These are not the best of times for Africa and the African Union (AU). Its flagship political organization, which many expects to provide continental leadership has only just launched a fresh process to fill the vacant positions of its Chairperson, Deputy and eight Commissioners in January 2017 following the stalemated election at its 27th Summit in Kigali, Rwanda last July.
No doubt, the AU which succeeded the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 2001 has chalked some achievements beyond the name change, but concerned Pan-Africanists and observers are worried about the seeming lack of vision and creativity by the Addis Ababa-based Commission.
The majority of Africa’s estimated 800 million people are disillusioned and desperate. Their continent is not just on the bottom rung of human development indicators. It has become a metaphor for disease, poverty, unemployment, corruption and mismanagement, bad governance and faces the greatest human displacement among all the world regions, with more Africans forced from their homes by conflicts, hardships or oppression by governments. Compared to other regions, more African countries are either involved in raging conflicts or are experiencing post-conflict tensions, forcing hundreds if not thousands of its youths on daily dangerous journeys abroad in desperate attempts to escape hardships in their home countries.
The AU may not be an alternative to the governments in its member States, but a purposeful and dynamic AU leadership can inspire, mobilize and galvanize the governments and the populations around quick solutions to the myriad problems confronting the continent.
Consequently, and beyond the more acceptable calls for an urgent restructuring of the AU, some critics with more extreme views are advocating outright disbandment, Afrexit (after the British exit of the European Union) or the formation of an alternative organization by opposition political parties on the continent.
Among proponents for Afrexit or an alternative AU is Tendai Ruben Mbofana, a social justice activist and commentator. In a recent Op-Ed, he argued that the “AU is nothing more than a dictators’ club, which seeks to serve and protect the interests of those in power, at the expense of the suffering ordinary people.” While admitting that “not all opposition parties on the continent serve the interests of the people,” he insists that “discretion” could be exercised in determining the composition of a “Shadow AU,” citing the Union’s alleged failures in South Sudan, Burundi and Zimbabwe, his home country, to buttress his argument.
Equally strident is Ghana’s Prof George B.N. Ayittey, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, an American conservative policy think-tank, who in an article entitled “Disband the African Union,” published last July in the Foreign Policy Magazine, faulted African leaders for modelling the AU after an unravelling EU. To him, the AU “is famous for its annual summits, where unrepentant despots sip champagne and applaud their own longevity while issuing preposterous communiqués that nobody else in the world pays attention to.”
“Instead of a centralized but weak organization like the AU, Africa needs a looser style of confederacy that allows national actors to coordinate decisions with one another, rather than imposing choices on them,” the professor posits. “Such a confederacy should also have strict membership requirements, to ensure there is sufficient common ground for political and economic coordination and a common vision of the future. At a minimum each member state should be democratic and respect Africa’s heritage of free markets, free enterprise, and free trade.”
The AU has also come under the hammer for its inept handling of the dispute between NATO countries and the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed in October 2011. Gadhafi had his faults, but he was instrumental to the formation of the AU, and indeed one of its biggest financiers until his death, under-writing the debts of many member States to the organization. Under Gadhafi Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa, but the country is now virtually a failed State. Gadhafi’s alleged crime also pales into insignificance vis-a-vis what has been playing out for several years in Syria, while the AU maintains an undignified silence as the same world powers that deposed the Libyan leader conveniently feign incapacity in carrying out their controversial regime change policy as happened in Libya or Iraq.
But also compelling is the defence of the AU by many of its supporters, including Ambassador Ngovi Kitau, Kenya’s envoy to South Korea (2009-2014). According to him, multilateral partners are happy with the AU, and the fact that Morocco which left the OAU in 1984 over the unresolved Western Sahara dispute is staging a comeback, is testimony that the AU is not doing badly. Instead, he accuses those calling for Afrexit or AU disbandment, of engaging in a “recycled but failed strategy” of DISC – “Demonize, Isolate, Sanction, and Collapse.”
Drastic changes are therefore required and urgently too, in the way the AU does its business. For instance, it was obvious that electing an AU Chairperson at the Kigali July Summit was doomed to failure. The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other well-meaning groups had called for a postponement of the polls, arguing that the short-listed candidates lacked the requisite quality. Given that a group is only as strong as its weakest unit, part of AU’s major problem, as with most African governments and institutions, can be traced to the flawed leadership recruitment process.But to avoid repeating the costly mistakes of the past, African leaders must get it right in January 2017. The panel charged with shortlisting candidates must spread its dragnet. AU’s five criteria for the selection of its Chairperson are education, experience, leadership; achievement, then vision and strategy. There is also the troublesome question of regional rotation of leadership positions. These standards are laudable, but in view of Africa’s emergency situation, none of these criteria must stand in the way of recruiting or even head-hunting a visionary, dynamic leader for the AU.
An AU Chairperson must be presidential and possess the strong character to represent Africa effectively on the world stage. He or she must be a team-player able to assemble a dynamic team with hands-on experience and skills to tackle Africa’s development challenges. An AU leader must be a strong advocate of regional integration, and must be able to engage and insist on democratic constitutionalism.
The good news is that all the possible remedies for AU’s leadership malaise are in Africa. The founding fathers expect OAU/AU to synergize with Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as the engine/pillars of regional integration. That being the case, the AU should not have delayed in borrowing a leaf from say ECOWAS’ 1979 Free Movement Protocol for the planned E-Passport project. Or using ECOWAS’ Community Levy introduced in early 1990s as a template for the AU 0.2% tax, which is coming decades after.
Similarly, the Lagos Plan of Action and the Final Act of Lagos (both of 1980), as well as the African Economic Community documents prepared with visionary inputs from the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) under the leadership of Nigeria’s Prof Adebayo Adedeji, are timeless blueprints for Africa’s home-grown development and governance paradigms all at AU’s disposal.
— Ejime is an International Media and Communications Consultant.