Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

African Union at 50: Bob Marley Did It Better

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa by ruben eberlein on May 30, 2013

bob_marleyLast Saturday, the celebrations on the occasion of 50 years of African Union took place in Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia. For most Africans, however, the organisation is of little relevance. A birthday serenade which appeared in the German weekly Jungle World today.

It could have been a chance for the African Union (AU) to strengthen its political influence. But the continental organisation elapsed it once again. The time when rebel groups formed out of Islamists and Tuareg insurgents moved towards Bamako in Mali in order to take over the capital, it were not the troops of the AU but those of the former colonial power France that militarily stopped and repelled the onslaught of the rebels.

The AU, founded as the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which existed since 1963, was established in 2002 in Durban, South Africa. It should deal with the many problems of the continent in a much better and more efficient way than its predecessor. The consistent presentation of the continent on the international stage, the improvement of living conditions in Africa and the concern for security and peace should not be blocked by the doctrines of sovereignty and non-interference as well as by the different political agendas of member countries any more. 53 countries – all states of Africa with the exception of Marocco – belong to the AU.

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The list of failures and omissions of the AU
is much longer than that of its achievements.

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But as of now, the list of failures and omissions of the AU is much longer than that of its achievements. The organisation which consists of a parliament, a commission and an executive council looked on idly in the Darfur conflict after 2003 when government-allied bandits massacred the people in the west of the country. Only in 2007, a common force (today called UNAMID) of the United Nations (UN) and the AU was mandated. In the meantime, the Sudan split in north and south, and the north is still governed by the Islamist Omar al-Bashir. Northern Sudan is of course a member of the AU while the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against al-Bashir.

Joseph Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has also not to fear critical voices of his colleagues from the commission of the AU. In the ongoing war in the east of the DRC, the voice of the AU is completely absent. Three countries, three conflicts – the reaction of the continental organisation is slow and close-mouthed although the head-on dealing with conflict was planned to distinguish the AU most clearly from the OAU.

Optimists, in the meantime, point to the alleged success stories of the AU in the field of peace and security. In Somalia which is divided in three parts since the fall of Siad Barre in 1990 (the south furthermore disintegrated in different zones of influence under the control of warlords and Islamists), the AU is present with altogether 17.000 troops. They come in their majority from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi. The war in the country, however, could not be stopped. One reason fort his tragedy is the questionable adherence to the concept of an interim government that cannot command much legitimacy among the Somali people.

The greatest shortcomings of the AU are still missing finance, the inadequate number of staff as well as wanting realistic objectives. International donors, especially the European Union and their member countries as well as China, support the organisation financially, and without this money the AU would not be viable. Germany engages itself especially in the field of the so-called conflict management and through the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) in the determination of controversial borders between African countries.

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The occasions for a celebration
are a thing of a rather distant past.
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The occasions for a celebration, in the meantime, are a thing of a rather distant past. The OAU had its greatest successes in the fight against white minority rule in Zimbabwe (South Rhodesia until 1980) and against Apartheid in South Africa. The liberation of the former Portuguese colonies Angola, Moçambique and Guinea-Bissau were supported as well with logistic, ideologic and financial resources. The struggle against white domination was the unifying element that connected the young radicals like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) and Sékou Touré (Guinea-Conakry) with conservative powers like Cote d’Ivoire or Nigeria.

The blueprint for the socio-economic advancement of the continent is the „New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development“ (Nepad), pushed by Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) and Thabo Mbeki (South Africa) since its launching in 2001. Nepad is – in opposition to the „Lagos Plan of Action”, adopted by the OAU in 1980 – a strictly neoliberal programme that combines the establishment of free markets with a mutual control of African governments with regards to human rights and good governance (the so-called peer review mechanism). Since the 10th anniversity of Nepad, however, not much is heard of its implementation, and the peer review did not generate seminal results.

For most Africans, the AU has no relevance for their daily lifes. In the course of every border-crossing, small and medium-sized traders and others do not have free passage as it was the dream of the Pan-Africanists of the first hours and as it is stipulated by regional organisations like the SADC in southern Africa or Ecowas in the West. They still have to pay illegal duties to underpaid border staff which find their way to their superiors. For others, the big shots, borders are a chance to generate rents by way of inofficial im- and export, for instance of oil.

In the border strip between Guinea-Conakry and Sierra Leone, for instance, several tents were to be seen in 2004 with only one purpose: robbery. „This is Africa, you know“, smiled the border post back then. As I was asking with an innocent voice what this means for me, he unmistakably rubbed his thumb on his forefinger and answered scanty: „Money, money, money.“ The brand new uniforms, probably sponsored by the UN or Great Britain, could not hide the fact that the dream of African Unity still is a dream to be realised.

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The idea of a common African identity
is widely prevalent among the people.

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The idea of a common African identity is indeed widely prevalent among the peoples of Africa, but the institutions of the AU are not yet able to grant substance to this sentiment. A similar paradox one can observe with regards to national identities in African states.

Of course, Pan-Africanism is only one of many parts of the identity to be found in societies at the continent. The rising xenophobia in South Africa, too, which was exposed most drastically in the riots of May 2008, does not nourish the hope of real unity in the near future. Especially migrants from neighbouring states like Zimbabwe, Malawi and Moçambique were and are the victims of hate and violence of so-called authochtones in South Africa who do not want to share their meagre business profits and badly paid jobs with migrants. South Africa is, in tandem with Nigeria, one of the most important members of the AU because of its size and economic power. As de-facto President of the AU, the President of the commission, serves Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, minister for the interior from South Africa.

Often, the AU is compared to the EU which was taken as a model with regards to structures and procedures. There exists, however, a decisive difference between the two organisations: While the EU is sufficiently funded and institutionally organised accordingly, there is little of a common European identity to speak of. In Africa, things are exactly the other way around. The collective memories of the slave trade, colonialisation and the post-colonial regimes led after independence to a widely shared feeling of popular Pan-Africanism which sees the continent, for good or for bad, as a unity. The institutions of the AU, however, are not in a position to translate this identity into a tangible practice.

During the times of the Cold War, the different positions of African states in the confrontation of world power blocks also weakened the realisation of Pan-African ideas. Indeed, Pan-Africanism suited African regimes as a great gesture and as a strategy in order to legitimise their rule, but in the end the proof of loyalty vis-à-vis the global West or East counted more than a really unified Africa.

The parliament of the AU, which meets twice a year in Midrand, South Africa, and consists of 265 members, is supposedly not known to many Africans. Every member country sends five deputies from the national parliament for a duration of five years, and there must be a minimum of one woman amongst them. The parliament has no legislative rights and acts only as an advisor to the commission. Different themes are discussed in ten different permanent committees.

In light of the weak personnel and financial furniture of the AU, the organisation would maybe do a much better job if it concentrates on important issues and would be ready for a new start. The EU too has its roots in the so-called Montanunion which modestly aimed at the duty-free circulation of coal and steel in their member countries. Similarly, the AU could focus on land reform (especially in southern Africa and Kenya), land grabbing, and generally on the improvement and modernisation of agriculture. Other subjects might be the improvement of infrastructure and the diversification of the industries in countries depending on the export of unprocessed natural resources.

The basic problem of the organisation, however, is and will be the special kind of its legitimation. The AU, which is in the end controlled by the heads of states, can only be a mirror of national scenarios. And those are coined by clientelism, indirect forms of governance and a strong tendency of privatisation of the public realm. Acts often wrongly conceived as corruption in the West, are often part of neopatrimonial systems of domination where bureaucratic and so-called private structures intertwine. The most powerful patron on top of such a system is the President or a person close to him in most cases, the least powerful subject is one who is unable to find a patron.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine an institutionally strong and potent AU in the near future. This suggests that Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley still stay the heroes of popular Pan-Africanism. In the meantime, the commissions of the AU write hundreds of plans and reports which in the end fill the archives of the organisation in Addis Abeba, dusting there.

This is a translated and slightly revised version of my article „Bob Marley schaffte es besser“ which appeard in the German weekly Jungle World at 30 May 2013. You can also download a print of the respective page here (pdf).

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