From OAU to AU: Same Old Lady, New Dress

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 29, 2002

Drinking Club Beer and talking politics as we usually did during the mid-seventies in Liberia, a couple of friends and I coined the phrase “Old And Ugly” to refer to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). We were of the opinion that the OAU did not represent the interests of the common people - certainly, it did not stand for peace, unity and people-centered development. On the contrast, 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. They called this concept the ‘principle of state sovereignty’.

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.

As is generally the case, there are always a few exceptions. One shining example of leadership and statesmanship was exemplified in the person of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania. He refused to go along with that band-of- thieves-mentality and challenged the resident bully of the OAU, the dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin.

After overthrowing the elected government of Dr. Milton Obote, Idi Amin began a reign of terror – eventually killing thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of his own countrymen and sending countless others into exile. Without any challenge, he extended his bullying beyond his borders when he decided to conveniently seize and convert to his own use truckloads of goods destined for a land-locked country. These goods were simply being shipped through a seaport in Uganda.

Dr. Nyerere convinced the government of Kenya to side with him in the name of the East African community to confront and topple the ugly dictator. In no time the dictator was sent packing. Where he is today remains a mystery. Some say it’s Saudi Arabia and some say Kuwait, or is it Libya? Whatever. His departure brought relief to millions of Ugandans and other East Africans.

You see, Julius Nyerere was not an ordinary politician or a gun-toting rebel masquerading as a revolutionary, like a great many of the so-called African leaders; he was a true statesman. He once described himself as a teacher who became a politician by accident. While many of his contemporaries based their acts on political expediency, Nyerere was highly principled.

Dick Gregory, the famous comedian and civil rights activist, once defined a statesman as: “One who cannot compromise with what he knows to be right or make political deals which allow a form of evil or injustice to be even temporarily victorious. Usually not an elected official, in times of crisis, the statesman flexes his mind, not his muscle”. He might have had Julius Nyerere in mind when he uttered those words.

The problem is you can’t expect many of these so-called leaders to flex their mind when they don’t have a conscience - they are simply die-hard politicians. Ambrose Bierce, in the Devil’s Dictionary defined politics as: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. Unfortunately, our African leaders are at their best playing politics at the expense of human misery.

Recently, in Durban, South Africa the old and ugly lady changed into a new dress and decided to call herself the AU (African Union) instead of the OAU. One minute it’s the OAU, the next it’s the AU, a cosmetic change, but she carries her old bag of tricks.

One of the first orders of business was to call on the United Nations to lift the sanctions imposed against Liberia on the grounds that they are increasingly suffering ordinary Liberians. My view is if the AU is to become a people-centered organization as opposed to being the exclusive club the OAU was, the resolution should be calling for Mr. Charles Taylor to take a hike. That’s one possible way to alleviate the suffering of the Liberian masses. I maintain that the sanctions imposed on the government should remain until it brings that evil regime to her knees. The sanctions hurt the government, not the ordinary masses. It is the government that is the enemy of the people - not the United Nations - and the AU should understand that.

Not too long ago a movement was begun to impose economic sanctions against the immoral and racist regime of South Africa. While many liberal and progressive-minded politicians, moral and civil leaders as well as academics and business leaders supported this stance, some conservative politicians, who had hitherto shown no interest in the welfare of the South African masses, opposed the sanctions. Their rallying cry was: “The sanctions will hurt the masses”. The apartheid regime itself echoed the cry. Now all of a sudden they became interested in the welfare of the people! Nobody was fooled. Today we have a new South Africa – apartheid is gone and the masses remain.

Is it not logical to infer that the sanctions did work after all? And now the Honorable, His Excellency President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa is the current chairman of the AU and the organization is calling for the lifting of sanctions against the evil regime of Charles Taylor on the grounds that sanctions hurt ordinary Liberians. Talk about double standards! It is, in my view, unconscionable that he takes such a position given the aforementioned scenario. If anybody should know better, I think he should. And I think he does. He is simply playing politics at the expense of human misery just like the conservatives mentioned earlier.

As stated earlier, one of the concepts that did not endear the people of Africa to the OAU was the principle of “State Sovereignty” – which simply meant the rest of the organization had to look the other way if some ruthless dictator decided to abuse human rights in his country. He could even go as far as slaughtering his own fellow countrymen! Their position was: “We have no right to intervene in the internal affairs of another country”. And many conscientious people wondered: What good are you, then?

Well, after four long decades, they are finally beginning to come to grip with reality. At the Durban conference they announced the abandonment of the “State Sovereignty” principle. From the hands-off position it has adopted up to now, it now supports/advocates peer review and intervention in member states to help “stem war, conflict and other human rights abuses”, according to Amani Daima whose recent article appeared in The Perspective newsmagazine. In the “Biggest Show” in Africa: the Launching of the African Union, Daima writes: “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”.

Daima writes further: “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 aimed at overcoming the failure of the OAU to intervene in the 1994 Rwanda genocide and other conflicts such as Somalia where collapsing states were unable to protect the rights of the citizen”.

While the rational mind would assume that the Union would unanimously accept these moves, we still have opposition. This is African politics and old habits die-hard. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is optimistic that all 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, writes Amani Daima.

Mr. Wade seems to be under the illusion that the OAU or the AU, as a club, should be about the presidents, not the people. That a president, once “democratically” elected should have the freedom and right to do whatever he chooses even it means annihilation of the same people who elected him. If that is the case, why should the people care about what this club does or what it calls itself?

In closing, this is what I say: That old lady may have on a new dress but she is still old and ugly. What she needs is a good bath - a good rub down - and some good perfume, because she still stinks!

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