The African Union turns 50, but the continent's people deserve so much more

Martin Plaut asks how a body with so much hope can have done so little?

Some 15,000 guests have been invited to attend celebrations to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the African Union – or the Organisation of African Unity as it was first known, back in 1963. They will be able to admire the organisation's new headquarters – paid for by the Chinese.

The building, which towers over the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, was constructed on the site of the country's former maximum security prison. At a cost of $200m it is an admirable signifier, if any were necessary, of the latest colonial master to stalk the continent.

There will be much cynicism and even greater indifference across the continent as their leaders disport themselves in the glass and brown marble headquarters. Africans have not forgotten the memorable quip by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who described the OAU as a "trade union of criminals."

The anniversary celebrations will attended by Sudan's President Bashir and Kenya's President Kenyatta, both of whom have charges to answer at the International Criminal Court. Also invited will be Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, despite United Nations allegations that he has supported the murderous activities of M23 rebels in neighbouring Congo.

But before being swamped by what African apologists criticise as "Afro-pessimism" it is worth recalling what the African Union can genuinely claim as its real achievements. First and foremost, it stood up to the crime of apartheid. The Lusaka Manifesto, adopted by the OAU in 1963 imposed sanctions against Pretoria and united behind the Frontline States in resisting South African aggression and financial blandishments. Secondly, the OAU gave Africa a united voice on the world stage. It allowed the continent to win recognition for its concerns in fora like the United Nations.

Sadly, there is little more that the organisation can justifiably lay claim to.

Economically it has done next to nothing to chart a path away from poverty. Although Africa is likely to grow by 6 per cent next year, the United States is right in asking why so many barriers and hurdles still stand in the path of removing barriers that prevent inter-African trade. Tariff barriers prevent trade across the continent – the bribes extracted by officials being a substitute for meagre salaries, that seldom arrive.

Who has heard of the activities of the African Central Bank, based in Abuja, Nigeria, the African Investment Bank in Tripoli or the African Monetary Fund, with its headquarters in Yaoundé, Cameroon? Yet these are integral elements of the African Union architecture. Not surprisingly the African Development Bank, which is an effective organisation, keeps a wary distance between itself and the bureaucrats and politicians in Addis Ababa.

More seriously still has been the failure of the African Union to tackle the questions of security. The Peace and Security Council is meant to oversee these operations. In Darfur and Somalia it has – admittedly – played some role. But its inability to tackle the crises in Mali, Niger and Ivory Coast has left its credibility threadbare. France, the United States and the United Nations have had to come to Africa's rescue. The African Standby Force, prepared and trained at considerable cost, was found to be floundering and flat footed. The vacillation of African leaders left their military waiting in barracks for deployment orders that never arrived.

When the going gets tough the rhetoric of "African solutions for African problems" vanishes into the ether.

Perhaps the worst AU failure has been its inability to stand by its many pledges to protect its own people. The awkwardly named African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights was designed to be enforced by a court of the same name. Yet despite the AU having a more powerful constitution than its predecessor, allowing intervention in member states to prevent genocide or gross atrocities, these measures have lain dormant.

One need only consider that tiny, seldom mentioned AU member, Equatorial Guinea, to grasp the depth of the organisation's failure. The Nguema clan have run the islands since independence from Spain in 1968. The current dictator, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, seized power from his uncle in 1979. Since then he has run his oil-rich nation as a personal fiefdom, with the poor trapped in appalling poverty and his son squandering assets so fast that even the United States was forced to intervene.Yet there is no question of excluding President Obiang from the AU guest list, or acting to free his people from his tyranny.

The reality is that African leaders are determined to hang onto power at almost all costs. Few emulate Nelson Mandela's example of standing down at the end of their term in office. Few follow Ghana's model of democracy, in which political parties actually vie for power in a race in which the opposition can actually oust the incumbent. The AU is mostly a dumping ground for disgruntled opponents or a home for unwanted presidential relatives. Little work is expected from them and they live up to this expectation.

Africa's people deserve so very much more.

The AU's headquarters in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

GETTY
Show Hide image

Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496