REVIEW: Article

The African Union: A False Start or a Good Start?

On July 9 in Durban, South Africa, amid much fanfare and fireworks, forty-three African heads of state ceremoniously pronounced the Organization of African Unity (OAU) dead and heralded the birth of the African Union (AU). Putting aside the historical significance of the moment, the rationale for the change was rather pedestrian. The OAU was founded almost forty years ago to liberate Africa from colonialism and apartheid. Now that Africans have their countries back, the question is how do they make them work. With the founding of the AU, the answer is by extending democracy and free market reform across the continent.

While there is near universal agreement that democracy and free markets are critical to Africa fulfilling its potential, even Africa’s friends wonder whether the African Union is a false start or a good start toward achieving that end. The reason for the concern is as obvious as it is legitimate. With folks at the Summit like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who stole his last election, and Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi, who refuses to hold an election, the question is: How real can this be?

I sat in on some of the closed-door sessions and heard these African leaders discuss, with real candor, the contradictions and challenges before them. Despite the irony of the skullduggery of some of the scoundrels in the room and the discussions about free elections and transparent economies, there was a counter-balancing sentiment that pervaded the deliberations. It was: while the African Union (and what it represents) is clearly not where all of Africa is, the African Union (and what it represents) is what all of Africa must aspire to be. That those gathered in Durban had the presence of mind and sense of history to appreciate that democracy and economic reform is where Africa’s best interests lie is cause for optimism.

However, such optimism will be short-lived if the world (or for that matter Africans) stay riveted on the most difficult cases on the continent. If that is the focus, the work ahead will be more daunting than it has to be. That is to say, if the early tests of the AU’s viability hinges on its ability to immediately resolve the conflicts in Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda and/or convince Mugabe, Moi, and Qaddafi to step aside then it’s over before it starts. On the other hand, if the AU and its allies focus on accelerating the development of countries where real strides are being made—like Botswana, Benin, Cape Verde, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, and Mauritius—then there is a foundation on which to build. If there is support and encouragement for countries with the promise to move toward real democratic rule—like Mozambique, Uganda, and Angola—then there is reason to believe the trend can continue. My point simply put is, if the AU is to have half a chance to succeed, it will be because of the momentum it gets from playing to its strengths rather than concentrating its early efforts on trying to lift the dead weight of its more tragic cases. That is not to say the most onerous cases won’t have to be tackled, the question is does the AU front load the heaviest lifting when they are weakest or wait until they’ve been strengthened by some successes? I believe such a strategy is key to the African Union fulfilling its potential.

At the end of the day, who knows whether the African Union is the “perfect” instrument to shape Africa’s final form. Only time will tell. Maybe its leaders will discover, as ours did in 1789 with the Continental Congress, that it takes more than such a framework to build the future they desire. If that be the case, then I believe the worst history will report is that the African Union was a good start in Africa’s effort to provide hope and opportunity for all of its people.  That commentary would not be a bad end to this beginning.

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Director, African Presidential Archives and Research Center, Boston University;
United States Ambassador to Tanzania, 1998-2001