The African Union: what’s in a name?

Wilf Mbanga
27 January 2006

"Africans are angered by the continued unwillingness of African rulers to deal with human rights issues. The fact that they held the latest summit in Sudan in the first place shows their disdain for human rights", said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of Zimbabwe's National Constitutional Assembly. "The fact that they are passing the African Union chairmanship to a coup leader in Congo makes them laughable. Where do Africans turn now?"

The pessimism of dashed hopes has an especially bitter taste. In July 2002 the reinvention of the African Union (AU) amid the ashes of the discredited forty-year-old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was hailed internationally as a triumph. It was seen as a vital leap forward into the 21st century for the "dark continent" – with its tragic millions of poverty-stricken, starving, diseased peoples, and its elite coterie of portly, bemedalled, ageing dictators.

Colonialism was dead and gone. In this one area the OAU had succeeded. At its founding in 1963, its main goal was to rid the continent of colonial oppression and exploitation. Freedom for Africans and one-man-one-vote were the rallying cries. Almost four decades on, the challenge was different, and yet eerily the same: power concentrated in the hands of a heartless few, determined to exploit the many for personal gain. Was Africa free? How did freedom taste?

Where did the OAU go wrong? The colonialists had been replaced by a new breed of African liberator-heroes, most of whom proceeded to plunder the resources of their nations and oppress anyone who dare oppose them. All pretence at democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law was cast aside. Coups, not elections, changed governments.

The OAU's founding principle of respect for national sovereignty became its Achilles' heel – allowing the excesses of dictators like Idi Amin, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Robert Mugabe to be swept under the carpet. As the hopeful new millennium dawned on an Africa riddled with war, corruption, debt and disease, the OAU had become a sick joke.

Enter the AU. With much fanfare and rejoicing the new body proceeded to establish an impressive array of organs and instruments purporting to deliver human rights to the continent's oppressed millions.

Wilf Mbanga is founder, editor and publisher of The Zimbabwean

openDemocracy publishes regular, fortnightly extracts from The Zimbabwean about Zimbabwe's political, economic and human-rights situation, as well as other reports and analysis of life under Robert Mugabe; see our debate "What future for Zimbabwe?"

It signified, on paper at least, a new commitment by African states to tackle issues of importance to the continent. The constitutive act of the AU explicitly espoused the promotion of "democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance" and the promotion and protection of "human and peoples' rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and other relevant human rights instruments".

Most significant was the agreement by member-states to limit their sovereignty with specific regard to respect for democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law. "Good governance" and "peer review" were the new buzz phrases.

In a further erosion of state sovereignty, the AU even gave itself some teeth, allowing it to condemn and reject any unconstitutional change of government and to impose sanctions against any member state for failure to comply with its decisions and policies. Goodbye to coups and counter-coups!

Tragically, it soon became apparent that the real implications of all this for ordinary Africans remained limited and remote.

How the African Union works

One of the first individual test cases of the new body's formal commitments was Zimbabwean human-rights lawyer Gabriel Shumba, who was arrested and tortured by the government for defending in court a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The Zimbabwean judicial system failed him. He was threatened with death and fled to South Africa. In 2003 he approached the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) directly.

The case was heard at the ACPHR’s court in Banjul, Gambia, in November 2005. The judges heard Shumba's testimony, including his claim that the torture inflicted on him violated the African charter on rights. But instead of ruling decisively, the court deferred its ruling to May 2006.

"Nothing about the AU has changed but the name", said a bitter Shumba. "We can only conclude that the African system, as a legal system to enforce rights, is hopeless." He said the only value of appealing to the commission had been the ensuing international publicity. He has abandoned seeking recourse in Africa and has taken his case to Canada.

A second test case confirms the pessimists' outlook. This concerns the long-delayed presentation to the African Union assembly in July 2004 of the ACHPR's 2002 fact-finding mission to investigate human-rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Howls of protests from the Zimbabwean delegation, supported by the South Africans, resulted in the report’s adoption being postponed.

"This indicated a clear lack of political maturity at the AU to hold member-states accountable", said Zimbabwean political commentator Brian Raftopoulos. "Instead of defending and supporting the work of its own independent human-rights institution, the AU assembly chose to accede to the demands of the Zimbabwe government. Even when the assembly adopted the report at Abuja in January 2005, it did not adequately hold Zimbabwe accountable."

"What (the assembly) ought to have done was to publicly express concern at the human-rights situation in Zimbabwe and request the government to commit itself to implementing the recommendations of the ACHPR. This would both have allowed the assembly to monitor implementation of the recommendations in future and bolstered the confidence and role of the commission", he said.

But in November 2005, a commission meeting again raised hopes that perhaps, after all, the organisation could make a clear stand in defence of its own values. On that occasion, the ACHPR condemned Zimbabwe's human-rights record and pressured Harare to stop evicting people from their homes under the controversial social-cleansing programme, Operation Murambatsvina ("drive out the rubbish").

At the meeting, the commission said it was "alarmed by the number of internally-displaced persons and the violations of fundamental individual and collective rights resulting from the forced evictions being carried out by the government of Zimbabwe". It urged Mugabe's government to allow an African Union delegation to visit Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission. The report also called on the Harare government to repeal several repressive laws, to stop the forced evictions immediately and to allow "full and unimpeded access to international aid to help the victims".

So far, so good. The problem is that afterwards, nothing happened – no follow-up, no enforcement mechanisms, no redress. The AU's fine words are little consolation to Zimbabwe's hungry, oppressed people.

Also in "Africa and democracy" on openDemocracy:

Bronwen Manby, "Oil jihad in the Niger delta" (April 2004)

Olly Owen & Chris Melville, "China in Africa: a new era of “south-south cooperation? "
(July 2005)

Dan Hoyle, "'We made it peaceful': oil politics in the Niger delta" (November 2005)

Richard Dowden, "In search of Ugandan democracy"
(December 2005)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war" (January 2006)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Sudan's price

Such incidences of internal division, weakness, and loss of nerve are helpful in understanding what happened – or did not happen – at the African Union summit in Khartoum, Sudan on 16-24 January 2006.

Only thirty of the fifty-three African state leaders attended the summit. Several of them will not even sit in the same room as their putative continental partners with whom they are engaged in bitter border struggles or outright wars; the enmity between former comrades, Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, is only one such example.

The host country would normally assume the chairmanship for the ensuing year. In Khartoum, however, Chad accused Sudan of hosting rebels trying to unseat the N'Djamena government; while other African leaders charged Sudan with being responsible for a crisis in its Darfur region that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and rendered millions homeless. There, an under-resourced African Union peacekeeping force of 7,000 attempts the impossible job of relieving a human disaster.

The unseemly brawl over the chairmanship was resolved by postponing Sudan's assumption of the chairmanship of the AU until 2007. This year, the union will be headed not by Sudan's own president Omar al-Bashir but Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). While the leaders were squabbling, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that 43 million Africans would need food aid this year – which is would cost $2 billion to supply. Meanwhile, Ugandan rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo were killing eight UN peacekeepers; and insurgents in Nigeria's oil-rich delta were launching a wave of attacks on public and commercial buildings.

The Khartoum leaders were too busy quarrelling to address such issues. Their rivalries and twisted priorities eclipsed discussion of such vital issues as war and peace, famine and starvation, oppression and freedom, unity and economic development. Just like its predecessor, the African Union had failed the people of Africa.

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