African Union arrives

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The 38-year-old Organisation of African Unity is dissolved to give shape to the African Union, which, hopefully, will play a more decisive role in the affairs of the continent.

THE venerable Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the 38-year-old 53-nation body which played an active role in the decolonisation process in the African continent, was formally dissolved on July 9. It was replaced by the African Union (A.U.), at a meeting of African heads of state in Durban, South Africa. There was a consensus among African leaders that the OAU had outlived its utility.

The decolonisation process in the continent is almost over. The only major unresolved issue is that of Western Sahara. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the OAU and the majority of African states, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) continues to be under the yoke of Moroccan forces. The SADR has been accorded full membership of the A.U., and enjoys the same privileges it had in the OAU. Not surprisingly, neither the Moroccan King nor his Prime Minister was present at the founding ceremony of the A.U. That was also an indication of the kingdom's isolation in the continent on the question of Western Sahara.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who will be the new chairman of the African Union, addresses African leaders and delegations at the launching ceremony of the A.U. in Durban on July 9.-JUDA NGWENYA/ REUTERS

Another notable absentee was Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia, who is currently fighting for his political survival as rebel groups close in on the capital Monrovia. Madagascar was not invited. The A.U. insists that the country hold another round of presidential elections. The island-nation had plunged into anarchy following a round of flawed election process in December 2001. Things are now slowly getting back to normal after long-time dictator Didier Ratsiraka, one of the two claimants to the Presidency, went into exile in early July when powerful Western governments and China announced that they were formally recognising the claims of his rival, Marc Ravalomanana, to the Presidency.

The two prime movers behind the creation of the A.U. are the Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi and South African President Thabo Mbeki. However, it was Qadhafi who first proposed the scrapping of the OAU and its replacement with the A.U. South African officials deny that a power struggle is on between the two leaders for influence in the new organisation. The South African President in fact went to Libya recently, reportedly to iron out the differences relating to the A.U. and to convince the Libyan leader about the "New Partnership for African Development" (NEPAD).

NEPAD is a plan that is envisaged on the lines of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War. NEPAD was represented by the Presidents of South Africa, Senegal and Nigeria at the recent Group of Eight (G-8) summit. The African leaders requested the rich countries to invest $12 billion to kick-start the African economies, but the latter could pledge only $1 billion. In return, the West demanded accountability, democracy and a commitment to human rights from the African nations.

Qadhafi has always been sceptical about the West's posturing on human rights and related issues. In his speech at the inaugural A.U. meet, he welcomed foreign investments but warned that they should come on Africa's terms. "Those who want to assist us, we welcome. Those who want to impose conditions on us, we don't want them," he said. "We need economic development and health care more than philosophical thoughts and interpretations of democracy," he added. Libya was given a seat in NEPAD's steering committee after the African leaders met in Durban.

Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi addressing the summit. He along with Mbeki were the prime movers behind the creation of the African Union.-OBED ZILWA/AP

Some G-8 countries, such as the United Kingdom, want countries like Zimbabwe to be isolated for alleged human rights abuses. Although African leaders like Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo are strong proponents of Western-style democracy, at the Durban meet they did not criticise fellow-members like Zimbabwe even though Nigeria and South Africa were party to the Commonwealth decision to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth after the recent elections there. Obasanjo was quoted as saying in Durban that despite doubts about the willingness of some African leaders to embrace democracy, the continent was moving in the right direction. "Some of us will be fast, some of us will be slow, some will even stop, but provided that when they stumble, they get up and get going again," said the Nigerian President.

In his opening address, Mbeki urged the 53 members of the new grouping to work together for peace and prosperity. "Today, we must defeat poverty, disease and ignorance and end the senseless wars and conflicts causing so much pain and suffering," he told the 30,000-strong audience at the inaugural ceremony. Present on the occasion were the Senegalese football team which had made a tremendous impact in the recent World Cup, and Nelson Mandela, the seniormost statesman of Africa.

The other star of the show was Qadhafi, who in recent years has professed his disillusionment with the concept of pan-Arab unity and has instead been focussing vigorously on pan-African unity. His vision of African unity harks back to the halcyon days of the anti-colonial struggle when leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana talked about creating a "United States of Africa".

At the Durban summit, Qadhafi tried his best to include amendments to the proposed charter of the A.U. But Qadhafi's radical ideas are not too popular among many of his peers in the continent. Libya's proposed amendment to the A.U. charter that calls for one army for the continent did not find approval. Mbeki said that an "'extraordinary" summit of the A.U. would be convened in six months' time to debate specially some of the important proposals put forward by Libya and other countries and to propose amendments to the A.U. charter. It has been reported that Libya paid $2.2 million to cover the membership dues of 11 countries. Qadhafi's munificence in recent times has benefited many needy African nations. When Zimbabwe faced an acute fuel shortage recently, Libya helped it out.

What Mbeki and the majority of the African leaders have in mind is an organisation modelled after the European Union (E.U.). Its professed goals include the fostering of prosperity and democracy through social, economic and regional integration. An important distinction between the A.U. and its predecessor is that the new grouping will theoretically have the right to intervene in the affairs of member-states and investigate cases of war crimes and genocide. In Durban, the A.U. members agreed to create a powerful, 15-member Peace and Security Council, which will intervene to halt instances of genocide and conflict. The OAU had scrupulously avoided interfering in the internal affairs of member-countries and its charter emphasised the concept of consensus in dealing with important issues. This had circumscribed its ability to deal effectively with many problems that plagued the continent in the last four decades.

Protesters outside the Durban Convention Centre on July 8.-OBED ZILWA/AP

At the same time, the OAU had played an important role in sorting out quite a few complicated issues, including border disputes between member-countries. During the days of the Cold War, the OAU coordinated effectively with organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), to thwart the neo-colonialist agenda.

Bidding the OAU farewell, Mbeki said that the organisation had helped bring cohesion to a scarred continent and ensured its liberation from colonialism and apartheid. "The liquidation of the system of colonialism stands out as one of the historic achievements of the OAU, which guarantees the organisation a permanent place of honour in the history of the formation of modern Africa," said the South African President.

The A.U. faces many challenges, though some of the major conflicts in Africa have come to an end. But the war in the Congo is still raging and it involves armies from neighbouring states. The Presidents of Congo and Rwanda did meet on the sidelines in Durban at the urging of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a bid to accelerate the peace process in Central Africa. The main rebel group backed by Rwanda is the only party concerned that has not signed the peace deal with the Congolese government led by President Joseph Kabila. Plans are afoot to instal a government that includes representatives of all the rebel groups. Ending the four-year-old war in the Congo, which involves six other African countries, is one of the major priorities of the A.U.

Thabo Mbeki will be the first chairman of the A.U. In Durban, he exhorted the organisation to "move fast to tackle conflicts", referring to the ongoing bloodletting in Liberia, Burundi, Somalia and the Congo. Mbeki emphasised that the A.U. had the mandate to intervene in countries where security and peace were in danger. The A.U. will have a pan-African parliament, a court of justice, a central bank, an African monetary fund and an investment bank.

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