Where is the voice of the African Union?

As the world discusses the protests and battles sweeping North Africa — most recently in Libya — where is the African Union (AU)? Numerous multilateral bodies have called for respect for human rights and an end to state-sponsored violence, including the European
Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations.

In discussing the situation in Libya, US president Barack Obama did include the AU in a list of partners for finding a solution. But, by and large, the voice of the AU has been faint and largely ignored by the international media.

Surely the AU should have been among the first international organisations consulted as internal conflict engulfed AU member states in North Africa. Why wasn’t it? If such conflicts were taking place in Europe, surely the EU would be central to a resolution.

One problem the AU faces, along with many African nations, is that it is not financially independent. It must seek funds from the EU, the US and others, including some of the wealthier member states despite their records on undemocratic governance and human rights violations. Libya, for example, is said to provide at least 15 per cent of the AU’s overall budget. In 2009, Libya’s now-embattled leader, Muammar Gadhafi, was elected to a one-year term as chairperson of the AU.

Dependency

This dependency hampers the organisation’s effectiveness in many ways. It constrains its ability to have an independent voice and could account for the AU’s relative silence on the situation in Libya, despite the threat of another protracted civil war in Africa.

Even when the AU has offered support to member states — as during the violence that followed the 2007 elections in Kenya — it couldn’t provide the financial resources that might help bring about peace; that had to be left to other countries.

Another problem is that the AU has neither an army nor a peacekeeping force, so it cannot intervene militarily to protect citizens. It also has relatively little influence on national armies.

The US could apply pressure on former president Hosni Mubarak and Egypt’s army by threatening to cut off the $2 billion in aid it provided. The AU has no such leverage over recalcitrant leaders. It can only use persuasion, which can easily be disregarded, as demonstrated by the stalemate and increasing violence in Ivory Coast following disputed presidential elections in 2010.

On February 23, Jean Ping of Gabon, the chairperson of the AU commission, did express ‘great concern’ about Libya, condemning the “disproportionate use of force against civilians” and the number of lives lost. He reinforced the AU peace and security council’s call for an immediate end to repression and violence.

In the eyes of many observers, however, the AU statements came too late and were largely overlooked. No doubt the AU is still working behind the scenes, and the chairman, president, and relevant committees are in communication with leaders in North Africa, as well as the international community. But, unfortunately, the AU’s voice is largely ignored in the world at large and within affected countries.

At the same time, many Africans, both in the north and south, hope that the AU will serve as a beacon against which every African state measures itself. But such hopes have foundered: many AU members remain below the standards that most of their citizens expect, and the AU cannot demand greater democracy than a critical mass of its members are willing to practice.

The AU has set benchmarks that would require the expulsion of members that don’t meet them, such as expanding democratic space and respecting human rights; pursuing equitable and sustainable human development; and combating poverty. Members of the AU are also required to practice good, transparent governance and root out corruption. But many of these principles have been ignored by member states.

It is clear that the changes the peoples of North Africa are demanding won’t be realised overnight, and they will have to accept that real change is slow. It will take time to build the institutions that provide checks and balances on executive power, including independent parliaments, judiciaries, armies, and police. these are often the first casualties of poor governance.

Many Africans, in both north and south, have for years moved in darkness, fear, and desperation. The AU could be the lighthouse that vanquishes this darkness — and a leading, credible international voice and presence, too. But enough of its members have to want to be this beacon, in action and not only words.

There is going to be change throughout Africa. Whether the AU and its member states can lead it, or will simply follow their citizenry, is the challenge.

(The writer is the 2004 Nobel peace laureate)

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