The African Union is supposed to be the pinnacle of governance in Africa. If so, this continent is in deep trouble.
Over the past two weeks, the Mail & Guardian has published investigations into two of the continental body’s core institutions: the African Union Commission, which functions as the AU’s secretariat; and the Pan-African Parliament, supposedly the highest legislative body in Africa.
Both investigations focused on accusations of sexual harassment made by female staffers against senior male officials. In both cases, internal investigations found that there was merit to these accusations, but no further action was taken, leaving the officials secure in their positions and free to further exploit the women who report to them. In both cases, the sexual harassment allegations were linked to other offences, including nepotism, corruption and bullying, suggesting that the AU’s working culture has become deeply toxic — and that there are no repercussions for the leaders alleged to have made it so.
There is a word for this: impunity. It seems that Africa’s most powerful diplomats and legislators are free from consequences. Is it any surprise that these same institutions are unable to rein in corruption, conflict and abuses of power more broadly? How can the AU be expected to keep the continent in order when it cannot keep its own house in order?
There is, however, some cause for optimism. The only reason that we know about the abuses taking place is because of whistle-blowers who have risked their livelihoods, and because of witnesses who have testified against some of Africa’s most powerful men before international panels of inquiry. The strike this month by the staff of the Pan-African Parliament is an unprecedented public display of solidarity with victims of abuse.
In the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, and in offices across the continent, there are plenty of brilliant, hardworking people who have dedicated their lives to improving Africa’s fortunes. If there is any hope of the AU remaining relevant, the continental body must harness their spirit, and not the malign energy of compromised leaders who are only in it for themselves.
Because of how the AU is structured, the only way to implement this change is through member states and, ultimately, the African heads of state that make up the body’s highest decision-making body. This Saturday, May 25, is Africa Day, when the continent remembers its great leaders: Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela. For any current president wishing to join the pantheon, this issue would be a good place to start.