The AU’s formation marked a break with the depressing history of its flawed predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which proved largely irrelevant as many African states descended into civil war or despotism and the continent became a theater of Cold War competition. The AU’s novel features included an explicit commitment to democratization and good governance and a recognition of the legitimacy of intervention in the event of crimes against humanity or genocide.
The latter was an early articulation of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that placed the AU ahead of the United Nations itself and represented a firm repudiation of the OAU’s noninterference doctrine. In addition, the AU rejected unconstitutional changes of government, with suspension from AU membership for those states where such changes occurred. The AU has also been active in designing a new continental security architecture, and has already conducted peace operations with varying degrees of effectiveness in Burundi, Sudan and Somalia and now a new chapter in Mali.
But in its second decade, the AU faces a range of problems. These include coordinating with various subregional bodies; the need to build capacity for peacekeeping operations and translate the “African solutions to African problems” mantra into reality; and preventing the possibility, common to all multilateral bodies, that the AU may become a vehicle for the interests of the major powers within it, in this case South Africa and Nigeria, while at the same time preventing tensions between the two from fatally undermining the organization.
One major issue stands out, however, and that is the question of democratic government. The AU’s history to date may be viewed as a modest success in this regard, as democratic government, however imperfect, has been accepted as the norm, and military rule as an aberration. How the AU addresses democratization moving forward will shape the organization’s future prospects and determine whether it does indeed represent a definitive break with the OAU.
Notwithstanding the AU’s stated commitment to promoting democratic governance, its record is uneven and deficient in three important respects. First, the paradox of African multilateralism continues to haunt the AU as it does subregional bodies throughout the continent: Many of the African regimes responsible for implementing the noble democratic ideals contained in the founding documents of intergovernmental organizations have nothing to gain from doing so. In fact, they may have much to lose, as democratization would erode the very basis of elite rule anchored in manipulated political processes, corruption and neo-patrimonialism.
Second, while the AU is very clear in rejecting unconstitutional takeovers, it has had very little to say about regimes that have come to power constitutionally but now sustain themselves by violence, electoral rigging or a simple refusal to accept defeat. One case springs in mind: Drc(Democratic Republic of Congo).
Indeed the current regional and subregional practice is to indulge, even reward, such tactics by cementing incumbent leaders and regimes in place at the heads of post-election governments of national unity, while the actual electoral victors have to be content with the more junior role, as in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Multilateral organizations have often demonstrated an instinctive solidarity with abusive African regimes at the expense of both African peoples and the democratic values contained in those organizations’ founding charters.
Moreover, although the AU has formally recognized that sovereignty is no longer absolute but conditional and that states cannot mistreat their citizens with impunity, both individual states and African multilateral bodies retain a strong attachment to traditional Westphalian models of sovereignty.
Finally, the AU is in essence an elite, top-down project, which, thus far, has not sufficiently engaged civil society groupings, far less people at the grassroots level. This deficiency has to be addressed as a matter of urgency if pan-Africanism is ever to move beyond the confines of the African intelligentsia and become a broadly shared -- and democratizing -- experience.
Without a shared commitment to democracy and constitutional government across the continent, there will be an absence of the shared values or sameness that sustains and underpins successful security regimes elsewhere. Either this will make it increasingly difficult for African states to speak with one voice on global issues, or it will mean that the AU generates a lowest-common-denominator politics with agreement reached only at the blandest level. In the worst-case scenario, that consensus may even be forged around authoritarian principles or a knee-jerk defense of authoritarian regimes.
The AU is to be commended for advancing discussion on key issues and for seeking to promote improved democratic standards, though whether it deserves to be called a “norm entrepreneur” is more questionable in view of the preceding discussion. It is perhaps the definitive example of a work in progress and has made a useful contribution demonstrating that the “hopeless continent” narrative is a highly simplistic means of debating Africa’s myriad complexities. But neither can the AU’s many challenges be airbrushed away as part of an equally misleading “Africa rising” thesis.
What we may be moving toward instead is a situation in which the very term “Africa” loses its utility as a multitier continent emerges, in which some regions perform better than others in the security sector, and where states in one subregion may have more in common in terms of democratic governance with states in other subregions than with their immediate neighbors.
None of this, however, will be effectively captured by one-dimensional narratives of heroic achievement or abject failure. Therefore the AU is likely to continue to disappoint both its detractors and its pan-African enthusiasts.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Author of: ''The New World Order of Apartheid: Africa''
Photo-Credit: AFP: new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa