Although the theme of the just concluded The Eighth Ordinary Session of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa was ‘Science and Technology in Africa’, it is the political, peace and security issues that dominated media attention. This is not unexpected because the summit is the most important political and diplomatic forum for Africa. Since the AU was launched, there have been concerted efforts on the part of Africa’s leaders to make it relevant despite many criticisms and doubts by both Africans and outsiders.
One indication of this is the large number of leaders who attend these summits and the increasing openness on the most controversial issues. More formal and informal spaces for engagement have been opened by both African and international stakeholders such as NGOs/CSOs, the business sector and think tanks among others. Gone are the days when the Summit used to be dominated by largely ’special invited guests’ chosen on the whims and caprices of the bureaucrats of the Union, who were generally more disposed to welcoming all kinds of foreigners but fearful of ‘trouble makers’ from Africa!
Almost anybody who wants to engage with the AU has some access and opportunity to do so. That still far less of our NGOs and CSOs engage is both a reflection of residual cynicism and the donor-driven agendas to which they are captive. On the other hand, the lack of engagement by broader social movements and popular forces is due to a continuing perception that the AU is essentially a leaders’ forum, and since many of them have gripes against their national leaders, they are suspicious of their Pan-Africanist credentials. That cynicism, whether by CSOs/NGOs or by our social movements, is tantamount to behaving like the proverbial ostrich.
There are many windows for engagement which can only become gates of opportunities if used by Africans to expand the frontiers of democratic governance and the accountability of our institutions. They will not change of their own accord, but as a result of constructive dialogue, sometimes confrontational approaches, but remaining engaged all the same. Often, outsiders are quick to grasp the opportunities and significance of our institutions than we; too consumed by our own alienation from our governments. For instance, could it be by accident that all major NGOs have representation in Addis Ababa, monitoring, engaging and lobbying the AU on all kinds of issues? They appoint Africans to represent them but mostly carry out the self-given mandate of their organizations and interests. Sometimes they may coincide with ours but often they do not in a most fundamental sense. Our misery is their career.
The political landscape in Africa is changing and generally for the better even if the challenges of democratization and development continue in many countries. It is work in progress that should make us focus on the larger pictures and trends instead of the ‘problems’ no matter how overwhelming they may seem. Would it have been possible in the old OAU for Sudan to have been rejected twice in succession to assume the chairmanship of the organization? It would have been argued that what is happening in Darfur is an ‘internal affair’ on which Sudan’s ’sovereignty and territorial integrity’ could not be questioned. But those arguments do not hold sway anymore. We may not have collective sovereignty in place but it is no longer a case of ‘leave my victims to me and I will leave yours to you’.
We have moved from non-interference to non-indifference. What happens in all African countries is the legitimate concern of other African states. A new sense of shame has arrived where bad conduct by leaders and states are frowned at, and public opportunities for rebuke are used instead of the old ‘diplomatic hush-hush’.
In the past, Sudan would have threatened to leave, but today it remains despite the snub. It means it judges its interest better served remaining than leaving. The isolation of Sudan on Darfur also shows how civil society activism, in dialogue with progressive African governments, Union bureaucrats and other concerned Africans, can yield positive results.
It is not the noise of the US or Britain or their NGOs (who are the ones that the BBC and CNN regularly quote) that has made it impossible for Sudan to become Chair of the AU, rather it is the consensus among Africans that a country like Sudan that is so flagrantly and massively abusing the rights of its own people, orchestrating their mass death, is just not one to speak of in our name. Pressures were not only being exerted by the West. There have been serious pressures, cajolery, all kinds of carrots and inducements from Sudan, its allies in the Arab League (which announced its contribution for Peace-Keeping in Darfur only a few days before the Summit) and filial support from some North African countries. But the AU still said: No to Al Bashir.
By saying that, we are saying: No to genocide in Darfur. Even the reluctance by many states to contribute troops to Somalia is not a weakness but a statement that Africa will no longer act as proxies for the US or any other foreign interests. Ethiopia might wish to be the Americans’ Trojan Horse but the rest of Africa is not so eager.
By Dr. Tajudeen Abdul
Deputy Director, Africa, for the UN Millennium Campaign based in Nairobi Kenya. He writes this weekly column in his personal capacity as a Pan Africanist and a Director of the London-Based Justice Africa
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