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One continent, two African Unions

By Takura Zhangazha

The failure of the African Union (AU) to elect a new chairperson for its commission on January 30 points to a seriously divided continental body. Had this been an election based merely on the popularity or campaign skills of the two candidates Jean Ping and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, it would not warrant analysis beyond its own occurrence.

Unfortunately for us, as Africans, it has greater ramifications for the current and future context of the AU and other sub-regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Committee (SADC), the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC). It is also a development that has had the added consequence of embarrassing Africa in the world by casting doubt on the ability of our African leaders to recognise the seriousness of the challenges the continent is facing.

Furthermore, it indicates an unfortunate leadership deficit at the highest level due to the AU’s failure to arrive at consensus on as basic an issue as who should chair the commission (a body which to all intents and purposes is meant to be run by general consensus of member states).

So now there will be a second round of voting in June 2012 at the AU Summit in Malawi. While it is yet to be seen whether Ping and Dlamini-Zuma will again be considered as candidates, it is almost certain that their camps will be more mobilised to ensure that their proxies acquire the chairpersonship.

The closeness of the vote – 29 votes for Ping and 23 for Dlamini-Zuma in the third round – indicates that a compromise candidate is well nigh impossible for either camps, unless it is literally a statesman/woman of great respect on the continent (such leaders are becoming extinct). The reason for this is that it seems there are vested interests in either candidate that are informed by both a ‘new scramble for Africa’ and its attendant, falsely universal ‘liberal intervention‘ doctrine from the West. This is particularly true for the Ping camp which is regarded as being dominated by former French colonies.

On the other hand, the Dlamini-Zuma camp is distinctly dominated by Southern and East African countries and is informed (surprisingly so) by the Mbekite project (though they won’t admit it), which has as its dictum, “African solutions for African problems”. This approach has been revived by what is now seen as the embarrassing ousting and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with the direct assistance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the consent of the African Union. It is also an approach that has the backing of Russia and China who are involved in their own ‘new scramble for Africa’.

So, it appears as though there are now two versions of the African Union even though this does not mean they did not exist before. It had to take the election of an AU Commission chairperson for the divisions to become more apparent. In the process, Africa has now allowed itself to continue being a hapless battleground for the global powers, with either side of the AU playing to one superpower gallery or the other.

It is, however, the consequences of a sharply divided AU that are depressing. In the first instance, it means that for the next five months Africa will not speak with one voice when it comes to addressing continental and global challenges such as the crisis of global capitalism, human rights, the Millennium Development Goals and climate change. Even if there was to be agreement on paper on issues such as the Somalia famine and war, there will be limited political will to put such plans into action.

As a result, the five or so months until the next elective AU summit are going to be preoccupied by lobbying trips on the part of the ‘two AUs’ to try and get their new candidates endorsed by the majority votes required. This lobbying will also involve regular communication and currying of favours with, if not visits to, either the West or the East.

The second negative effect of the divisions in the AU relates to the global impression that African leaders are incapable of doing things on their own and must therefore be ‘assisted’ to overcome their problems and challenges. The reinforcement of this perspective is reminiscent of the colonial narratives of the ‘dark continent’ which is there to be ‘enlightened’, can only learn from the West, and simultaneously be exploited for its natural and human resources.

All of this will be couched in a language of ‘universalism’ that has as its base the false assumption that Africa’s historical trajectory can only now follow the path of the West and, as some Western academics put it, arrive at the liberal democratic and free market ‘end of history‘.

But perhaps there is a silver lining to the cloud that is hovering over the continent at the moment. And this silver lining is premised on the possibility that after this recent AU summit, our leaders will reassess the damage they are doing to our continent and get their act together by the time they meet in June this year. And we can only hope that at the AU summit in Malawi, they will recall the message of the great Kwame Nkrumah: “Africa Must Unite!”

Takura Zhangazha is the executive director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (www.vmcz.co.zw). He writes in his personal capacity and is a media freedom and democracy activist.

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