A Tall Order

This week’s official inauguration of the African Union (AU), which replaces the moribund Organization of African Unity (OAU), was held amid predictable fanfare. Yet despite high expectations, tensions between opposing factions are already threatening to sour celebrations marking the birth of an organization African leaders hope will advance African development and democracy. The danger is that underlying differences between some of the most powerful and influential of the 53 member states may return to haunt the AU should they remain unresolved.

South Africa and its ally, Nigeria–two of the most populous and politically influential states–are seeking to ensure that the AU is acknowledged as a continental organization facilitating a democratization process that in the past five years has seen 20 African nations undergo smooth and internationally acclaimed transfers of power.

Good governance, the advancement of human rights, and political and economic liberalization are also seen by South Africa, Nigeria, and their allies as cornerstones of the newly inaugurated AU.

There is a consensus that the AU will institute change gradually and through mutual agreements. The majority of African leaders opted for a European Union-style, continental alliance over a tighter, federal model. Yet a host of smaller countries, headed by Libya, have voiced opposition to the moderate majority.

The Libya-led front views itself as radical and revolutionary and insists that the best way to protect the interests of Africans is for the AU to adopt anti-imperialist, anti-globalization positions. And nowhere was the difference in outlook more obvious than over the sensitive issue of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

NEPAD was adopted by the AU as a blueprint for African economic survival and is based on soliciting foreign investment worth some $64 billion in a bid to rescue the continent from economic ruin.

NEPAD’s critics, led by Zimbabwe and Libya, warn that there can be no genuine partnership between Africa, its former colonizers, and the imperialist powers of today. They stuck to the anachronistic rhetoric of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, arguing that NEPAD is a Western instrument intended to integrate the continent more fully into the global economy on a subservient and dependent basis.

“How can we seriously expect our economic salvation to be guaranteed by our former slavers, colonizers, and oppressors?” Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi asked Al-Ahram Weekly.

Moreover, many of Africa’s intellectuals and human rights activists lament that NEPAD–the AU’s centerpiece–is not as people-centered as its proponents believe.

“The people of Africa were not consulted. NEPAD was imposed on the African masses as a piecemeal solution to the continent’s social and economic ills,” warned Yao Graham, head of the Accra-based Third World Network. Shadrack Gutu, a Kenyan academic and lawyer, concurred. “The onus must now be on clean, effective governments that deliver and fulfil the aspirations of the African masses.”

The leaders of Nigeria and South Africa reject such arguments, insisting that NEPAD is an African-centered plan designed to meet the aspirations of the African people. “NEPAD and the AU will lay an emphasis on the economic and social aspects of our lives,” explained Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi was the first head of state to arrive in Durban ahead of the AU summit. His early arrival stirred a minor controversy when South African police detained his convoy of 60 vehicles as they were unloaded at Durban International Airport. South African police acted quickly to defuse the diplomatic row by denying they had impounded the vehicles.

One of the prickliest questions concerns how the cash-strapped AU will be funded. While the OAU had only four affiliate institutions, the AU will have no less than 17, including an African Parliament, an African Central Bank, and an African Commission, similar in purpose to the European Commission. AU member-states were asked to pay $55 million in membership fees and other arrears in order to facilitate the transformation of the OAU into the AU but few countries can afford to pay up, which could lead to the hi-jacking of the agenda by a few wealthy nations.

Libya is effectively bankrolling the AU and in May bailed out 11 heavily indebted African states that had not paid their dues to the old OAU, leading to accusations that it is financially pressuring member states. Libya also covered almost all the costs of the last two OAU summits in Lusaka and Lome.

Some of South Africa’s independent papers have insinuated that the Libyan leader is attempting to steal the show at Durban, though officially South African government officials are at pains to stress that there is no clash of interests between the Libyans and the South Africans and Nigerians, stressing the cordial relations binding the two countries and South African President Thabo Mbeki’s recent state visit to Libya.

Mbeki, destined to become the first AU chairman, is a seasoned consensus politician who does not want to alienate any African leader, least of all Gaddhafi, one of the strongest proponents of a powerful continental body with supranational enforcement powers. African leaders seeking to emphasize the AU’s democratic credentials stress that the organization will reject any African government brought to power by force. And unlike the defunct OAU, the AU will permit the intervention of the institution in the internal affairs of member states seen as disregarding its democratic principles.

Countries such as Zimbabwe are uneasy with the new arrangement, stressing that it is up to Africans, and not Western powers, to decide who is democratic. Africans must not blindly mimic Western ideals, they argue.