Africa, Politics

Analysis: African Union smothers democracy in the crib

Analysis: African Union smothers democracy in the crib

When people look back in the future, the blood of democracy will not only be spattered on the faces of Africa’s dictators and autocrats, but also across the pages of African Union records. And the world will remember how South Africa had a chance to exercise its influence for good, but chose not to do so. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

After the annual AU summit held over the weekend in Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was announced as its chair and, to the disbelief of the world, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was named as co-mediator in the Côte d’Ivoire. The chasm between the African Union’s purported support for democratic principles and its support for undemocratic leadership is becoming positively Brobdingnagian. But it is in this gap that we must look if we want to understand where the power and might (and any glory) lies in the AU – and what that will mean for the continent in the long run.

By the AU’s own standards, choosing Obiang Nguema as its chair is not contradictory or strange at all. Almost all states on the continent have membership status, whether internationally recognised as rogue or not. Despite Equatorial Guinea’s record as the one of the worst human-rights abusers in the world (as documented most recently in James Brabazon’s work “My Friend the Mercenary”), its president now sits as the chair of the continent’s highest international body. The same man who rose to power by judiciously applying a few bullets into the head of the then-president (and his uncle) Francisco Macías Nguema.

Perhaps more astonishing, even by the AU’s own standards, is the reported inclusion of Mugabe in its high-level panel  set up by the AU’s peace and security council to mediate in the Côte d’Ivoire’s election crisis between Laurent Gbagbo and Alasanne Outtara. Another panel was announced on Monday, comprising the heads of state of Mauritania, Chad, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Tanzania, which would travel to Côte d’Ivoire at a future date, and then make recommendations which both sides would have to accept.

It doesn’t strike us as crystal clear who exactly is supposed to mediate in Côte d’Ivoire. The head of the AU commission Jean Ping said the mediation panel (the one with Mugabe) would “help” Outtara exercise power in a “negotiated deal”. That is not the first time we’ve heard that choice of phrase used. It is looking increasingly like the solution in Côte d’Ivoire will mirror “solutions” we’ve seen in places like Zimbabwe and Kenya. If you want us to predict, the AU is going to ratify Gbagbo’s bid for power by pushing for a power-sharing deal.

This cannot have gone down well with the Economic Community of West African States, who came out strongly for Outtara, along with the UN, US and EU after the elections. The AU’s involvement in Côte d’Ivoire stands in direct contrast to the way the Madagascar coup was handled in 2009, where the Southern African Developmental Community was given the authority by the AU to deal with the crisis without interference from Ecowas or anyone else. In Côte d’Ivoire, every man and his dog wants to have a say, especially those who disagree with Ecowas. South Africa’s role in backing Gbagbo’s claims of voter irregularity, the one that won out at the AU summit is certain to antagonise Ecowas even further. It is tragic that this ever-increasing pissing contest between South Africa and Nigeria over who has the most influence on the dark continent is being fought over the future of an entire country.

In the best of Mbekian tradition, the African Union was not founded on the principle of making sure that every leader in its body is democratically elected, or even runs his country according to recognised democratic norms. The inclusion of countries like Libya, Sudan, Angola, The Gambia, Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe (to name but a few) is evidence enough. In fact, the gerontocrats are the most influential and powerful bloc within the AU, ensuring that only the results which affirm their own positions of power are ever ratified by the AU. Other countries can do nothing about this as long as the AU remains a “consensus body”. And at the AU, consensus trumps democracy and other fundamental freedoms: Would Muammar Gaddafi or Robert Mugabe ever side with the opposition party against a long-term strong-arm ruler in a hotly contested election? Yeah, right.

Sub-Saharan Africa spent the last 15 years making significant strides towards greater freedom and more poverty alleviation. The rise of then young, dynamic leaders like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame was heralded as the end of the era of Africa’s Big Men. The trend is decidedly swinging back towards the Big Men now, with the old guard being handed political victories everywhere it fights.

Ironically, this trend is manifesting itself just as North Africa is experiencing a sudden surge of revolutionary zeal in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt as people take to the streets to protest against the dictators who have ruled these countries for decades. As concessions are made in the North, will we see a reversal to the post-colonial period of repression against political opposition, media freedom and economic activity in the rest of the continent?

It is doubtful, in the short term, at least.

But what is truly bewildering is that South Africa so reliably goes along with countries that are consistently riding roughshod over their own people’s basic rights, rather than sticking to principles it officially expounds. Yes, some of them were helpful towards the ANC when times were tough. But it was many, many years ago and the world has changed. No amount of favour long ago can justify punishing millions of innocent people today. It genuinely defies belief.

When one day the history of an organisation as wretched as the African Union is written, the January 2011 meeting will have a black mark next to it. It will be seen as the moment when even the pretence to spread democracy was abandoned and the naked power-greed prevailed. Historians will see that weekend as the one that rendered many of the 17 African elections that year a joke. And that South Africa, the country that prides itself in having the most advanced constitution in the world, was at the very centre of it. DM

Read more: Mail and Guardian.

Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe attends the 16th African Union summit in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2011. Africa and the international community must stand firm against efforts by Ivory Coast’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo to cling onto power, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the summit. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya


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