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By Chris Lyford
Fifty years after its founding, the African Union is still going strong thanks to a stable bureaucracy and constructive dialogue the Union provides its member states. Consisting of 54 African states, the African Union was originally known as the Organization of African Unity, and was founded in May 1963 in Addis Ababa, where its headquarters remains today.
Ethiopia’s stable political and social climate makes it well-suited to host AU operations, evidenced by the fact that the Union’s headquarters has long remained the meeting place for the heads of state from all AU member states.
But in Addis Ababa, the Union seems to be facing an identity crisis as it attempts to promote itself in and outside of the African continent. This has been readily apparent in the reconstruction of the AU’s headquarters by Chinese company China State Construction Engineering Corporation.
Finalized in 2012 after three years of construction, the project’s cost totaled $200 million. The headquarters features 50,000 square meters of conference space, a conference hall with 2,550 seats, two VIP rooms, and many other facilities for visitors and dignitaries.
The move has led some to question whether having a Chinese company manage construction of Africa’s preeminent quasi-political body has been detrimental to African identity. The degree of construction involved has also been called illustrative of a move to modernize Africa’s political organizations at the cost of the country’s cultural history and aesthetics.
At the African Union’s 50th Anniversary Summit Leaders Dinner held in Addis Ababa in late May, visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry applauded the African Union’s progress in modernizing Africa and the country’s collective efforts in eliminating apartheid.
“We have come here because of the efforts of Africans to celebrate the new Africa,” said Kerry, addressing AU leaders. “What an incredible, incredible journey as you take on complex challenges and transform yourselves into one of the most creative, exciting, and promising places on the planet.”
But Western nations, too, have expressed concern about China’s involvement in the construction of the AU headquarters, saying it marks China’s deepening economic incursions into Africa, and that the Union’s principles run contrary to those of China, given Beijing’s failure to demand human rights for its own people.
The African Union has a long history of promoting African identity, making the move to put a Chinese company in charge of the headquarters’ construction even more surprising for many. One of the OAU’s initial primary goals was to eliminate colonial influence in Africa and promote African culture in its place. Promoting this culture remains a major goal of the African Union today.
Other goals, including promoting diplomacy between member countries, defending the sovereignty of member states, ensuring the success and integration of African businesses, and promoting peace and democracy in the African continent have been added as key tenets of the African Union’s philosophy.
When the OAU was first founded, 32 African governments signed on board, including Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Dahomey, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Upper Volta and Zanzibar.
By 1994, an additional 23 nations had joined the Union, including Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, the Gambia, Botswana, Mauritius, Swaziland, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Cape Verde, Comoros, Mozambique, Sao Tome, Principe, Seychelles, Djibouti, Zimbabwe, Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, Namibia, Eritrea and South Africa.
Morocco, listed among the African countries that joined the African Union early on, withdrew from the group in 1984 in protest of the recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the government of Western Sahara. Morocco and the Republic had been in the midst of border disputes.
However, Morocco has a special status in the AU today and benefits from services available to all Union members, including those of the African Development Bank, which promotes the investment of public and private capital in projects likely to develop African economies. Morocco also continues to participate in important AU functions.
Morocco was also part what was known as the Casablanca Group, an organization of progressive African states founded in 1961 that promoted pan-Africanism. The group was comprised of Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Mali and Libya.
This group stood apart from the Monrovia Group, composed of 27 African nations including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, in that it wanted political integration as a prerequisite to economic integration. The Monrovia Group also favored gradual integration of African states as opposed to more rapid change, as was advocated by the Casablanca Group. Eventually, the two groups came together to form the OAU.
More recently, there have been pushes for Morocco’s full readmission to the African Union. A group of intellectuals led by Senegalese filmmaker Cheikh Ngaido Ba released a statement earlier this year that read, “We think abnormal the absence of Morocco in the pan-African institution.”
As of February, the group had begun collecting signatures as a sign of support for Morocco’s readmission. “The signatories of the appeal, including intellectuals and African men and women of culture, are relying on African political leaders to find a way to bring back Morocco,” the statement read, calling it, “a country whose contribution to the emergence of the much-longed for United States of Africa is so valuable to the African Union.”
Many believe Morocco’s readmission to the Union could also greatly contribute to the AU’s anti-terrorism efforts, as the country has specially-trained forces that specialize in shutting down arms and drug trafficking. The country has also developed strategic partnerships with the United States and the European Union that proponents of readmission say could greatly benefit the Union.
The AU has its own peacekeeping force in place, composed of soldiers from Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Burundi. The goal of this force is to ensure the smooth implementation of AU policies, but it has been used infrequently. The last major operations this force participated in were managing the 2003 conflict in Darfur and the 2004 fight against armed Sudanese militias. And by many accounts, the peacekeeping force’s efforts were not especially constructive in either situation.
Princeton Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in 2005 that such peacekeeping missions were “essential.” But he added that with only about 8,000 troops operating during the 2003 conflict, intended to patrol an area the size of France, “the force is having a hard time meeting its commitments now.”
By comparison, the European Union – on which the African Union is based – has almost 98,000 uniformed personnel as part of its peacekeeping task force, including almost 83,000 troops, 13,000 police officers, and 2,000 military observers.
Robert Collins, an Africa specialist and professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego, commented in 2005 that the AU’s peacekeeping force “could be extremely effective if it had adequate resources, good leadership, and discipline.”
But even within three years’ time, there were still claims that the AU’s peacekeeping force was lacking. According to a September 2008 report from the Foreign Military Studies Office, based in Kansas, “numerous obstacles” means “the creation and effective use of a rapid deployment force has proven far more difficult to achieve than the authors of the protocol probably imagined.”
Major Robert Feldman, with the Foreign Military Studies Office, wrote that the variation of languages spoken by AU peacekeeping forces has seriously hindered communication between troops. Any attempt to unify forces under a common language, he said, could disenfranchise nations and lead to internal dissent. Limited resources and firepower have also been detrimental to AU peacekeeping operations, Feldman added.
To be sure, the African Union has made strides in recent years in fine-tuning its leadership and agenda. In March 2012, the peacekeeping force collaborated with the Economic Community of West African States in putting down a coup and rebellions in Mali.
After the coalition’s efforts failed to stop Touareg and Islamist militants in Mali and French forces had to intervene to put down the conflict, reinforced calls were made for the AU to create the African Standby Force, a military body that could be deployed almost immediately by the AU General Assembly in cases of genocide or other serious human rights violations. The AU now plans to have the force operational by 2015.
The 2005 report released by the Foreign Military Studies Office notes that the African Union has a long history of ineffective leadership, inaction, and messy policy implementation. The OAU had become known as “The Dictators’ Club,” states the report, noting that numerous authoritarian heads of state had failed to relinquish power in their individual countries.
“When some of the countries ruthlessly slaughtered thousands of their own people,” reads the report, “the OAU – bloated, bureaucratic, and mindful of its own mandates – did not intervene.”
It is perhaps due to a perceived need to overwrite these past failures that the African Union has ramped up efforts to reconstruct and re-brand the organization. But some of these moves, including the reconstruction of the AU headquarters, are being called overzealous and detrimental to the core values of the African Union, primarily the preservation of African identity.
In a November article for AllAfrica.com, Richard Dowden, author and Director of the Royal African Society, commented on the bustling center of development that Addis Ababa has become, painting a scene undoubtedly visible during the construction of the AU headquarters.
“Everything [is] accompanied by cranes and trucks, noise and dust,” he wrote. “All along its path the traditional one-story homes of mud, wooden planks and rusted corrugated iron roofs are bulldozed into heaps and replaced by six or more stories of concrete and brick.”
A 2013 article by Africa News journalist Addis Fortune wrote that Ethiopian politicians were “struggling to reconstruct a war-torn economy of their nation and bring it to a reasonable level of consolidation.” This shows, Fortune wrote, “utter ignorance towards institutions. Bulldozing older institutions and creating new ones has been the experience in much of the last eight decades.”
As the African Union moves forward, it will be necessary for the organization to more effectively manage its peacekeeping force and oversee the smooth implementation of the African Standby Force. It is also important that the AU not get ahead of itself in trying to compensate for its past shortfalls.
Moves like adjusting peacekeeping forces’ mobility and readmitting Morocco to the African Union seem to be rational steps forward that could prove widely beneficial to the Union’s peacekeeping efforts. This could also promote the integration of African societies by mitigating conflict and necessitating greater communication between member states.
The outcry against the construction of the new African Union headquarters is noteworthy for many reasons, but indicates that the AU, ever the proponent of African culture, needs to better balance the continent’s rich history with its desire to modernize and remain the title character in voicing Africa’s concerns and opinions.
Chris Lyford is The Atlantic Post’s Assistant Director and Editor, based in Washington, D.C.