Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Back to the drawing board for the African Union

By William Gumede. Source: The Sunday Times (South Africa)

There cannot be any clearer illustration of the inability of Africa's continental and regional institutions to find local solutions to the continent's problems than their inaction in the face of the wave of popular rebellions against dictators in North Africa.

The current leaders of regional and continental institutions are too discredited, the institutions too toothless and the rules for membership too lenient for them to be effective. The solution is to radically overhaul regional institutions - or close them down.

In order to reverse this dispiriting situation, African countries will have to bring new energy, ideas and leaders to make regional and continental institutions work. Furthermore, we need new objectives and new concepts and even new words that are appropriate for our times.

The wave of rebellions against dictators that started in North Africa, the global financial crisis, and the rise of emerging countries such as China, Brazil and India, which is likely to remake the world, offers a critical juncture for African countries to change outdated institutions.

If we do not, the rupture that the global financial crisis is causing to nations may actually make the continent poorer.

Africa's future prosperity still lies in individual countries pooling their markets, development efforts and attempts to seriously build democracy. Yet the idea of pan-Africanism in which all African countries will join into a happy family is simply silly.

The basis of a revamped African Union (AU) must start with a small group of countries that can pass a double "stress test" based on quality of a democracy and the prudence of their economic governance.

Because membership of the AU is largely voluntary, countries such as Zimbabwe may still be members even if their governments have appalling human rights records, and spectacularly mismanage their countries' economics and politics.

A revamped AU should be based on a three-track system. The first track would consist of a core group of countries that meet the minimum democratic and economic governance criteria. A second track would be those which did not make the cut in democratic and economic management terms, but which are serious about pursuing the new objectives of the AU. The second track countries should be assessed on an annual basis to see whether they are ready to enter the first track. The rest, the third group, would be the assortment of dictatorships - which should be shunned until they improve.

Stricter rules will mean that the AU will start off initially as a small club of countries. Perhaps only South Africa, Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde, Namibia - and then only if the criteria are in some cases flexibly applied.

These top-tier African countries could be the core of the first African-wide set of industrial policies and a long-term economic development strategy to lift African countries up the industrial value chain.

Countries which adhere to these criteria could be rewarded with new investments, development projects and support. Special Africa investment funds could be set up, for example pooling the proceeds from commodities, to finance social and physical infrastructure across the continent. Proceeds from such funds would be distributed on the basis of the willingness of nations to reform.

The fund could be used for targeted development in underdeveloped areas of the countries that make the criteria.

Those countries scoring badly - and showing no willingness to reform - should be sidelined until they shape up.

The sub-regional African institutions, SADC, Comesa and EAC (East Africa Community) should all be collapsed to make way for a revamped continent-wide common market and free trade area.

The difficulties that industrial nations now experience because of the global financial crisis means they are likely to become more protectionist, rather than less.

African countries will just have to trade smarter within, and with new trading partners among emerging markets.

Africa's manufactures and services may be uncompetitive in relation to industrial nations, but can be traded with other African countries.

Continental and regional institutions' peace and security policies still have their focus on state security rather than human security. This wrong-headed principle is at the heart of African peers shielding despots such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe from criticism, rather than coming to the aid of desperate citizens. African leaders always side with fellow African leaders when they are criticised by the West, no matter the merits of the criticisms.

African solidarity must not be based on leaders or on false unity, but on values such as democracy, social justice, clean government, ethnic inclusiveness and peace.

The AU's charter will have to be changed from protecting the sovereignty of individual countries to protecting the security of ordinary Africans. The principle of non-interference in the affairs of neighbours still partially informs the AU's reluctance to intervene forcefully in misgoverned nations.

A new AU must sponsor transparent procedures to impeach leaders who turn into tyrants, so that we do not again have the likes of Mugabe.

Political parties in AU member countries getting state funding should adhere to minimum internal democratic rules - to prevent one-man parties and tribal parties.

Post-independence pan-Africanism failed to build a sense of ownership among African citizens of African integration projects because they were always top-down, leadership focused, exclusive and non-participative rather than bottom-up, citizen driven, inclusive and participative.

This must change: ordinary citizens must be given a real say in the decisions that will ultimately impact on their lives.