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?

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.