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?

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt