Africa's New Union

“Extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time,” wrote Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and Special Adviser to Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, in his new book, The End of Poverty. To turn his idealist rhetoric into reality, resolving the dozens of armed conflicts, improving the state of public health, and building the infrastructure needed to initiate sustainable growth in Africa are only some of the tremendous tasks that deserve Sachs’s attention. Overarching all of these goals is the promotion of good governance and the rule of law. The African Union, born out of an ineffective predecessor, the Organization for African Unity, has the potential to gain ground as a respectable continental body that could help lead Africa to achieving these goals. But that potential needs to be reached in the shortest time possible, not only because of the utter urgency of Africa’s problems, but also because gaining credibility is itself a time-sensitive issue.

So far, the formation of the AU has garnered little interest outside of Africa. Many saw the new organization as merely a reformed version of the OAU, although there are significant structural and functional differences between the two organizations. Realizing these differences is essential for the AU to shed the bad reputation of the OAU, and gain the legitimacy it needs to start playing its vital role in African development.

The OAU’s failures and the AU’s potential

To understand the AU’s potential for success, one needs to understand the reasons behind OAU’s failures. For the most part, the problem with the OAU (created in 1963) was that the conditions that brought and kept it together were no longer relevant. The two main goals of this establishment were securing the national independence of African states and pressuring South Africa to end apartheid. While the latter problem was around until more recently, the cement of anti-colonialism had lost its meaning, since African states got their independence by the late 1980s. With proxy wars fought between the superpowers, the Cold War had devastating effects on the continent, creating conditions that the OAU was not equipped to handle. Most conflicts that ravaged Africa have been within states, and since the OAU charter celebrates the principle of territorial integrity, the prospect of “African solutions for African problems” failed to be anything but empty rhetoric.

The African Union officially became the new political, judicial, and economic organization for the continent on May 26, 2001. Modeled on the EU, the organization includes a Pan-African Parliament, a Court of Justice, and a Central Bank. During negotiations to draft its charter, there were debates about the formation of a common military force and a Security Council. The first suggestion had big financial problems attached to it, and concerns were also raised about the legitimacy of a common army. The Security Council idea was not popular because it would have introduced a hierarchical structure instead of a system of equal members. Nevertheless, an Executive Council (consisting of the Foreign Affairs ministers of the 53 member states and making decisions based on a two-thirds majority) was introduced in order to function much like a would-be security council. Also, there is talk of forming “Rapid Reaction Forces” by the year 2010, a project supported by George W. Bush but that is pending Bush’s appeal to US Congress for the $660 million needed to fund it. These forces would be used in the initial stages of armed conflict, compensating for the shortcomings of UN peacekeepers, who often arrive at the scene a few months late, among heated debates in their home countries about the need for foreign intervention.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the founding document of the new AU, the Constitutive Act, is that it declares the Union to be “determined to promote and protect human and peoples’ rights, consolidate democratic institutions and culture, and to ensure good governance and the rule of law.” Adding teeth to this determination is the fact that the CA allows military intervention by the Union in conflicts within and between member states. The decision to intervene, if not requested by the state in trouble, needs to be approved by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government. Being used to the OAU’s strict guidelines for protecting territorial integrity, and fearing that decisions taken by a continental body could one day undermine their own national sovereignty, it was feared that African leaders would not warm up to the idea of an AU active in internal conflicts. But even before the formation of the AU (during the Rwandan civil war in 1994), and also in the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2004, African leaders proved that they would commit to humanitarian missions if and when the conditions required them to do so. The deployment of AU troops to Sudan has undoubtedly contributed to the UN’s effort to keep things together on the ground, and a Rapid Reactions Force could significantly improve the AU’s capability to prevent atrocities early enough to minimize the economic and humanitarian costs of armed conflict.

While conflict resolution has looked good so far, the biggest problem for Africa’s development is bad governance. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s detestable presidency (he is most famous for confiscating land and property inhabited by white people—supposedly to redistribute it to the country’s poor—and dividing it up among his cronies) has brought per capita income to half of what it was in 1980. The AU has some promising measures to increase the efficacy and legitimacy of government on the continent. The Constitutive Act urges the Union to condemn, refuse to recognize, and impose sanctions upon regimes that come to power by unconstitutional changes of government. The OAU, via contrast, had carefully shied away from such measures, going so far as electing Idi Amin, the infamous Ugandan tyrant, as its president.

Under the South African president Thabo Mbeki, the member states of the AU have also initiated a “peer review” system known as Nepad (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). The system is made up of review panels where experts from African countries assess the political and economic performance of other African governments. To sign up for a review is voluntary, but so far more than twenty countries have done so, and proponents of the system argue that those who do not join will feel the pressure once the “clean” governments start receiving increased financial assistance from the wealthy world.

When Mugabe won his rigged Zimbabwean elections a few weeks ago, he answered the cries of western observers that the elections were unfair by saying that he would care about reports from only African observers. This response alone is enough proof of how important it is to have standards of legitimate governance advocated by a supranational African body like the AU. The real challenge, of course, is for the African leaders to live up the commitments put forth by the CA. With regards to Mugabe, their record has been far from brilliant, and, led by South Africa, the African governments have rubber-stamped Mugabe’s recent victory. What makes their action more perplexing is the fact they have done it in spite of examples where African pressure on illegitimate governments has worked miracles: in early February, when the death of Togo’s president was followed by a military coup that installed his son in power, The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately took a tough stand and refused to recognize the new regime, suspending Togo’s membership to ECOWAS and imposing sanctions. As a result, Togo’s newly installed president agreed to stand down and hold elections. The idea of extending this approach from ECOWAS to the AU should not seem too idealistic if heavyweights such as South Africa agree to get behind it.

The situation of the ECOWAS countries represents both good and troubling things that are happening in Africa. Although most ECOWAS countries have had stable political structures and good governance for some time, they are still among the poorest in the world and even on the continent. Mali, which has been ranked as a free country by the Freedom House since 1992, has a yearly per capita income of $780. The reason for this is simple: in landlocked states, where there is little basic infrastructure and where the working-age population is being incapacitated by disease, what good governance can achieve has its limits. Increasing trade with and within Africa could be part of the solution to this poverty trap. The CA talks about hopes to build a common African market by the year 2025. The rapidity with which the African countries have built the AU—only two years passed between the time when the African states adopted the CA and when the document came into force—makes one hopeful that the common market goal might also be achieved in the time proposed. But if the dream of a common African market is to be realized, the rich world has to take visible steps in removing its own trade barriers. This would not only ease and increase global trade but also set a precedent for African governments to remove trade barriers amongst themselves.

With regard to disease, the wealthy world finds comfort in talking about HIV/AIDS and about the hope that efforts to find a vaccine will produce results in the next few decades. More than sixty percent of all child deaths in Africa, however, are caused by preventable diseases (about ten percent are caused by neonatal tetanus, which would be eliminated simply by using clean equipment to cut the natal cord at birth). Providing one mosquito net (costing five dollars) prevents two children from getting malaria for five years. The obstacle to these simple precautions is not only bad governance (donated mosquito nets, for example, often end up being sold in the black market) but also the unwillingness of the rich countries to live up to their promise of using 0.7 percent of their GDP in direct financial assistance to the developing world. The US spends under 0.2 percent of its GDP on aid to the developing world and actually rejects the claim that it ever promised to honor the 0.7 percent limit. British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently admitted that Africa could efficiently absorb $30 billion more in direct aid a year and boosted the UK’s assistance. The US should not only follow suit but should also join the UK in pressuring other rich governments to keep their promises. If and when the wealthy world starts honoring its commitments, the AU will have a lot to add to the efforts to improve the disastrous conditions of public health in Africa.

Potential Pitfalls, New Horizons

The new organization harbors some critical problems besides the lack of sufficient recognition and the sheer difficulty of its ultimate goals. Africa’s extreme poverty makes it doubtful that the member countries will be able to financially support the organization that is supposed to assist them out of their war and poverty trap. The new council has potentially efficient ways of collecting its membership fees, but with half the continent’s residents making fewer than 65 cents per day, no effective measure can secure funding for the AU. This is where the rich world can take the lead. Indeed, when the AU decided last November to send 3000 soldiers to Darfur, the EU promptly offered to pay most of the cost of the mission. The wealthy world should not hesitate to show such support to the AU, not least because it is a cheaper way of dealing with Africa’s problems (as opposed to an expensive and usually late UN peacekeeping mission), but also because their support will give the AU the credibility it desperately needs if the organization is to serve any function.

Given the wide variety of opinions on what constitutes legitimate government, the AU might find it increasingly hard to find a balance between support for its legitimacy and effective intervention (especially within states). Hopefully, programs such as Nepad will make ideals of good governance and the rule of law more than just words of the Constitutive Act. To achieve this, and to avoid letting the AU become ineffective and unresponsive like its predecessor, much responsibility falls on Africa’s prominent leaders, such as South Africa’s Thabi Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo. South Africa alone comprises forty percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP, and Mbeki can surely make use of his country’s economic dominance in the political arena, too.

There is much to be hopeful about. Africa already has been doing better in the past few years: some of its wars have stopped, and a renewed global interest in ending African suffering has increased the chance of success. The AU, much like the continent it represents, is full of exciting possibilities, but it cannot fulfill its potential without international support. Although modeled on the EU, the AU bears a stark contrast to its European counterpart: the EU was formed after Europe was generally at peace, whereas the AU was born in a continent ruined by endless wars, disease and poverty. But not all stories of successful organizations need to be a repetition of history. Indeed, the AU makes one hope that it will reverse history by proving to be an effective African institution that will pave the way to a bright future for the whole of Africa.