Absolutely Useless. Always Underperforming. Autocrats United. The AU (African Union) has taken a bit of a hammering over the past couple of weeks. Pundits on the continent took to the media, to Twitter and to bars, cafés and street corners to argue about why it was so mealy-mouthed on Libya.
The alternative names above point to people losing what little hope they had invested in an organisation that has talked the talk on democracy since 2002. The AU rose from the ashes of the Organisation of African Unity – little more than a clubhouse for ageing dictators – and immediately set about distancing itself from that group’s pathetic record on speaking out against despots.
Last year it boldly – bravely even, given some of its more prominent members –announced a “no tolerance” policy towards coup leaders and, in a pioneering move, towards leaders on the continent who clung to power too long.
“We must say ‘never again’ to conflict and war in Africa,” Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika, then AU chairman, told his fellow leaders. “We must declare war on unconstitutional changes of government on African soil and resolve to take strong and necessary measures against all offenders of coups and those that provide them the means to succeed elected governments.”
Initially, they didn’t do too badly. The AU suspended the memberships of countries that had been seized in coups and imposed sanctions on them. They sent envoys to mediate between coup leaders and those they had deposed and AU Chief Jean Ping talked pretty tough – most notably on Madagascar. They didn’t achieve a whole lot but at least they showed some intent.
Then Libya happened and the AU found itself in a bit of a bind. Gaddafi provides most of the funds for the always cash-strapped organisation and pays the dues of several small West African countries that can’t afford to stump up.
After the colonel realised his dream of Arab unity was unlikely to come true, he turned his attention to Africa – pushing, cajoling and bribing other leaders to support his vision for a politically and economically integrated “US of Africa”.
Several other African heads of state found the idea ludicrous but tolerated Gaddafi getting it on the official agenda of AU summits time and time again.
For many leaders on the continent, Gaddafi, and his ideas, had become a joke. But, without his petrodollars, they knew they would struggle to survive. And so, when the violence erupted, they called for “dialogue”. For “African solutions to African problems”. They offered to “mediate”. They put together an “ad hoc panel”. But last week, representatives of the body didn’t show up to a London conference on Libya attended by 40 governments, the UN and the Arab League. On Monday Ping met with British foreign secretary William Hague and expressed Africa’s “deep concern”.
“’African solutions to African problems’ seems to just mean ‘do nothing,’” one African political commentator tweeted last week as the AU dithered. Libya, Africans say, has finally – decisively – confirmed their suspicions the AU is nothing but an expensive talking shop.
Opinions like that could force the body to change – or be ignored.