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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?

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

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.