Charter will test Africa's commitment
When the African Union (AU) meets this weekend in Addis Ababa for its 18th summit, most member states will be preoccupied with the contest for the next AU commission chairperson.
The incumbent, Jean Ping, faces a challenge from the widely respected South African minister of home affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance will also be coming into force, after Cameroon became the 15th country to submit itself for ratification on January 16.
But not all the continent’s countries will be cheering. The charter is one of the most progressive legal instruments adopted by the AU. It promotes and protects the rule of law, democratic principles of governance, regular free-and-fair elections and human rights. As some of the fundamental tenets of an open and democratic society, it recognises gender equality, multiparty pluralism, the independence of the judiciary, access to information, freedom of the press citizen participation. It condemns and rejects corruption.
Almost every phrase associated with democracy and good governance is contained somewhere in the charter. Perhaps its one weakness is that it tries too hard to be everything to all people.
One of the most contentious articles relates to unconstitutional changes of government. At the drafting stage there was debate about whether to include attempts to remove an elected government through unconstitutional means.
Sadly, the continent still has examples of elections that have not met universally accepted free-and-fair standards, military coups and refusals by incumbent leaders to relinquish power after an opposition party or candidate has won an election.
Africans keeping a close eye on the AU
With the charter coming into force, Africans will be watching the AU even more closely to see whether its members abide by its provisions and meet their collective responsibility to address unconstitutional changes of government effectively.
The charter could also help to entrench democratic practices that should become part of the way governments do their everyday business. But, like all international instruments, it will require political will from government leaderships for its effective implementation. A positive first step would to be for the 14 countries that have not yet signed the charter to do so.
The Southern African Development Community should encourage its members—Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Swaziland and Zimbabwe—to put their signatures to it to signal their intentions to be part of the continental community that values and respects government accountability and transparency.
Other notable absentees from the list of signatories are the North African member states—Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. With the exception of Algeria, they have provided the world with cogent examples of what can be achieved when the people of a country have had enough of one-party rule with minimal checks and balances on executive power. The new regimes in these countries need to demonstrate their commitment to the African community of nations and to a new, more democratic way of governing.
The charter has the potential to unite the continent and to counter the oft-heard refrain that there is seldom consensus in the AU. If the charter can provide just some degree of unity among member states, it will go a long way in countering this kind of criticism.
Africa’s governments have the opportunity to commit themselves to democracy, elections and good governance—ideals that most of their citizens have long held dear. So it is hoped that this opportunity will be embraced and that its positive consequences will be recognised as outweighing the narrow sectoral or party political interests that are seldom for the good of the nation or the continent.
Pansy Tlakula is a commissioner of the African Union Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the chairperson of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission. She is writing in her personal capacity