African Union hobbled by vested interests

Thousands have died in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. (Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

Thousands have died in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. (Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)


In her opening address to women ahead of the 26th African Union summit that takes place in Addis Ababa this weekend, African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told the delegates they must not be scared to “rock the boat” and to raise women’s issues whenever and wherever they can.

“We must not care when they say: ‘There she goes again,” she told the gender pre-summit last week, which has now become a regular feature at the AU with Dlamini-Zuma at the helm. Still, some in the Ethiopian capital do say: “There she goes again.”

Since becoming chairperson Dlamini-Zuma has made sure gender issues are addressed at almost every summit meeting and mentioned in almost every document of the AU.

The theme of this year’s AU summit is “2016: African year of human rights with particular focus on women’s rights”.
Last year the AU’s theme was: “Year of women empowerment and development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”.

Dlamini-Zuma is likely to step down at the AU in July this year, after serving four years as chairperson of its commission, and her legacy at the AU is already the subject of much debate.

Some have criticised her record when it comes to making peace on the continent – one of the core functions of the AU.

In this she has been very different to her predecessors, former Gabonese foreign minister Jean Ping and former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konaré, who were both very visible and active in trying to stop conflicts on the ground.

The current crisis in Burundi, for example, has deteriorated despite Dlamini-Zuma’s strong statements calling for an end to human rights abuses in the country and her efforts to send a new special envoy to the country at the end of last year.

The AU Peace and Security Council on December 17 last year decided to send a 5 000-strong intervention force to Burundi, but the government in Bujumbura has rejected it. Dlamini-Zuma was expected to present a report on Burundi to heads of state that sit on the 15-member council on Friday January 29, on the eve of the meeting of all heads of state the following day.

Under Dlamini-Zuma’s watch a number of other conflicts broke out on the continent and escalated as the AU stood by. Its efforts in South Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have died, have come to naught, largely owing to divisions among the AU’s decision-makers. The AU has also been unable to make any headway in the fight against terrorism. A joint force launched against Boko Haram at the AU summit in January last year is still not fully operational and the AU’s African Mission in Somalia – its biggest operation on the continent – continues to suffer countless attacks by the terror group al-Shabab.

The AU’s peacekeeping efforts have not yielded results in Burundi, which was rocked by deadly protests following the re-election last year of President Pierre Nkurunziza. (Phil Moore, AFP)

Some at the AU also criticise Dlamini-Zuma for not spending enough time in Addis Ababa, for alienating Western donors and for not promoting transparency in the organisation. Others say, however, that in the long run, the promotion of gender issues is likely to be one of her most important contributions to the continental organisation.

Her ambitious Agenda 2063, a blueprint to achieve a prosperous, integrated and peaceful Africa, has also grabbed the imagination and has become the basis for a wide range of plans and programmes in the AU.

But looking back at the fate of similar flagship programmes at the organisation, there is a chance it will fizzle out, despite the AU having spent millions of dollars on conferences and meetings across Africa.

This week, two South African nongovernmental organisations travelled to Addis Ababa to try to revive one of former president Thabo Mbeki’s flagship programmes, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). The costly and ambitious plan to do periodic evaluations of the governance systems of African countries, launched by Mbeki and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo as part of their AU reforms, is now on its last legs.

So far, in the past 13 years, only 17 out of Africa’s 54 states have undergone the evaluation by a panel of experts and the APRM secretariat, based in Midrand, is increasingly cash-strapped. It relies on funding from, among others, the Swiss government, to stay afloat.

‘The APRM is collapsing under its own weight,” said Steven Gruzd, head of the governance and APRM programme at the South African Institute for International Affairs.

Gruzd and fellow campaigners from the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa believe they can still blow some life into the mechanism by convincing the new rotating APRM chairperson, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, to take the peer reviewing seriously and to convince fellow leaders to do the same.

Some look back with nostalgia to the time when Mbeki and Obasanjo could move Africa forward through initiatives such as these. Yet a former government official who had worked in the APRM secretariat says even Mbeki, once the review of South Africa was done, didn’t like where the APRM was heading. South Africa’s review was presented to heads of state in Ghana in 2008. “Mbeki stood up and rejected the contents of the report, denying that a lot of it was happening, like crime and xenophobia,” he said. “That was not in the spirit of the APRM.”

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, pictured with French President Francois Hollande ahead of an October 2014 meeting in Paris, 
has made sure women are on the AU’s agenda. (Alain Jocard, AFP)

South Africa’s second review by the APRM should have already been completed, but it has stalled, just like those of many other African countries.

The main problem, apart from the financing, is that many African governments don’t like the idea of being reviewed on the quality of their own governance. This is why civil society organisations are now trying to relaunch the APRM, says Gruzd.

The fate of the APRM and other AU institutions such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which is also struggling along at the AU, are symptoms of a bigger problem, say AU insiders.

The AU is an extremely difficult organisation to reform because of the many vested interests in the member states of the body that all want their share of appointments and influential positions in Addis Ababa. And the fact that, in all structures of the AU, African countries – no matter how big or small – have to be fairly represented sometimes hampers progress.

At this weekend’s summit, for example, new members of the peace and security council are being elected, based on nominations by Africa’s five regional economic communities. It has taken months for regions to come up with consensus candidates and some ask whether it would not be better to allow for a stronger role for Africa’s major countries – South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Algeria and Egypt – instead of trying to give everyone a chance on a rotational basis.

The issue of regional representation in the top positions of the AU is likely to come up again if Dlamini-Zuma decides to step down and if the Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, the favourite to replace her, gets the job. The question is already being asked: What position can South Africa get in return?

In one harsh criticism of the institution, a South African consultant roped in by Dlamini-Zuma complained that the AU was a “cesspool” and that it is impossible to get new ideas to stick.

Despite Dlamini-Zuma’s efforts to professionalise the AU, notably with a new human-resource strategy, the organisation is still plagued by massive logistical and structural problems.

Last week, for example, the AU finally launched its online documentation and conferencing system thanks to financing from the World Bank – a move that might reduce the huge amounts of paper consumed by AU documents translated in the AU’s official languages.

Dlamini-Zuma has also tried to make the AU financially self-sufficient, notably by getting funding from the private sector, but indications are this might only materialise in the distant future. That is if her successor sticks to the same plan.

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