Before the turn of the millennium, critics sneeringly referred to the Organisation of Africa Unity as the ‘Old and Ugly’ (OAU). The big man bug had bitten the overcast outfit to the core.
Those were the days OAU skulked when Ethiopia faced the worst famine in 1983, and when neighbouring Somalia was torn apart upon the fall of Said Barre in 1991.
Across the land, most nations pitched in heavy seas. Massacres shook Rwanda and Sudan. In the south, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe touted power. For Libya, Muammar Gadaffi went berserk.
Rights abuses became prevalent and leaders quickly changed from liberators to tormentors. This while, the OAU leadership only cheered on. In what was thought would help shed off its murky past, OAU became the Africa Union (AU) in 2002 through the Sirte Declaration.
Call it rebranding, the philosophy was to shift the outfit from a union of leaders to that of hoi polloi.
But in my view, and that of many keen observers, nothing significant has changed. The challenges have remained complex and heated.
This is why President William Ruto’s recent call in Zambia for sweeping reforms at the AU could not have come at a better time. For a continent beset by pure gloom, giving the AU clout and teeth would bring hope and much relief.
Pressure has fast grown on governments to embrace accountability in what has now terrified most African rulers in a rare scale. But still, the clamour to refine AU’s role is becoming bold and unstoppable.
Referring to AU’s reform agenda that ‘must be a priority’, President Ruto is spot on when he says the continental entity has to live up to current realities. He wants countries to ‘donate’ power to AU on areas of mutual benefit.
But for AU to enliven up to expectations, something must give way. At the heart of it all lies four questions: Who will be the AU’s vision bearers among the continent’s present leaders and what are their track records in their home countries?
What must they do and why should we believe or trust them?
AU’s vitality depends on that of member states. We would be irrational to imagine a buoyant AU when member countries are fraying at the edges due to misrule.
Don Vito Corleone advises that one should take care of home before impressing the streets.
As thinktanks rally AU to focus its efforts on global representation and voice, economic integration, peace and security, it is key to go the full hog to stamp out impunity first.
From constricted political space to sham elections, human rights abuses, punitive taxation, arbitrary detentions, trumped-up charges, general ill-treatment to bullying of State critics, the scorecards of many governments speak volumes.
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That’s why calls for a reformed AU may not be taken seriously for now. The AU, in its mandate and philosophy, must proficiently mirror the political, moral, economic and social situation in member countries. Charity begins at home.
African presidents are known to be naturally coy about their ineptitude. But good leaders – at least – readily admit mistakes and learn from them.
This way, they can raise AU’s global profile and use it to collectively improve Africans’ quality of life.
Our rulers must desist from turning the West into a punching bag for no coherent reason. They must not be defensive when their sins are discussed. We’ve seen AU take the populism path by, for instance, shielding the big men and accusing the International Criminal Court of targeting Africans on the basis of race.
Disdain for the oppressed public could forestall the reform agenda. AU must push to open up the continent for fresh ideas and opportunities starting with trade, study, work and travel. Let the AU be more people-centred to make Africa a dynamic force.
The writer is a communications practitioner