Mubarak is gone, and the African Union is MIA

This coming Monday there will be a Foundation Laying Ceremony for the African Union’s new “Peace and Security” Building at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This buidling houses the AU’s efforts to support peace, security, and stability across the Continent. One can only hope that this structural foundation will be more than just material.  The Continent needs ideas, leadership, and resolve. So far, such things have only appeared sporadically in the rhetoric of the institution’s leaders. Nowhere have innovative ideas and leadership been more missing than during the recent string of political crises across Africa.

The events culminating in the departure of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s Presidents have received the most attention from the international media. What is striking is that at the same time these events began to unfold, 25 African leaders were meeting in Ethiopia for their regular AU Summit.  Almost nothing was said about Tunisia and Egypt. When leaders finally said something, it came at the end of the summit and was not part of the formal agenda. Perhaps ironic was what they did instead. The dictator of Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang, was chosen as the AU’s leader for the year. Fortunately, this position is largely ceremonial and provides Obiang with little power. Unfortunately, it is symbolic.  Despite all of the efforts that some have made to make the AU a progressive institution, supportive of good governance and capable of efficiently reacting to the needs of its members, the AU is still in many respects a club for African leaders.  The choice of Obiang is not the only controversial choice AU leaders have made in recent months. Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe was called on by the African Union to help find a “democratic solution” in Cote d’Ivoire.

To be fair, the African Union has not remained completely silent on Egypt. As noted above, some comments were made outside the formal agenda regarding events in Egypt and a minor declaration regarding Tunisia became part of the final report. Also the African Union’s record on dealing with “unconstitutional regime changes” includes some positive actions in Togo and Comoros, as Adekeye Adebajo at the University of Cape Town has noted.

Additionally, one could argue that the political events in Tunisia and Egypt are primarily a phenomenon that belongs to the Middle East, that their relevance to African is peripheral. However, this would be wrong for several reasons. First, it would miss historical role that countries such as Libya and Egypt have played in supporting the AU and framing its agenda. Second, it would miss the ways in which the demonstration effects of Tunisia have reverberated in other parts of the continent. Most of the effects have indeed been felt in North Africa.  Northern Sudan has seen protests, and just on the heels of the historic election for secession by South Sudan. Algeria, reportedly, is also feeling the impacts. However, other parts of Africa may be getting picked up in the “contagion”.  Gabon has experienced unrest as well with an opposition leader attempting to claim the presidency, inspired by events in Tunisia and Cote d’Ivoire. Some are trying to find ties between Tunisia’s events and recent events in Zimbabwe.

Many countries in Africa seem to be going through an important period of political transition. It would be great if their Continental body could begin to play an active role in managing these transitions, both for these countries and for the African Union.