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The AU is preparing to celebrate its half-century on May 25 in Addis Ababa. It was on May 25, 1963 that 32 independent African countries established the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in the city.
In 2002 the OAU transformed itself into the AU, in Durban, and in many ways it is a very different entity from the OAU.
The principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states was the cornerstone of the OAU.
The AU Charter consciously qualified the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states, allowing for intervention – even against the will of member governments – to stop the gravest atrocities.
And so much of the business of the AU summit held in Addis Ababa last week would surely have seemed alien and even outrageous to those leaders who met there 50 years ago. For it was a hive of activity around military and other interventions in the internal affairs of troubled member states.
The main one was Mali as the summit accelerated efforts to get a West African force into the country to fight jihadists and Tuareg secessionists and made an unprecedented decision to contribute $50 million (R442m) of the AU’s money to the international fund for financing this intervention.
The leaders also discussed the mechanics of deploying an African force to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to pacify armed rebels who have destabilised the country and region for two decades.
They also welcomed the success of the AU force Amisom in neutralising the al-Shabaab and other jihadist forces trying to topple the Somali government. They assessed the progress made by the AU-UN hybrid force, Unamid, in Darfur and the AU’s efforts to resolve many other conflicts or crises.
The summit also debated the latest report by the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism, which monitors the obedience of AU members to a charter for political, economic, social and corporate governance, including democracy and human rights.
It is a voluntary programme and about 33 states have joined. And it is another institution that the founding fathers would have found alien.
All of these changes are of course for the better.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni once called the OAU a trade union of dictators and criminals because of the way its leaders closed ranks against their detractors and turned a blind eye to each other’s sins.
On the face of it, the AU is very different. And certainly there are far more democracies now than there were then.
In practice, though, has the AU really used its muscle to stop member governments from abusing their people? All of the military interventions on the agenda at last week’s summit were at the behest of governments pleading for help in defeating their rebel foes.
When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi threatened to exterminate the rebel citadel of Benghazi in 2011, the AU was paralysed, unable to move to stop him, largely because he was a recent AU chairman and benefactor of many states; in short, a member in good standing in the union.
It was left to Nato and others to stop Gaddafi.
When Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept electoral defeat in 2010, the Economic Community of West African States did, to its credit, condemn him and even threatened military force to remove him. But that resolve died in the AU and in the end UN and French forces helped his challenger, Alassane Ouattara, to remove him.
The AU is still humouring tyrants.
After Gaddafi, it elected Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema as its chairman. At last week’s summit, it praised him for offering $3.6m of his oppressed people’s money to create an African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation in his country. What reputable international scientist would wish to be associated with this effort by Obiang to burnish his awful image?
Equatorial Guinea has apparently become the latest state to volunteer for peer review. No doubt the peer review panel will offer some cogent critiques of Obiang’s de facto dictatorship, leavened with praise for his reform efforts.
Few will read its report. But Equatorial Guinea will be mentioned favourably in dispatches as a peer review country.
One day the AU may be astonished and dismayed when his people rise up against Obiang. And it will send in a force to save his skin, or at least condemn anyone who prevents him slaughtering his people.