A major summit begins today in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and runs for a week. It is the 10th anniversary meeting of the African Union (AU), modeled loosely on the European Union concept, with the aim of promoting peace and prosperity on a continent almost continually challenged by conflict and poverty.
The AU has a membership of 54 countries with only Morocco refusing to join due to territorial grievances it holds against other members.
In 2002, the Organization for African Unity (OAU), which was established in the decolonization days of the 1960s, was replaced by the AU and its leaders created NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which they say has shown the "developed world" that Africa can make economic progress.
For instance, The Economist magazine, a respected conservative publication, called Africa "hopeless" in 2002 and enthused in 2012 that "Africa is rising!"
In 2004, a pan-African parliament was inaugurated, which plays more of a discussion and advisory role for the continent. Ultimately, it is planned that other institutions will be set up, despite many challenges, including an African Economic Community with a single currency on the books for 2023.
An all-Africa military force is anticipated that would be able to intervene in conflicts and prevent genocidal or highly destructive situations such as Rwanda in the recent past and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continuously and currently.
AU peacekeepers, more from various countries than from an integrated force, have been deployed so far to Burundi, Somalia and Darfur.
Not everyone is impressed with the African Union. Some critics point out that there is much to do to create democracy in Africa, with the OAU, the Union’s predecessor, once known as a "dictators club."
Many member states felt that the AU did little to confront Col. Muammar Gaddafi and his brutal rule in Libya and then did even less when the war against him was fought.
In fact, as far as arbitrary and brutal rulers are concerned, the current Summit was actually moved to Ethiopia when the intended host country, Malawi, refused to allow Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to attend because he is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Supporters of Bashir called the Malawian move politically motivated theatre and interference in another state’s affairs, but new Malawian President Joyce Banda says that welcoming Mr. Bashir to the summit will risk damaging relations with international aid donors and will be viewed by genocidal perpetrators as a diplomatic coup.
Several African member countries have had the opportunity to arrest Mr. Bashir on behalf of the ICC but have failed to do so.
Other critics feel that China is buying influence among African Union leaders. It is well known that China has invested heavily in the continent in order to import the vast resources it needs. China has now, for instance, built the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa at a cost of more than $200 million.
The main theme of the July 2012 Summit, the 19th that has been held by the AU, is Boosting Intra-African Trade.
Africa faces major challenges to encourage its nation states to act as a unified body, in this case, to follow a "Buy African" campaign.
The big roadblocks include being able to embrace diversity, as there is a long history of poor inter-tribal relations exacerbated by the way that the colonial powers divided up the continent and ruled it in the past.
Another challenge is what we call corruption and lack of democratic governance. This includes dictatorship, embezzlement, non-transparent electoral processes and other practices that enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many. We don’t always realize or want to acknowledge that rich nations backstop dictators and take advantage of corruption and violence in order to prosper from African mineral and agricultural resources.
The practical challenge for the AU is that while its plans are ambitious, its member states are amongst the poorest in the world. In 2011, Wikipedia listed 10 African countries as the poorest in the world: the DRC, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Niger, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Togo.
On top of this are the on-going struggles of dealing with centuries-long issues of poverty, disease and illiteracy, and more recently recognized issues of environmental degradation, gender role and benefit imbalances and climate change.
It is hoped that the infrastructure and programs being set up by the African Union will bring positive change to this situation rather than ultimately being seen as just another bureaucratic construct.
» Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations active in our province.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 9, 2012