Libya and Ivory Coast Crises Point to Needed Reform of the African Union

As major events have unfolded in North Africa over the last few months, the role of the African Union has been disappointing to say the least. Its failure to take a firm position on the atrocities being committed in Libya has revealed the organization’s lack of a coherent strategy to implement its core objectives of ensuring peace and upholding human rights in the continent. The organization appears to be slowly gravitating toward fecklessness in the same manner of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

The Organization of African Unity was established in 1963 and had noble goals. Among them were forging unity among the various African states, fighting colonialism, advancing human rights and raising the living standards of the African people. During the organization’s lifespan of nearly 40 years from 1963 to 2002, achievement of these goals remained elusive. Not only was this an era during which the living standards of the majority of the Africans declined, it was also a time when millions of lives were lost as a result of the numerous conflicts. Military coups were the most common way of regime change and the few African countries that had some semblance of democracy had limited political competition. To be chairman of the OAU, a rotational position, all that was required was to be a head of state. It did not matter how one came to power or stayed in power. Consequently, former OAU chairmen included: Mengistu Haile Mariam (the brutal dictator of Ethiopia now in exile in Zimbabwe), Joseph Mobutu (the cruel and corrupt leader of Zaire) and Idi Amin (the ruthless president of Uganda and then close friend of al-Gaddafi). The OAU was infamously referred to as the “club of dictators”. It’s no wonder that murderous rulers like Idi Amin remained in power for nearly a decade. These leaders were in charge of the very organization in charge of ensuring and promoting good governance in Africa!

By the end of the 1990s, the OAU was no longer in tune with the times and there were internal calls to reform the organization by emerging progressive leaders. On September 9, 1999, heads of state at the OAU meeting in Libya issued the Sirte Declaration calling for the establishment of the African Union. Following a series of other high level summits, the OAU was officially dissolved and replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002. The African Union has a broader mandate that focuses on the acceleration of regional integration and addresses social, political and economic problems facing the continent. Importantly, it also promotes the peace and security of member states, fosters democratic principles and institutions, including popular participation, and protects human rights.

While the AU has been an effective organ in forging regional integration, it seems to be failing on some of those other critical areas. In the case of Libya and Ivory Coast, the AU has been a dismal failure. In Libya, the AU held a rather inconsequential meeting that called for reconciliation after the crisis had deteriorated. In Ivory Coast, killings continue as the AU and other regional organizations simply watch.

Between February 2009 and January 2010, the chairman of AU was none other than Libya’s Colonel Gaddaffi. The current AU chairman is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea, whose credentials as a democratic leader are not much different from those of Gaddaffi. Although AU has a competent secretariat, high level decisions require the consent of the heads of state. With such leadership, we cannot expect the AU to advance its objectives. When its chairmen do not uphold democratic principles and are not committed to the protection of human rights, how can we expect the African union to be much different from its predecessor?

The AU must reform itself so that not all leaders are automatically eligible to chair the organization. Eligibility should at a minimum require a demonstrated record of adherence to the core principles of democracy and commitment to the protection of human rights. The African Union deserves respect not only by the African people but also by the international community. However, such respect would not be forthcoming when the organizations chairs are literally thugs who violate the rights of their own citizens, contrary to the ideals of the organization.

Finally, for the AU to be an effective organ for peace and one that can prevent atrocities such as those taking place in Libya and Ivory Coast, it must also be willing and able to intervene militarily. This requires the organization to have the necessarily force to maintain peace in Africa. Thus, the African Union must establish a strong and independent standing army. Otherwise, the organization will remain a huge toothless bull dog that cannot bark or bite and the continent’s problems will be left to the foreign countries.