February 5, 2006

February 5, 2006 | Commentary on Africa

African Union: Another Club of Executives?

Under President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, the African Union (AU) will continue to face critical issues that challenge not only the region, but also the ability to maintain its credibility on the international stage.

The African Union wants very much to be perceived as a diplomatic heavyweight at the United Nations. To its credit, its willingness and ability to get 7,000 troops committed to a mission in Sudan to monitor a fragile ceasefire is admirable. But as the AU has discovered, there is much more to this game of peace and security than perceptions and initial commitments. The AU mission is running out of money, and is has admitted to needing help-raising doubts for future "in-house" missions in a region saddled with conflict. Other immense challenges range from a democracy deficit, the snail's pace of development, barriers to trade, and diseases like HIV/AIDS that ravage entire communities.

The AU indeed stands on the threshold of importance, and the decisions its leaders take now will determine if it is to be the bellwether of change on the continent, or an association once again in need of transformation.

There are five key things that African Heads of State should do if they aim to make the AU a credible player on the international field.

First, they should publicly hold each other to account for misrule and abuse of their citizens. It is highly inappropriate that the AU held its summit in Sudan and considered electing Sudan as its chair-at a time when Khartoum has been complicit in Darfur atrocities, the violence continues, and it is flatly rejecting UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's calls for U.S. and EU help for the AU force. 

If the African Heads of State ever hope to gain a seat for their region on the UN Security Council, they must care significantly less about solidarity than about stopping violence and condemning human rights abuses. The AU peer-review mechanism should be used to help them keep counties like Sudan off the UN Commission on Human Rights. That would go a long way toward demonstrating a commitment to the principles and purposes of the UN, and set a remarkable example for other regions.

Second, the AU should use its weight to promote the rapid advance of representational governments in the region. The AU and Western Africa nations were right to oppose Faure Gnassingbe's illegitimate assumption to power and to demand that he run for election in Togo; but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The AU has said little as representative government in Zimbabwe devolved into tyranny, and political strong-arming and intimidation in Uganda and Nigeria accompany efforts to circumvent constitutional term limits. 

Silence is not leadership. The AU, which began with a goal of furthering democracy in the region, should make clear that the true test of democracy is not an election. Rather, it is institutions that assure freedom of expression, association, and opportunity, safe access to the ballot box, and a peaceful transfer of authority from one civilian government to the next. 

Third, the AU must embrace economic liberalization and the rule of law if it wants to see real development. Since 1960, the United States and others have provided over $2.3 trillion in assistance-one-fourth of that to sub-Saharan Africa, which nevertheless remains the world's least developed region. Few recipients ever had significant growth in per capita income. Why? Counterproductive policies, and corruption. One needs only to peruse the 2006 Index of Economic Freedom to see the kinds of policies that have propelled others to development.

Fourth, the African Union should ask its member states to remove all barriers to trade, particularly amongst themselves. The World Bank's 2005 Global Monitoring Report notes the high barriers to trade developing countries impose on one another. According to Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute, non-tariff protection in sub-Saharan Africa's poorest countries is four times greater than in rich countries; eliminating those protections could increase trade there by 54 percent. Regardless of what happens in the WTO round, African countries have the ability to cut the tethers of protectionism that bind them to perpetual poverty.

Finally, the African Union can prove its diplomatic worth by rejecting the contentious and misleading language of rich versus poor. America is one of Africa's most committed partners, the world's largest donor of humanitarian aid, and the largest source of bilateral and multilateral support for fighting diseases like HIV/AIDS that ravage African communities. The African Growth and Opportunity Act has greatly expanded access to the U.S. market. U.S. assistance to sub-Saharan Africa has tripled since 2000. African countries that implement good economic policies and governance can receive more aid. Nearly half of all countries that qualified for the Millennium Challenge Account in 2004 and 2005 were in Africa.

More than anything else, AU leadership can be the key that unlocks African development. And the African Union can become the bellwether for effective change.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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First appeared in The African Executive magazine 2/8/06