Yoweri Museveni in 1986 is known to have called the then Organisation of African Unity, “a trade union of dictators”. The irony is of course that he has become an ardent member of the same trade union he used to malign back when he rode the moral high wave. Back in the day, the Organisation of African Unity was known to employ what has been called “a false sense of nationalism, playing the self-righteous colonial victim in order to defend dictators in power from accusations of human-rights abuses by entities in the West”. Salim Ahmed Salim’s major argument in his day as Secretary General was that “the West has no moral authority to criticise governance in Africa”. Before going in too deep and tying ourselves in a knot, we need to consider what it was formed for. Did the founding fathers of the OAU intend it to be a political barometer that would highlight the failures of African despots?
The OAU Charter
The whole ambit of the OAU was found in the Charter which outlined the purposes of the organisation. The purposes were,
“a) To promote the unity and solidarity of the African States
b) To coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa;
c) To defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence
d) To eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa; and
e) To promote international cooperation, having due regard to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
The whole truth of the matter was that the OAU had not been formed to champion democracy and human rights in Africa. Its full aim was centred on the eradication of colonialism and all forms of foreign control. The problem with this approach was that where despots were faces of the fight against colonialism, the OAU would emerge on their side, positing various forms of colonialism, both fictitious and real. It was not meant to highlight the African dictator’s flawed thinking but perpetuate it so long it supported the advancement of African independence. In the 1960s and 1970s when the OAU was young, it would have been a very relevant organisation and its successes have been widely documented. Colonialism fell as an order in Africa because of the unity among African countries. However, what the OAU failed to do was nip the potential of totalitarian governments in the bud. It instead became an institutional support system. The formation of the African Union was as a result of the revelation of the OAU’s shortcomings. The AU was meant to revitalise the growingly irrelevant African bloc. Being an institution which had a notorious predecessor, has the AU managed to shake off the legacy of support for dictators?
The African Union still a dictator’s club?
The AU Constitutive Act now includes among its objectives, promoting security and stability on the continent, promoting democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance and promoting and protecting human and people’s rights. These are found in Article 3 of the Constitutive Act of the AU marking a departure from the “anti-colonialism rhetoric” of the OAU. However, the Act is not reflective of the operations of the AU on the ground. From January 2011 to January 2012, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was the chairperson of the AU and in January 2015 to January 2016, Robert Mugabe held the chairmanship. These are ceremonial positions but they hold a strong philosophical importance to the nature of the AU and how harshly it will be judged. The two leaders do not have a particularly fantastic record of democratic behaviour in their own countries and being the face of the AU is almost an endorsement and show of support for them.
Of late, the Burundi Crisis left the AU exposed. It seemed the AU was going to act against the human rights violations in Burundi when it announced it would deploy 5,000 peacekeepers over the objections of Burundi. The AU had threatened to authorize the deployment of the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU) only to renege later and say it would have been unimaginable.
“It has been, I think, bad communication. It was never the intention of the African Union to deploy a mission to Burundi without the consent of Burundian authorities. This is unimaginable,” Ibrahima Fall, the AU special representative for the Great Lakes region told RFI. The Burundi empty threats were an embarrassment to the AU and Sudanese billionaire, Mo Ibrahim, wrote an open letter to the AU, “This is a grave test of AU credibility, and of the continent’s ability to solve its own problems. Failure to act now would dent the reputation of the institution and those at its helm.”
The AU could have used a clause in the Charter which allows them to impose an unwanted peacekeeping presence in order to prevent “war crimes, genocides and crimes against humanity” but the intervention had already been opposed by some leaders.
The African Union has a hard task ahead of it to try and shake off vestiges of the OAU’s policy of indifference. In 2013, Madagascar, CAR and Guinea Bissau were banned from the monumental fifty year summit for political irregularities. In the words of Alpha Oumar Konare, former chairman of the AU Commission, the AU replaced the OAU’s doctrine of “non-interference” with one of “non-indifference”. So far, it has launched major peace support operations in Darfur, Somalia and Mali and over 64,000 uniformed peacekeepers have been deployed since the establishment of the Peace and Security Council in 2004. It is yet to be seen if the AU can actually stand against reckless trigger happy leaders like Pierre Nkurunziza. The day that is achieved, it will truly drop the “Club of dictators” label. For now, we cannot be blamed for believing leaders go, meet, greet, talk and return to their crises-ridden countries with no resolve to change their situations.
Solomon Dersso argues, “Compared to the United Nations Charter which starts off with ‘We the people of the United Nations, the AU Constitution starts off with ‘We the heads of the state and government. Make no mistake, this is in many ways still a club of heads of state and government and not necessarily a body that truly represents the African people.”
Dersso is a little too harsh but indeed, the AU is yet to truly prove itself as an organisation with all intentions to uphold values of a modern society. The claim that Africa is for Africans should not be abused to perpetuate injustices. Who said injustice and oppression are equivalent to pan-Africanism?