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. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.