sikhala, a member of parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change MDC, said, "President Mbeki is a collaborator against the people of this country".

Brian Raftopolous, a political analyst said, "The South African Government has taken the lead role in trying to legitimize the Mugabe regime".

Such outburst may sound emotional and unfounded, but when the South African Foreign Minister goes on record with such comments as "South Africa would never condemn its Zimbabwean counterpart", one has to think again. Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlaminini Zuma is also on record saying, "It is not going to happen as long as this government is in power".

In declaring such unqualified support for the presidency of Robert Mugabe, one wonders where the people of Zimbabwe fit into the equation. Does it not matter that the majority of Zimbabweans may not be in support of the Mugabe reign? Does it not matter that the Mugabe government may be guilty of human rights violations against its own citizens?

But what do Nigerians think about the issue of asylum? A Nigerian, Sabella Abidde writes: … "To say the least – it provoked a lot of "thunder, fire and brimstone". By my unscientific poll, ninety-five percent of Nigerians (on the World Wide Web) are vehemently against granting Taylor a safe-have in Nigeria. The reasons the proffered are without a doubt, compelling and reasonable and have basis in law, morality and common sense". At least the Nigerians are not taking this lying down; they never do.

A British Journalist for the BBC News wrote, "When one of the founding members (of the OAU), Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia gave a speech to the OAU, he was praised in its formal thanks for his 'wisdom'".

When the man who overthrew him in 1974 (and later murdered him and buried him under a latrine), Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, subsequently welcomed delegates back to Addis Ababa, he was thanked for his 'warm and generous hospitality'".

Well, if the past offers a window to the understanding of the future, then we can understand why Taylor is kicking and screaming. He knows that once he leaves his most privileged position of the presidency, his club membership will have expired. Will his "friends and brothers" still support him or will they embrace his successor and leave him expendable? He knows the truth, that's why he's scared.

Charles Taylor talks about one day returning to Liberia as "an elder statesman". But he knows the truth. Once he steps down from the Liberian presidency, his privileges will be rescinded. Once the "dictators' club" welcomes a new member, he will join the ordinary masses once again. That may be too tough for him to swallow, but one thing is certain, his days in Liberia are numbered. In Liberia, an old saying goes: "Ninety-nine days for rogue, one day for master". The rogue knows his time has come to turn in his club membership and that's the way it goes. Good bye, Charlie.