African Union: 50 years on

Now leaders want to map out the next 50 years of political and economic integration.

Konjit Sinegiorgis was a young diplomat tasked with distributing documents to the assembled heads of state when the founding congress of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was held in May 1963. Sinegiorgis said the OAU "brilliantly" accomplished its primary task.

"Its primary mandate was to liberate Africa from the shackles of colonialism and apartheid. I think in that regard it has done brilliantly," said Konjit, now Ethiopia's ambassador to the African Union (AU), the successor to the OAU.

The week-long 50-year celebrations culminate on Saturday in the Ethiopian capital where African leaders will be joined by foreign dignitaries including United States Secretary of State John Kerry. African leaders will also consider Agenda 2063, a blueprint they say will bring socio-economic and political transformation to the continent.

Kerry, who recently expressed concerns over China's growing influence in Africa, is expected to be joined by China's President Xi Jinping's special representative, Vice-Premier Wang Yang, at the celebrations in the AU headquarters, a building whose $200-million constriction costs were paid by Beijing.

Standards and norms
The 53-member African Union, which began in 2002, has been trying to emerge as a force for stability on a continent regularly troubled by violence, conflicts and coups.

One key achievement of the OAU and AU "has been to set standards and norms that we are now using at the continental level," said Erastus Mwencha, deputy chair of the AU. "We are now talking of having norms such as a protocol on governance, on elections and so forth."

As the AU strives to make peaceful transfers of power across Africa the norm, it often sanctions coup leaders and suspends membership of states. But it also often fails to mobilise resource to enforce its decisions. The AU is also a long way from its founders' dream of a united Africa. The continent sees a huge disparity in the economic and political conditions of its nations.

South Africa is an economic power, while citizens in countries like Somalia, Sudan, Congo and Chad suffer from warfare and poverty. A coalition of over 120 civil society groups from across Africa and the Middle East on Wednesday issued a warning about conflicts in Sudan. The groups called on the AU to support a bolder approach to peace there.

The future
But the continent also boasts nine of the world's 15 fastest growing economies, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame wrote last weekend in the Wall Street Journal, and the AU head says the continent's future is brighter than its past.

"If you look at the last 10 years, Africa has been growing economically," said AU chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. "There has been quite a lot of development even in terms of infrastructure, not enough yet, but countries have been working hard."

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa says Africa's medium-term growth prospects remain strong, at 4.8% in 2013 and a projected 5.1% in 2014.

"Yet this impressive growth story has not translated into economic diversification, commensurate jobs or faster social development," said the UN in its latest report. "Most African economies still depend heavily on commodity production and exports, with too little value addition and few forward and backward linkages to other sectors of the economy."

Improvements are being seen in education, child and maternal mortality rates, and gender equality. As Africans leaders meet later this week, the 50-year strategic plan is expected to be high on the agenda. Dlamini-Zuma said the decades-long quest for Africa's political and economic integration are to be answered by the blueprint.

Energising and galvanising the people of the continent toward an African Renaissance is the aim of the week's celebrations, Dlamini-Zuma said over the weekend.

As Africa looks to write plans for the future, activists are calling for more efforts to respect its citizens' rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to Kerry to urge him to include the issue of press freedom in his discussions at the AU Summit. – Sapa-AP

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