African Union deserves visionary, dynamic leadership

African Union

African Union

These are not good times for Africa. The African Union (AU), its flagship political organisation, which many expect 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 leadership 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 recorded 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. The continent has become a metaphor for disease, poverty, unemployment, corruption and mismanagement, bad governance and faces the greatest human displacement among all the world’s 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 into 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, mobilise and galvanise the governments and the populations around quick solutions to the 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 organisation by opposition political parties on the continent.

Among proponents of Afrexit or an alternative AU is Tendai Ruben Mbofana, a social justice activist and commentator. In a recent article, 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 think-tank, who in an article titled “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 centralised but weak organisation 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 Muammar Gadhafi, who was killed in October 2011. Gadhafi had his faults, but he was instrumental to the formation of the AU, and indeed was one of its biggest financiers until his death, under-writing the debts of many member states to the organisation. 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 Syria.

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.”

As the debate rages, the hard truth is that the AU at best, has underperformed. 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. Why the AU leadership went ahead with the election remains debatable, but it was no surprise that ECOWAS members and at least 20 other AU member countries out of the Union’s 54-nation membership abstained from the polls. After seven rounds of balloting none of the three candidates mustered the required two-thirds majority of votes.

Even the roller-coaster postponement is not excusable because African leaders had four years’ interval to elect an AU chair. If those in charge of the organisation in the past four years could not provide the required quality leadership with the full complement of office, the expectation from their six-month extension is in vain.

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. The Union has yet to recover from the 2012 bruising and divisive election that produced its outgoing Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa, who ran against then incumbent Jean Ping of Gabon. The Gabonese was the candidate of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and had wanted a second four-year mandate, but the Southern African Development Community (SADC) fielded Dlamini-Zuma, in defiance of an unwritten agreement among the“Big Five” countries – Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa – not to vie for top leadership positions in continental institutions.The SADC had its way in 2012, but at the cost of further polarisation of an already divided AU.
• Ejime is an International Media and Communications Consultant.

Dlamini-Zuma’s AU leadership can claim among its achievements, the implementation of Agenda 2063, Women’s Empowerment programme as well as the Common Passport project to facilitate movement/integration on the continent and a 0.2% tax levy on member-states to boost self-financing of the AU. But the E-passport and tax projects, which were approved by the Kigali Summit,are largely work in progress, with their implementation contingent on the mercy or convenience of member- states.

To a very large extent, the negative consequences of the 2012 election process, which also suffered a six-month delay, have overshadowed Dlamini-Zuma’s AU leadership. She equally did not help matters by delaying the announcement that she would not seek re-election last July, because of her interest in the leadership position of South Africa’s troubled African National Congress (ANC). How she juggles the demands of that ANC ambition with the task of overseeing affairs at AU is anybody’s guess.

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. Pan-Africanists, well-meaning Africans and ordinary citizens should as a matter of necessity join in the search for the best for the AU. The task is too important to be left to the vagaries of partisan politics.

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.

Africa is at the crossroads. It is the epicentre of global political, socio-economic and humanitarian crises, and the AU as the successor of the OAU is not just an intergovernmental organisation, but a rallying point for the actualisation of Africa’s aspiration, dignity, unity and integration.Africans and the rest of the world are watching and waiting for African leaders to redeem themselves by giving the AU the right and deserving leadership.

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