After 54 years, the AU is yet to deliver

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Herbert Moyo

TODAY, Africa celebrates 54 years since the formation of the African Union (AU) but can there be a more damning indictment of the failure of the so-called African solutions for African problems than the fact that the AU will be conducting the celebrations in its Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) headquarters which were funded, constructed and donated by China?

It has to be said, too, that the celebrations are being held against the backdrop of worrying signs of increasing internecine civil strife, political repression, struggling economies, poverty and general instability.

Founded in Ethiopia, on May 25 1963, initially as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) by 32 independent states and liberation movements, the continental body can look back with a sense of pride and satisfaction over its achievements in liberating the continent from the yoke of colonial rule.

It is a song that the older generation of independence leaders like Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos continue to sing ad nauseum, but it is increasingly striking a discordant note in the ears of a new generation of Africans born after independence who never experienced the rigours and vicissitudes of colonial bondage.

Instead, this is a generation that lives in economic instability, political repression and other forms of social insecurity visited upon them by those same leaders who liberated them.

This post-Independence generation is every year treated to various themes commemorating Africa Day and its founding fathers, amid scepticism over the political will to implement any of their high-sounding ideals. This year’s theme is “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through investments in Youth”.

According to the AU ECHO, a newsletter of the AU Commission, “Young people in Africa are an enormous resource for the continent’s developments” hence the choice of this year’s theme.

The AU Youth Division further defines this ‘demographic dividend’ as the “benefit that can arise when a country has a relatively large proportion of working-age population and effectively invests in their health, empowerment, education and employment through public action and private sector involvement”.

“Investments made today in the youth, who represent Africa’s greatest asset, will determine the development trajectory of Africa over the next 50 years and position the continent towards realising the “Africa We Want,” a strong, united and influential global player and partner as envisioned in Agenda 2063.

“This roadmap has therefore been developed bearing in mind the urgent necessity to transform the potential of Africa’s large youth population, often referred to as the youth bulge, into a demographic dividend. It is also to help usher African countries towards the ambitious yet critical aspirations and goals of the complementary Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the AU Youth Division further states on its website, https://www.africa-youth.org/new-release-au-roadmap-2017-theme-year/.

Previous commemorations have centred on themes such as “Agriculture and Food Security in Africa” (2014), “Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance” (2013) while 2012 was that of “Boosting inter-African Trade”.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate that these themes of AU celebrations reflect an organisation that is never short of optimism, but as especially generations of born-frees would point out, it is woefully short on delivery.

Analysts say it will take more than history lessons and speeches about past successes of the AU in liberating Africa to make the continental body’s commemorations resonate with the millions of young people who were born after the turbulent days of the colonial struggles from the 1960s to the 1980s.

They say starting with addressing concerns over repressive, corruption-riddled governance characterised by impunity, the AU will have to take concrete steps to deal with civil wars, poverty and the threat of terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria in order to remain relevant to Africans.

It must however be noted that it is not all doom and gloom as there has been developments worthy of celebration in overall economic growth with countries like Sierra Leone, Niger, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Rwanda being among the fastest growing in the world with 7% annual growth figures.

This growth has largely been driven by a surge in prices of extractive resources, mostly aluminum, copper, gold and crude oil, while political stability, good economic management policies and an improved institutional environment have accelerated such growth in some countries.

Worryingly though, such growth is however, at the mercy of world commodity prices over which the countries have no control.

The African Development Bank projects consumer spending in Africa will jump from US$680 billion in 2008 to US$2,2trillion by 2030.

“We believe its (Africa’s) economy could double by 2020 to US$3 trillion, and we are getting a clear signal from our international clients that Africa is an increasingly important market for them,” said Dennis Nally, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) International chairman.

However, all this comes with a big caveat as shown by World Bank’s Africa vice-president Makhtar Diop’s warning that there is need for “African countries to bring more electricity, nutritious food, jobs and opportunity to families and communities across the continent in order to better their lives, end extreme poverty, and promote shared prosperity”.

But is this possible in a continent whose future is in the hands of aged or aging leaders like Mugabe (93) who is seeking another term in next year’s elections in his country despite growing health problems and the fact that he would have attained the ripe age of 94?

In February 2014, the AU ignored Mugabe’s well-documented record of political repression and disputed election victories to elect him to the post of first deputy chair of the African Union.

That, according to Zimbabwean political analyst Alexander Rusero, demonstrated the failure and “cluelessness of the AU in terms of the direction it wants to take Africa”.

“This is the same Mugabe who refused to implement the Sadc election guidelines that would have resolved Zimbabwe’s long-standing governance issues that earned the country pariah status and also led to economic decline which continues. There is no way that the continental body will be able to sanction errant members and what it therefore means is that the continent will continue to be plagued by governance issues,” said Rusero.

Mugabe’s Zimbabwe continues to stick out like a sore thumb in Southern Africa, registering a debilitating economic meltdown before a few years of rebound since 2009 while its neighbours post impressive growth figures. Mugabe has no answers to unemployment which stands at over 80% and company closures are the order of the day, resulting in a declining tax base and inability to pay civil servants on time.

And Mugabe is not alone in the veterans corner as there are at least seven other African leaders who have held onto power for more than 30 years.

His friend, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has clung on to power for 38 years in Equatorial Guinea.

The 75 year-old’s latest election victory was achieved in April 2016, reportedly with 93.7% of the vote which was questioned by the opposition and human rights groups.

84 year-old Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon for 35 years while Yoweri Museveni (73) has ruled Uganda for 31 years. Denis Sassou-Nguesso (74) has been in power for a total of 34 years in the Republic of Congo although these have not been consecutive. Another leader in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region who has been around for a long time is Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos (38 years).

And while Lesotho may not have such longevity, the worrying issue apart from the perennial political instability is the fact that some of the leading candidates for next week’s snap elections (on 3 June) fall within the similar age range- a development that could make it difficult for them to be in sync with the aspirations of the youth and therefore ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through investments in Youth.”

And so it remains to be seen if some of the main candidates for leadership, Thomas Thabane, Monyane Moleleki and Pakalitha Mosisili who are in their 70s will somehow transform themselves into Prime Ministers that are in sync with the aspirations of young people and implement the kind of policies that will enable youth to develop to a point where they could meaningfully contribute to the economic development of the country.

Apart from these, the country does have other younger politicians in the mould of Mosisili’s deputy Prime Minister in the outgoing government, Mothetjoa Metsing of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy as well as Movement for Economic Change (MEC) leader Selibe Mochoboroane. It remains to be seen whether after the country’s elections on 3 June, whoever assumes power will mainstream the youth into the development agenda.

The failure by the older generation of leaders to effectively harness the demographic dividend is continually reflected in the tragic reality of thousands of youths that are undertaking perilous voyages across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in Europe.

In Lesotho and other SADC countries, that failure is reflected in the continuing illegal migrations into the more economically developed South Africa where youths have been subjected to xenophobia, other forms of exploitation as well as dying in their hundreds accidents and violence in the illegal gold mines of that country.

Such issues cast a pall over former AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s forecasts about a bright future for the continent driven by a growing youthful population and an expanding middle class.

“Africa is also making progress on conflict resolution and expanding democracy, through its Peace and Security, Governance Architectures and the African Peer Review Mechanism,” she said back in 2013.

But the conflict resolution claims appear to have gone up in the smoke over the AU’s failure to deal with the scourge of the militant Boko Haram which has orchestrated a terror campaign including the 2014 abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in broad daylight in Nigeria, the AU’s largest member by population size and, lately, economy.

Like the ancient Roman emperor Nero who achieved infamy for “fiddling while Rome burned,” the AU has failed to urgently respond to the crisis and instead it was initially left to France, the UK, the US and European Union “to coordinate their support for this regional cooperation through technical expertise, training programs and support for border-area management programmes.”

Former French President François Hollande even hosted a security summit in Paris in 2014 in the aftermath of the Boko Haram kidnappings.

So much for the much-vaunted “African solutions for African problems”!

While there is still hope for the continent teeming with natural and human resources, it will take much more than just themes and pious statements of intent for the AU’s founding values to be realised.

Only then can the AU celebrations find meaningful resonance with most poor and suffering Africans.

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