Thursday, 18 April 2013

Looking Ahead - Time for a paradigm shift for the African Union

Considering many people perceive Africa as a mash of aesthetic borders where tribal villages straddle political lines, and a place where constant internecine fighting retards real economic growth, many African nations have actually advanced significantly since the African Union was created at the beginning of the millennium. A new, healthier century is being envisioned for the troubled continent.

As hopelessly disparate nations become more interconnected as globalisation gathers steam, sweeping scores of countries before it, a revival of motivation, integration, and unity is leading the African Union to shoulder a larger role in intra-African affairs. This year, the union is celebrating its Golden Jubilee as African leaders gather in Addis Ababa under the aegis of the “Year of Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance”.

The African Union (AU), as a political structure including almost all nations geographically located on the African continent, is attempting strong integration of the continent as a key objective to establish Africa as a strong economic power. The union is designed to nurture political and economic cooperation between its member countries, and while it may still be too young to have major influence, it has taken some important steps towards these goals.

Since the start of the new millennium the AU is making significant progress in areas including peace and security, trade liberalisation, food security, the maintainable use of natural resources and energy, climate change, and immigration.

However, the AU is still not in the position after more than a decade to call itself either influential or truly effective. Despite the ending of harmful apartheid ideologies and closer security cooperation between member states, the AU faces stubborn challenges. Current issues for the AU include dangerous separatism in the two Sudans, security in Somalia, and the barely controlled international jihadist militancy in Mali.

On a continent so geographically disparate and cartographically divided, it has been difficult for the AU to get consensus and cultural compromise on crucial issues. As a continent, and even taken as individual nations, Africa is attracting greater interest from the international community as a region brimming with investment potential. To capitalise on a renewed vigour from Western and Chinese businesses, the AU is looking to strengthen its leadership to better deliver a unified voice for the international arena.

The prospect of a politically integrated Africa, and the heightened profile of the AU centred in the rapidly modernising Addis Ababa metropolis, is encouraging a growing group of international powerhouses. The AU is now more widely seen as a political partner and actor on the world stage, rather than just on the regional stage.

Although, the slow speed at which the AU has developed political integration on the continent hints at the complex dynamics deeply entwined between member states. These divisions sustain significant trepidation among potential investors who are cautious to invest in a culturally riven country. Creating a functional African Union is by definition a long term and sometimes painful process, while massive contradictions and a broad spectrum of cultural differences will require calm management for years to come.

Presently the African Union is made up of an intergovernmental ruling system although it has been suggested that a proper supranational organisation would better assist AU goals. Following the model of the European Union, in other words towards a true supranational organisation, would certainly give the AU more teeth when dealing with outside powers and organisations.

But whatever integration it currently enjoys has only arrived by overcoming significant obstacles. Much of this integration progress has been primarily a political process. And yet despite these successes, huge problems still plague the continent, many of which now appear to be perhaps largely insurmountable.

Geographically, Africa offers few easy or cheap methods of trade. Transporting goods overland is expensive and requires infrastructure which must be maintained. Rail and roading in Africa do not connect the continent as efficiently as European or North American networks. Compounding this, Africa has very few navigable internal waterways, and those with potential do not stretch over long distances. Logistics using watercraft are orders of magnitude more efficient and economically more profitable. Without such natural networks, African nations will continue to struggle to develop quickly and will probably continue to rely on foreign aid for further advancement.

But even this foreign aid can prove to be a double-edged sword, as the AU has pointed out. Studies suggest that while aid initially boosts to a poor country’s economy, long-term reliance on aid or foreign trade subsidies can detrimentally affect the development and self-sufficiency of developing nations. Poverty, a scourge which African nations are only too familiar with, can actually be exacerbated and extended by consistent offerings of large amounts of foreign monetary assistance.

Many African Union members are now calling for foreign direct investment, rather than aid, even though the loss of aid money will constrict their economies painfully in the near term. A growing and encouraged move away from the endemic corruption of only a few decades ago as new democratically-elected leaders step into offices is a key objective of AU policies. These new leaders wish to see their countries leverage their abundant natural resource and drive their economies domestically, rather than live off large portions of aid money which rarely finds its way into the poorest parts of Africa.

Other problems being addressed by the African Union include the barely contained insidious spread of AIDS, regional security issues, political instability, humanitarian crises, tribal tensions, poorly-developed social conditions, and factional resistance to further integration into the AU.

Taking positive steps in regional security, the African Union has mobilised relatively seamlessly to contain different security threats throughout the continent over the years. A sustained military reaction to the reinvigoration of instability in the Horn of Africa has significantly reduced instability there in the past 12 months. The AU responded to the militant group al-Shabaab’s extended campaign of terror, and assisted by international troops, has been able to contain the group and establish a transitional government in war-torn Somalia.

Military cooperation has been a key development in east and central Africa. The AU has also played a large role in containing instability in conflict zones in Darfur, Comoros, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Burundi, Rwanda, and more recently in Mali.

All this adds prestige to the African Union as the main interlocutor for African affairs on the world stage. The 2009 resolution to create an African Union Authority (AUA), envisioned to be the chief pan-African body for further African integration, was a positive step on the road to greater African integration. The ultimate aim is to create something like a ‘United States of Africa’, with the idea that reform and refinement of the AU’s current governance structure should enable this ambitious objective to be achieved.

Looking further into the future, a number if obstacles must be overcome if the African Union is to encourage further integration and answer serious questions about the direction of the AU. As in the European Union, there is a growing schism pulling intergrationalists and Euro-sceptics apart. Africa is becoming increasingly split between ‘maximalists’ and ‘minimalists’ as regards deeper integration. A question of ownership over the integration is being asked by many Africans.

However these worries may be unnecessary if no credible, motivating, and visionary leadership can be found to encourage deeper integration. Historically momentum in policy progress is a slow process. Small steps toward progress arise only from handfuls of individuals, rather than from a sustained long-term effort overseen by a visionary leader and a stalwart supporting political cabinet.

Finding a uniting figurehead in such a diverse and tribal continent is no simple task. And yet to push the AU forward a charismatic, pragmatic leader who can deliver reforms will be crucial.

There is also a lack of consensus over which organisation is best placed to further African integration. There is little clarification of the division of roles. Central institutions, so necessary for successful political amalgamation, need to be empowered and closer involvement of member states needs to be encouraged. It is widely agreed among various state leaders that the goal of creating a United States of Africa is worth striving for, but just how quickly this goal should be realised and exactly how the AU should get there remains extremely contentious. Before the continent can achieve greater integration, the various member states need to agree on coherent mandates, competencies, and powers as part of a larger supranational organisation.

To achieve these goals, and many others, the AU would find it useful to inspire the role of national parliaments. As with other intergovernmental organisations, some countries with larger populations or more favourable geography will take the lead in enacting changes. But even in the more democratically advanced AU member states, African media needs to entice greater debate among constituencies. The conditions for robust and free political debate are still yet to be put in place in any meaningful way.

All of these measures might falter if institutional structures cannot be given requisite jurisdiction or adequate resources. African countries still struggle from a dearth of financial resources and a distinct lack of human capital. With the increasing penetration of education, this is likely to change, but such alterations do not occur overnight. Foreign investment and a projected rise in pan-African trade should contribute to greater resources for the African Union institutions which will need them in the years to come.

These are the issue the continental body must address. The future is still bright for Africa, but overcoming those obstacles will require political fortitude and greater democratic communication.

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