African Union celebrates 50th anniversary

Many question body’s ability to tackle widespread poverty and inequality

Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn arriving at the African Union headquarters – the challenge today is how to realise “Africa’s socio-economic emancipation”, he said. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn arriving at the African Union headquarters – the challenge today is how to realise “Africa’s socio-economic emancipation”, he said. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

 

Amid the pomp of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the African Union this past weekend there was no escaping an awkward question: how relevant does an organisation forged in the heat of Africa’s independence struggles remain to today’s fast-changing continent?

There were few concrete answers during the ceremonies at the union’s shiny new Chinese-built headquarters in Addis Ababa, but plenty of talk of the old pan-African dream that fuelled the initiative in its early years. Its preoccupations then were with ending apartheid in South Africa and freeing the continent from the yoke of colonialism. The challenge today is how to realise “Africa’s socio-economic emancipation” as Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn put it.

Africa, as its leaders like to say, is on the move. The continent boasts nine of the world’s 15 fastest-growing economies and expects a growth rate of more than 5 per cent next year. But this progress has more to do with the work of regional economic blocs and investment by the likes of China, India and Brazil, than anything the AU has done. For all the rhetoric, the union remains largely unloved, disconnected from the continent’s citizenry – particularly the more than 60 per cent of Africans below the age of 35 – and derided by critics as a talking shop lacking direction and purpose.


Dictators’ club
In 2002, the AU replaced the Organisation of African Unity, which had, since its establishment in 1963, earned a reputation as something of a crusty old dictators’ club. Since then the AU has managed to shrug off some of that image. In 2007, it adopted a charter which aims to “reinforce commitments to democracy, development and peace in Africa”. While the charter itself is laudable, critics say its implementation, like many other AU initiatives, has been half-hearted.

This may change with the AU’s energetic new chairwoman, South Africa’s Nkhosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The first woman to head the union, she has promised an agenda focused on improved integration, economic development and governance that would recapture the faded dream of pan-Africanism. Observers consider the exclusion from the AU’s latest summit of Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau – in protest at political wrangling in each country – a step in the right direction.

In recent years, the AU’s role in security initiatives, such as peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Darfur, has bolstered its reputation, though the organisation has proved hamstrung in dealing with crises in several other countries including Congo, Mali and the Ivory Coast.

The 2011 revolution in Libya proved disastrous for the African Union. Divisions over how to address the uprising against Muammar Gadafy damaged the AU’s credibility on the international stage. His death meant the loss of a major source of funding. The AU’s financing comes from a variety of sources, including international donors. Since 2009, Ireland has given €2.3 million to support its agriculture development programme.

As the African Union reflects on a half-century of efforts to increase political and economic co-operation across the continent, many question its ability to tackle deep-rooted problems including widespread poverty and inequality.

Others say that while the AU is flawed, it is better than nothing. As Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o put it recently: “It is better to have a skeleton of a union than no union at all. The skeleton brings memories of a breath of life, but also dreams of a resurrection . . . Despite its failures and weaknesses, the AU keeps the dream alive.”