Dimeji Bankole, former member of the African Parliament, reflects on the recent meeting of the African Union in Kigali and examines the Union’s future priorities.
While our European neighbors seemed fixed on disbanding their Union, and with Brexit still dominating conversations in Europe, it was encouraging to see Morocco seeking a route back into the African Union (AU) at the recent summit in Kigali. Morocco withdrew from the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), 32 years ago to protest against the OAU’s support for Polisario Front separatist movement and recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
This is not the place to debate why Morocco wants back in. But at a time when other Unions across the world are fracturing, it is heartening to see our own on the path to becoming whole again.
The summit in Kigali saw, amidst considerable fanfare, the launch of the ‘African Union Passport’ – a ‘one size fits all’ document for Africans. It’s not readily available, yet – but it’s a step in the right direction nonetheless. One that demonstrates a desire for greater ties, and unity, across the continent. As part of its ‘Agenda 2063’ there are many fantastic initiatives championed by the AU that bring education, human rights, energy and sustainability, emancipation and freedoms to Africa as a continent. One such example is the Africa Virtual University, a project to build a pan-continental distance learning institution increasing access to first-rate higher education.
The AU’s work is driven by 14 key objectives, all laudable and all undoubtedly vital for the progress of Africa. Personally speaking, there is one that matters above all; to promote peace, security, and stability on the continent. Peace and stability enables the work of the AU on the continent to take hold, and deliver longer term.
But we have seen a worrying trend in the last six years – Africa’s peace and stability has shifted in the wrong direction
Inter-state rivalries are at an all time high. Our own country, Nigeria, is perennially preoccupied with Niger Delta militants, whilst the Sudan conflict between North and South shows no sign of slowing either. Authoritarianism, armed conflict and regime transition have all been major forces behind the surge in popular protest and violence on our continent. As has the rise of extremism, and the overflow of crises with origins in the Arab world – Al Shabab, Boko Haram and IS are entities that now dominate our own security landscape in a way that could never have been foreseen.
So how can the AU respond? While the Union does tend to mount some military operations (in Somalia, for example), these are expensive and don’t always reap results. Rather, the AU’s successes to date have come about through political and diplomatic approaches. We have enough indigenous experience on the continent to deploy cadres of trained ‘watchers’ or trouble shooters, for example. These are individuals who understand the local dynamic in each country, the historic issues that can flare up, and the personalities that can inflame or temper a situation. If necessary, they work to alert the AU leadership of the need for urgent mediation and diplomatic engagement. Peacekeeping will remain a key component of the AU’s response to trouble in Africa, and I’m proud that Nigeria has provided brave men and women to support several AU operations.
But is it is right that the AU shoulder this burden entirely? Put simply, yes. I am not criticising the international community’s efforts at maintaining peace and stability on our continent, however, I know from my time in office, as the former Speaker of the House of Representatives where I served as Chairman of the Afro-Arab Parliamentary Conference, that the only way to secure Africa is for Africans to do it themselves. We, as Africans, are best equipped to predict where the potential crisis will come from and where we need to swiftly deploy our diplomatic efforts.
Some trends on our continent breed crises. They are all too familiar. A disruptive election cycle. national or local, is one such trend. As is the onset of famine or a poor harvest. Traditional disputes over water, grazing or resources take different forms – yet always bring about the same end result. A crisis of some sort on our continent. As Burundi and Uganda nose dived into political violence with accusations of the brutal political repression of opposition parties and militia fighting on the streets, I doubt I was the only African watching the scenes unfold thinking – ‘we must have seen this coming, surely’.
The AU is yet to appoint a new Commission Chair to take over from Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The decision has been postponed until next January, following the failure of an initial ballot to bring about a decisive result. It’s a period of uncertainty.
But one thing is clear -whoever is appointed must identify those who can build practical solutions to bring peace and stability, put them in key positions in the organisation and empower them to design and deliver engagement strategies that really work.
Doing so will ensure peace and stability is the AU’s number one priority – even with a new Commission Chief, with fresh ideas, at the helm. And that, in itself, is of such vital importance for the future development of this continent for years to come.