/ 12 August 2008

A Ping for peace

The Mail & Guardian‘s correspondent in Addis-Abbaba, Tom Minney, interviewed the new chair of the African Union Commission, former Gabonese foreign minister and deputy prime minister Jean Ping, about the challenges that lie ahead for the AU.

Can the AU change life for Africans?
The AU has a noble goal, mission or vision to make our continent a continent like the others, which means it has to be a shelter from fear and a shelter from need. The African people are like any other, they want to live free from fear of war, fear of violence, fear of injustice, fear of dictatorship, fear of sickness and all types of threats. Everybody wants that. We are confronted with all these problems and we want our continent to become like the others, free of them.

If this is the vision, what can the AU do?
We have to fight against the violence, the war, the crimes, the genocide. We have established an architecture for peace and security. As an architecture, it is probably one of the best in the world. Unfortunately we have a problem of financial constraints: we don’t have aeroplanes, helicopters, the means to protect and transport the troops, to feed them — all these are missing.

The United Nations said that in 1996 Africa was confronted with 14 wars on the continent. You remember, we had at that time the war in the Congo, 10 countries were fighting there and it was called the ”first African world war”. We had the longest fight in Angola — 40 years of fighting. We had genocide in Rwanda, we had the war and atrocities in Sierra Leone and Liberia, we had terrorism in Algeria (where 100 000 were killed), even in Egypt we had terrorists. Somalia disappeared as a state — 18 years as the only country in the world without a state. In addition there were some other conflicts which were not mentioned because no one paid any attention to them.

Today, in 2008, we have stopped almost all these wars through the efforts of Africans themselves first, assisted by others. We are left with only two persistent wars: Sudan and Somalia. The fighting between Eritrea and Djibouti lasted only 10 days, and open fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea is in the past. All the other wars have stopped.

In Darfur we started intervening by ourselves and then we had the help of the UN and we have what is called ”the hybrid force”. They say this will be the largest peacekeeping effort of the UN — it was scheduled to have 26 000 force members. Currently we have less than 10 000 and 97% of these troops are Africans. We are there. We are waiting for the resources which were promised by the developed countries, but they have not arrived yet and the deployment of Unamid (United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur) is handicapped. But we did a lot to bring peace and security, in spite of the fact that we have no means, no planes, no airports, no money to equip them properly, et cetera. Remember that we recently intervened militarily in Comoros, successfully. We have done a lot of things despite the lack of means.

For the second point, people want to live sheltered from need. For this we need a lot of improvements, but it is also not easy. The continent has been marginalised, poverty is increasing. All the indicators concerning poverty, development, HIV, malaria and these social issues show their prevalence in Africa, so we have to confront them. We need a lot of improvements. As we put together a good architecture for peace and security, we need to improve an architecture on development issues.

For instance, we have to build roads. The plans for building African roads have been in existence for 30 years, they are kept in the drawer. The plans for the roads from Lagos to Mombasa and Dakar to Djibouti are there, and I’m sure that they are feasible. I talked to the World Bank, to the African Development Bank and our other partners, all of them are ready. I met World Bank president Robert Zoellick at the G-8 and he said they are ready to move. They asked us to pick two projects to implement from a shortlist of four major projects selected as priorities by national governments.

Is there any improvement in the way Africa does politics?
We also have a third pillar, which we call ”shared values”, which means the process of democratisation, of elections, the process of rule of law, human rights— All these are shared values which have been adopted by our governments and are in our charter, the African Union Constitutive Act. We have accepted them and we should implement them, these are our values. We tell people: ”You have accepted these values, but you are not doing it.” If there is a coup, we say: ”You should get into power only by legal means, by constitutional means.” We immediately condemn it. Sometimes we exclude a country — that’s a way of dealing with these shared values. We are doing it, in spite of what people are saying.

Do you see progress?
We have a tool for implementing this — it’s the African Union. We should improve the tool, the management of financial and human resources. We should build the capacity of the African Union to deal with all these issues. We should also convince the staff that they should move from reflection to action. There will be resistance everywhere — they are used to meetings and committees. I hope that before my departure we will triumph by bringing our tool, the African Union, into action.

Moving back to politics, what is the AU’s intervention with regard to Zimbabwe?
We consider that if a problem can be solved nationally, there is no need for us to intervene. If they can’t do it within the nation, but regionally they can do it, we think that the region should be involved. All regions now have the same architecture, they have a peace and security organ and an electoral organ. The region should be concerned in trying to solve the problem.

Which doesn’t mean the African Union is not there — we watch. And if it is not solved properly and there is a need for the AU to intervene, then we can intervene. It is not rigid, we can do both at the same time, the AU can be there at the same time with the regional organisation.

In Zimbabwe’s case, since the beginning, it was decided that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will be the main regional organisation concerned. In the region they decided to give the mediation to South Africa, to President Thabo Mbeki. The problem is now not only a SADC problem, it’s an African problem, where the AU is deeply concerned. If we don’t succeed, it will go to the UN and the Security Council, and the whole world will intervene — you see the sequence. So we want to succeed ourselves, we want to solve the problem in Zimbabwe ourselves, like we did in Kenya. We want also to solve this problem peacefully, by negotiation, but by ourselves, and to avoid the risk of insecurity internally and in the region. Some people say there should be sanctions, but you have to have a plan and we thought, rightly or wrongly, that negotiations offer the best plan for a peaceful solution. We are not against sanctions as a principle to help you to move in the right direction. But sanctions should not be an automatic reflex, but a science, thinking about the consequences — not just to punish.

Is the AU satisfied with progress?
We started with negotiations. We might fail, but let us try first. We asked people to help us succeed. Negotiations have taken long but the crucial issues such as sharing of power are on the agenda — it’s a very difficult issue but at least it’s under discussion. The external pressures also complicated the issue. We still have a big chance to succeed in spite of the problems, in spite of the difficulties around the meaning of ”sharing power”, if both parties want to move.Compromise means that only some components are acceptable or satisfactory to each party, neither party can get their way.

I am still confident. They are making progress, they have signed an agreement containing an agenda for talks that includes the hardest issues. They have started the talks on the key issues. They are moving.

Does the AU support the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudan’s president, His Excellency Omar el-Bashir?
We support the principle of fighting impunity, there is no problem of principle. But we do have some problems. The first is the appropriate time. We have our troops there, with the UN, trying to extinguish the fire. Our people are being killed. And you choose that time to prosecute el-Bashir, the consequences might be the targeting of our troops. Families and non-essential elements have been evacuated. The situation could become worse. We are questioning the issue of time — the war started in 2003, and while we now have this hybrid force in place and have appointed the joint negotiators, you bring this action.

Secondly there could sometimes be an abuse of principle. The term used by them is ”genocide”. Genocide means that you had to plan to eradicate or eliminate a certain number of people. If you talk war crimes or crimes against humanity… but genocide? Do they have proof? A commission was sent by the UN in 2005 to investigate the matter and the conclusion was that it was not genocide, it’s a crime, but it’s not genocide. We are questioning whether you have sufficient proof, can you show that it’s more than war crimes, crimes against humanity, that it’s genocide? The third problem is why is the ICC only for Africans? Would it ever decide to move against one of the superpowers, for instance?

We have been obliged to ask the Security Council to suspend this for a year, because of what could happen to our troops. I quote somebody else who said that it’s good and absolutely compulsory to punish people, but between peace and justice you will choose peace. Between the right of the dead and the right of the living, you will choose the living.

How would you hope to judge your term at the AU?
Our stakeholders, the member states, will judge me and my term, on the way we implement this — although 53 countries will probably mean 53 opinions on different issues. When I will leave the organisation I will look to see whether I brought my stone to the building, because my predecessor did that. I have to continue the building, and my successor will also continue.