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How AU Dropped the Ball in North Africa

By the time the guns fall silent and the bodies are counted in the Libya conflict, the African Union could turn out to be one of the biggest casualties.

When the US and its allies started aerial attacks to enforce the UN's "no-fly zone" over Libya on March 19, among the first injuries were to the ego of some of Africa's most powerful men.

The AU High-Level Ad-hoc Committee that was supposed to arrive in Libya the next day to push the pan-African body's search for an end to the crisis, ended up with egg on their faces, when the UN's enforcers refused to allow them to land. The mission flopped.

That must have been tough, because the ad-hoc team comprises proud men who are used to having their way: AU Commission chief Jean Ping, Presidents Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Dennis Sassou Nguesso (Republic of Congo), Mali's Amadou Toumani Toure, South Africa's Jacob Zuma, and Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni.

In Museveni's lengthy article published in Ugandan and Kenyan newspapers last week, it was obvious he was miffed.

"The AU mission could not get to Libya because the Western countries started bombing Libya the day before they were supposed to arrive," he wrote.

That might have been the AU's nadir, but its slide into a player status has been fully on in the past four years.

The result is that there is an "invisible" race by African leaders to fill the vacuum, and corner the market.

In that sense, Museveni's long treatise, which received a lot of regional and international coverage, has actually given him a small leg up on the claim to be "Africa's Protector Against Bullies."

Rwandan President Paul Kagame's strong support for the Libya bombings, born partly out of sensitivity to egregious acts of mass killings that has its roots in the 1994 Rwanda genocide in which nearly one million were killed, also projects him as the "Champion Against Impunity."

Kagame caused the same stir in 2008 during the Kenya post-election violence, when he suggested that the Kenya Army be called out to restore order.

In many African countries that would not raise eyebrows, but because the Kenyan army has a long non-political tradition, there was palpable horror in Nairobi at the idea.

Many problems have combined to undermine the AU, which was established in July 2002 amid much buzz about how the "21st century will be the African century," to replace the Organisation of African Unity.

The OAU had become an ineffectual laughing stock, and not even it took itself seriously.

The New Age pan-African body thus had a good chance to soar to great heights, but it never quite did.

For starters, it has never really become a club of equals. It's a small co-operative in which five of its 53 members -- Libya, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, and Algeria -- cough up over 75 per cent of its budget.

Even a large chunk of the other 20 per cent paid by other countries, was actually Gaddafi's money, that he paid on behalf of several of the struggling members. The majority of AU members are thus freeloaders.

Two events between 2007 and 2008, however, were to prove particularly disastrous.

First, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, after failing to change the Constitution to give himself a third term, left office.

Though plagued by sexual and other scandals, Obasanjo was boisterous, forceful, and imposing. He carried a lot of weight internationally, and was decisive.

When he was president, the West African body Ecowas was very effective.

A former general, he never hesitated to dispatch the massive Nigerian army to put out regional fires and damp down irritating noises in the region.

In Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the Nigerian army was ruthless and got results.

When Obasanjo coughed, West Africa -- and indeed Africa -- tended to sit up and pay attention.

The more even-tempered and calculating President Goodluck Jonathan, has shown himself to be a ditherer, blowing hot and cold on Ivory Coast, and twiddling his thumbs on other regional issues.

If Obasanjo were still president, the Nigerian army would already be in Ivory Coast either making a bad situation worse, or knocking heads together, chasing the usurper president Laurent Gbagbo out of town, and sorting out the political deadlock there.

The second event was the ouster of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa in a party coup in the ruling African National Congress in 2008.

Though he was aloof, arrogant, and flaky, Mbeki had a knife-edged intellect and brought a bookish aura to the presidency that is not too common in Africa today.

Mbeki was the man who conjured up the "21st century will be Africa's century" slogan, and bequeathed us the idea of an "African Renaissance."

He and Obasanjo thus formed a formidable partnership. He would bring the brains, and Obasanjo would bring the brawn to the table.

But there was a third member who completed the group: Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade.

Wade was the tree-shaker of the group, the mad man who said the things no one else dared mouth.

With Obasanjo and Mbeki gone, Wade degenerated and went rogue.

He is building expensive grandiose monuments, wants to hang on in office, and is seeking to build a dynasty.

Then, in a final blow, Egypt's ageing autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted by a popular protest in February after 32 years at the helm.

There has not really been a replacement for Obasanjo and Mbeki.

Some of the continent's longest-ruling leaders like Museveni, who has been in power for 25 years, have seen their currency devalued by corruption at home, constitutional shenanigans that extended their rule, and endless fiddling of elections.

Cameroon's Paul Biya, who has been in power for 29 years, is a lightweight who has been diminished by all manner of excesses, a Victorian-style ostentation, an extravagant wife who wears a bright coloured weave that is bigger than a lion's mane, and extended stays in France that are bankrupting his country.

Another senior leader, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who has clocked 31 years at the helm, is a cerebral character with strong liberation credentials, who has now been driven crazy by the gods.

There is a slew of effective leaders who, though criticised as mixed-democrats, have been quite effective in delivering social and economic change at home.

Among them are Rwanda's Kagame, and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi.

However, they tend to be dry and technocratic in their approach to politics, and loathe Obasanjo-style drama and razzmatazz, which is critical in cultivating charisma -- and newspaper headlines.

And, of course, there was Gaddafi, one of the most eccentric and demented leaders in the worlds.

Without larger-than-life figures to create excitement and serve as a rallying point, lone ranger efforts have become the order of the day.

When no one seemed to know what to do about Somalia, Zenawi sent in his army -- and got such a bloody nose that he withdrew in 2007.

After the AU passed a resolution to send peacekeepers to Somalia, no one walked the talk.

Museveni took the plunge, sending about five battalions to wear the AU green beret in Somalia.

More than a year later Burundi, one of the smallest countries in Africa, which had not yet recovered from a long war, bravely sent in about 3,500 more soldiers to bring the Amisom contingent to 8,000.

Richer countries, with larger armies and bigger treasuries than Uganda and tiny Burundi, are still unable to wrap up their cold feet and contribute.

With Obasanjo and Mbeki out, the AU New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which came with a peer review mechanism by which African leaders would be enabled to govern by world-class standards, floundered.

Without a grand idea, the AU took on Quixotic causes, around which it was impossible to build the idealism that one could with the African Renaissance.

One of its pet objects became opposition to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

When the Hague indicted Sudan's president Omar al Bashir for alleged mass murder in Darfur, the AU voted not to co-operate with the ICC.

When Kenya took its campaign to deferal the trial of the six officials, politicians, and a journalist who have been charged with allegedly being behind the 2008 post-election violence, the AU found itself in a strange position.

Kenya got the support it wanted, but the AU could not even muster a squeak about the situation in two countries that are among the most influential in Africa -- the popular protests in Tunisia that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Even more dramatic, was that the last AU summit took place when the revolts in Egypt were at their height, and Hosni Mubarak's forces were battling protestors in Tahrir Square.

The AU chose that moment to go to the forest -- and it has not come out of it yet.

Mubarak was deposed, almost without a word for -- or against him -- by the AU.

In the moment when events in Africa affected the world only in ways that we last saw in the 1960s in the Independence period, the continent's apex body lost its mojo.

Apart from riveting our attention on the Egyptian revolutionaries themselves, it was left to US President Barack Obama and the Al Jazeera TV network to hog the limelight.

The AU finally threw away the plot on Tunisia and Egypt, and when it sought to re-assert itself, it did not have an uprising as sexy and as dizzying as Tunisia and Egypt's.

It had only Libya's revolution. However, Libya's revolution has become a bloody, divisive, tribal murder fest, without an army of young fresh-faced young men and pretty women in designer glasses, Facebooking and Tweeting the cause.

Roger Iger, the chief executive of Disney, has a saucy quote in Ken Auletta's wonderful book, Google: The End of the World as We Know It.

Regretting the mistake the US broadcast and movie industries made in not taking early advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet, Iger notoriously said, "I feel like we've gotten to the orgy, and all the women have left."

The same might be said of the AU.

Charles Onyango-Obbo


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