Fatally flawed

2008-06-30 00:00

There cannot be any clearer illustration of the impotence of Africa’s regional institutions to find local solutions to the continent’s problems, than its astounding inaction in the face of the terrifying descent into the abyss of Zimbabwe.

Yet, to bring prosperity to Africa, outside help is obviously important, but unless Africans step in with firmer resolve to deal with local problems, such help will come to nothing. The African Union (AU), the home-grown continental structure set up to offer African solutions for local crises, has failed to stop the rot in Zimbabwe. It has also failed to resolve long-standing African conflicts such as the one in Zimbabwe and in Darfur. It has also failed in most other areas, including failing to tackle the crippling food shortages and inflation plaguing the continent, which are in part due to bad local leadership and a lack of democracy.

Not surprisingly, African countries worst hit by the crippling food shortages — Zimbabwe, Egypt, Cameroon, Gabon and Ethiopia — are also among those governed the most autocratically, and about which the AU has been the most silent. The problem is, most of the leading AU figures are themselves no believers in democracy, unless it is of the fake or limited kind. In fact, most of the leading AU figures came to power in their own countries through flawed elections — it’s often only a matter of scale.

Like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, most of his AU peers only pay lip service to democracy: they hardly brook opposition, abuse the very limited democratic institutions in their countries and show little respect for individual liberties. So then for African leaders to criticise Mugabe would be like owning up to their own glaring democratic shortcomings. It is clear that the AU in its current form is hopelessly inadequate to solve Africa’s myriad political and economic problems, let alone lead the continent into an elusive new era of prosperity.

To start with, every African country can become a member of the AU, despite the fact that a country is run by a dictatorial regime. The AU has, in fact, no minimum entry requirements, whether in terms of the quality of democracy or the prudence of a country’s economic management. Countries like Zimbabwe can still be AU members even if their governments have appalling human rights records, and mismanage their country’s economics and politics.

This means that Zimbabwe and all the rogue regimes in Africa can all become fully fledged voting members, determining the outcome of crucial decisions of the organisation. Most African countries, just like Zimbabwe, have “insult laws” that outlaw criticism of the president. The second leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Tendai Biti is currently being prosecuted under these laws. Yet, the AU does not demand that its members repeal such oppressive laws. For another, the AU has few mechanisms to force African countries that fail basic democratic requirements to change. The guiding principle of the AU is a respect for other African countries’ “sovereignty”.

An ordinary citizen of an AU member country, who is being brutalised by his or her government, has little recourse to the AU because the organisation’s founding statutes offer more respect to a member country’s head of state, whether he was undemocratically elected or acts tyrannically, than to the rights of an ordinary citizen. This really means that even while Mugabe embarks on a terrible campaign of intimidation against his opponents, the AU will automatically defend the Zimbabwean “head of state”, rather than Zimbabwe’s battered people.

Within the AU organisation those leaders who fought in anti-colonial or liberation struggles — such as Mugabe — are generally deferred to. Furthermore, there is the as-sumption within the AU that fellow African leaders must always be shielded against Western criticism, especially those from former colonial masters, no matter the merits of the criticism. This means that the AU will protect African dictators solely because they are African —even if the victims of their misrule are mostly other Africans. The AU still too easily blames scapegoats rather than own up to its shortcomings — if it’s not local critics, opposition parties or the media, then it is the West and former colonial powers. Off course, global politics, trade and finance are staked against African countries and many Western governments disappointingly are, beyond the rhetoric, not doing much to change that.

But to be blunt, the AU is nothing more than a glorified club of flawed African leaders, who shield each other against the groundswell of demands by the long-suffering citizens of their countries. Across the continent now, there is undeniably a strong desire among Africans for their leaders, their governments and their institutions to do better, to be more honest, accountable and responsive — in short, they want democracy. Africa’s future prosperity, still lies in individual countries on the continent pooling their markets, development efforts and attempts to create a new democratic governance regime. But the current AU leadership is too discredited, the institution too toothless and the rules for membership too lenient.

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