Moving Africa off the Back Burner

Building on the European Model: Challenges for the African Union

Malawi famine
Africa's hope and challenge: a child from famine-stricken Lovimbi, Malawi, June 2, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

In recent months, winds of change have been blowing across Africa. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a bold plan for economic recovery, has been initiated as a continent-wide program and was presented to the leaders of the G-8 countries on June 27. More recently, the anachronistic 39-year-old Organization of African Unity was transformed into the African Union, modeled on the European Union—a body that will have its own parliament, central bank, and court. A record 43 of the continent’s leaders took part in a euphoric opening ceremony in Durban on July 9.

But while hopes have been ignited that Africa can build upon its rich resources and redress the crushing poverty, disease, and institutionalized corruption that have hobbled its well-being for decades, the new initiatives are being greeted with skepticism across the continent. Controversy surrounds the role of the G-8 countries—which are alternately accused of neglect and neocolonialism—in Africa’s renaissance. As drought, regional conflicts, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS continue to exact a toll on impoverished countries, the question of whether Africa’s leaders are up to the challenge of transformation remains open. While some have embraced democratic principles, others continue to rule through rapacity, despotism, and corruption.

As for any other international body seeking to stake its place in the international arena, the African Union (AU) still has a long way to go. But as the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. It may be recalled that the European Union (EU), on which the AU is modeled, was initially just a coal-and-steel-trading body. It now boasts the largest common market with 370 million consumers. The EU’s strong point has been the numerous treaties that govern its operations. The first such treaty was signed in Paris in 1951 to formalize the body’s operations with an assembly to monitor them.

This is where Africa comes in. Any association of independent states can only function if all its members have a sense of belonging. None should feel left out, as was the case with East and Central African countries that weren’t consulted when Nigerian, South African, Senegalese, and Algerian presidents met leaders of the G-8 nations to seek support for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). NEPAD is an initiative of the AU, yet not a single East African country is on its steering committee.

But these are what can be said to be teething problems, as occurred in the early stages of the EU when Britain refused to join and later had a rough time negotiating terms for entry. It was not until 1973 that Britain finally joined the community together with Ireland and Denmark.

Another area where Africa fares worse than the EU is the fact that the European body has only 15 countries to deal with. Africa starts with 53 nations loaded with a myriad of problems and needs. Even if one considers just one task, conflict prevention, a look at all the conflicts on the continent shows that this will not be an easy one to deal with.
But still, the AU comes in well armed. Under its Act, it can intervene in the affairs of member states on issues such as elections. This provision is already in use in Madagascar, where the AU has refused to recognize Marc Ravalomanana, who claims to have won disputed presidential elections, or Didier Ratsiraka, the former president who he claims to have beaten. Instead, it wants a fresh poll.

The AU plans a special summit in six months’ time to review some contentious issues, especially under NEPAD, whose peer-review schemeis still being watched suspiciously by long-time dictators not used to outside scrutiny.

The NEPAD Peer Review will be run by retired presidents, judges, and other eminent persons who will police African countries in areas such as the timely holding of elections and the respect for human rights.

Still, some figures are very troubling: The World Bank forecasts that the number of poor people in Africa will rise from just over 300 million out of a total population of 659 million in 2000 to 345 million people by 2015.

Add to this the fact that as the AU was being launched in Durban early this month, more than half the members owed its precursor, the Organization of African Unity, more than US$50 million in membership fees, and you see the challenge it faces.

The task African countries are embarking on has a lot of similarities with that of the EU, says Finn Thilsted, the Danish ambassador to Kenya, whose country currently holds the presidency of the EU. He says both the EU and the AU “are out to promote trade and get rid of borders as they are a hindrance to free movement of goods and services.”

Europe, like Africa, says Thilsted, has major differences in the lifestyles of its people. But still, European countries share similarities: For example, England and Denmark were both sea-faring nations and have contacts dating back to the Middle Ages.

The same may not be said for Africa, but still, some cultures did penetrate [the continent]: the Kiswahili language spread from the East African coast all the way to the Congo. Given the debate on adopting a working language for the AU, not even Kiswahili or Arabic can emerge as the main language. Arabic is the main language in northern Africa, while Kiswahili reigns in East Africa. Africa therefore finds itself using three colonial languages—English, French, and Portuguese.

The AU has given itself 10 years in a period dubbed “the age of capacity building” to radically change Africa. What it needs are treaties among African nations on various goals it wants achieved, such as human rights, with the AU setting standards for members to meet. Once this system begins, other treaty areas will be explored. Such power tactics as military coups and rigged elections should be among the first to be tackled in African treaties. The AU is moving in the right direction by creating an Economic and Social Council, through which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and trade unions will have the right to participate in the affairs of the continental body. At the moment, most African countries suppress NGO operations, which they see as a threat to their hold on power.