On 25 May 2013, the Africa Union (AU) will be 50 years old and like some of my contemporaries I am filled with questions about the role of the AU in modern Africa.
The AU as we understand it today evolved from an original idea by Kwame Nkrumah who was troubled by neocolonialism. One of the things that troubled Nkrumah was to do with the annexing of 18 mostly Francophone African countries (the so-called associated countries) by the then European Economic Community (EEC). Nkrumah argued that Europe had annexed African countries to continue its colonial tendencies, be it subtly.
He explained that: “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state, which is subject to it, is in theory independent and has all the outward trappings of the international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (cited in Shaw T, 1982).
Some of this criticism also had to do with the then top down political/administrative system introduced by Europeans. This system ensured that transnational companies are able to deal directly with political elites in Africa. What is of interest here is that this system was retained by African political elites who saw away of using it to their advantage when they could have changed it to benefit all citizens. Today, this manifests in the incredible wealth held by the political elite.
Nkrumah called on Africa to unite and argued that a united Africa would have the capacity to fight off the colonial masters. It was on the back of this that Pan-Africanists that included Kenyatta and Nkrumah birthed the Organisation of African Unity.
Fast forward to 2001, African leaders, meeting in Sirte in Libya, recognised the failures of the OAU and decided to “rebrand” the organisation to become the AU.
Was this change necessary? This is a matter of opinion but we can agree that some of the reasons cited then are still present on the continent today. The governance issues that beleaguered the continent then are for instance still with us today but perhaps in different forms, we still have coups such as the one in the Central African Republic that unfolded before our eyes recently, African states such as DR Congo and Mali are mired in conflict and rely on external intervention to keep the peace. Moreover some of this external assistance is not necessarily from within Africa.
The irony of the new AU is that Gaddafi who is partly credited with this change of direction and perhaps its biggest proponent did not benefit from the AU’s collective voice when the international community stepped in to remove him from power. Gaddafi was very keen on the inclusion of the African Diaspora in the affairs of the AU and I had the opportunity to attend his Historical conference on this matter.
At that conference he argued that African leaders should do more to ensure that Africans in Europe are treated fairly and equitably. What Gaddafi meant by this is that African leaders should lobby European governments directly about the condition of Africans in Europe. To date, I am unclear if the AU appreciates the economic value of the diaspora or how to channel the enormous skill set amongst the diaspora to initiatives that can benefit Africa’s development.
Economically, Africa has largely remained a source of raw materials for the rest of the world and continues to rely on aid to balance internal budgets. With respect to Europe the aid programmes from the European Union are formalised through conventions and joint institutions namely Yaoundé Conventions I and II 1963- 1969, Lomé Conventions 1975-1999 and Cotonou Agreement 2000-2020.
The AU is largely funded by western powers and even its headquarters have been provided by a foreign power.
What would Nkrumah make of this and would he recognise the AU today? What would he make of the fact the AU has not fought back with respect to the ICC?
The AU’s successes are not easy to recognise from the point of view of a citizen, for a number of reasons some of which are to do with the disconnect between the AU and African citizens.
A cynic would argue that, this should not come as a surprise. Most African leaders are generally not accessible in the same way that we that live in Europe are used to accessing our MPs for instance. As such, having expectations of citizen involvement in AU affairs might be far fetched.
The most visible change today is that a woman, Ms Zuma heads the AU. This is a huge milestone.
So what next for the AU? Is the AU relevant to you? What would you like the AU to do for you as an African?
Join the conversation on Twitter, 25 May 2013 at 2pm GMT using hashtags #AfricaAt50 #AOTB