Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Africa at 50: Challenges, Opportunities

AU @ 50: Challenges, opportunities

Tuesday, 28 May 2013 00:00
Chinua Akukwe

The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity , now known as the Africa Union, is an important milestone on the continent. For the past five decades, successive cohorts of African leaders have worked diligently on Africa’s socio-economic development through a continental operational instrument, the Africa Union.

Fifty years ago, OAU visionaries such as Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie, Sekou Toure and Leopold Senghor envisaged a united, peaceful, and prosperous Africa. Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, Abdoulaye Wade, Meles Zenawi and KY Amoako more than a decade ago struggled to midwife the AU from OAU, envisaging a continent where peace, security, economic prosperity and mutually beneficially engagement with the international community held sway.

A pertinent question is whether the quest for “Africa Unity” has made progress after 50 years and whether the African Union can lead the continent to the vaunted promised land. I briefly review shared dreams and harsh realities that have shaped the 50 year history of the Africa Union.

Shared dreams and harsh realities

At the core of motivating factors for various African leaders championing a better future for the continent is the cherished dream of shared unity of purpose, shared aspiration and shared destiny for hundreds of ethnic nationalities on the continent, now living in 54 countries.

Fifty years ago, the task of Africa unity immediately ran counter to the harsh realities of nation states hurriedly put together by colonial powers with attendant ethnic squabbles; to the significant number of relatively poor landlocked nation states; to the dearth of appropriate manpower; to the non-existence of infrastructure; to the protracted ideological squabbles among emerging elite of newly independent states and between nations; to the lust for unbridled executive powers by mostly inexperienced new political leaders, and; to the ever-present “guiding hand” of ex-colonial powers.

In addition, by the end of the first decade of OAU, the weight of the moral debacle of apartheid in South Africa, the political crisis in present-day Zimbabwe and the initiation of the violent struggle for political independence in Lusophone African countries and present-day Namibia was simply too much. The much derided non-interference in the internal politics of Member States weakened the OAU.

More important, African nation states, the centre of equilibrium for the envisaged united, prosperous Africa; quickly ran into significant political, economic and social problems. Political chicanery, unbridled quest for personal wealth among the ruling elite, manipulation of social and ethnic cleavages and deliberate exclusion of legitimate stakeholders from levers of governance contributed to ceaseless political crises in many African countries within the first decade of the OAU. These lingering political crises unwittingly led to the “invitation” of Africa’s military into governance. Forty years ago in Africa, most countries were either under military governments or operating militarised “one-party” governments.

Even one of the most brutal military dictators in Africa, Idi Amin, became “Chairman” of the OAU.

The emergence of the so-called structural adjustment programmes of Breton Woods institutions, sarcastically labelled “SAP” by the Nigeria media, not only destabilised many African governments in the 1980s and early 1990s but also forced ordinary citizens to demand multi-party democracy. SAP infamously popularised several concepts in Africa such as “devaluation of currency,” “deregulation,” “privatisation,” “import licenses and waivers,” “reducing the role of government,” “sell-off of public assets,” “shedding the workforce,” “deficit spending,” “debt relief” and “overriding public interest”, to mention only few examples.

The end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and unabated demands for citizen participation in governance eventually led to the emergence of multi-party democracy in most parts of Africa by the mid 1990s. By early 2000s, Africa had sufficiently progressed on multi-party democracy that the need to transform the OAU to the Africa Union became imperative as part of the process of regional integration in a rapidly changing world.

It is important to note that the two central theses for the transformation of the OAU into the AU rest on two mutually beneficial planks: political and economic relevance to the needs and aspiration of African people.

Architects of OAU transformation into the AU envisaged a dynamic, forward-looking organisation focused on advancing the political interest of the continent around the world and serving as the continental policy anchor for sustained economic prosperity.

Challenges and opportunities for the AU

A fundamental challenge of the Africa Union is to become a robust, independent, globally respected 21st Century entity deftly channelling the aspiration of Africans. With this challenge come unique opportunities. The African Union Commission (AUC) under its present leadership can transition into a first-class technical and technology savvy organisation.

This transformation should be widely recognised in areas of policy development, policy co-ordination and mobilisation of technical, financial and logistical resources for continent-wide initiatives. To safeguard its policy and programme independence, the AU of the future must avoid dependence on external donors for critical programme support.

Recent reports that the AU Commission relies on 97 percent external funding support should be addressed urgently. In addition, the AU should strengthen relationships with grassroots organisations as part of deliberate efforts to directly link its policies and programmes activities with needs and priorities of Africans. Furthermore, the AU of the future is likely to have a robust outreach initiative in all regions of the continent focused on information, education and communication campaigns to sensitise Africans and their families to the work of the organisation.

Another challenge is for the AU, the Africa Development Bank (ADB) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to work together. The leadership of the three institutions in January 2013 reiterated commitments to strengthen existing partnerships, co-ordinate programmes and work jointly on common continental initiatives.

This is a step in the right direction. However, only time will tell if the three continental organisations can undergo necessary transformation of internal mandates, policies and programmes needed to jointly co-ordinate initiatives on the ground.

Strengthening regional economic communities (RECs) is another challenge. RECs could become a major beneficiary of tighter working relationship between AU, ADB and ECA. Each organisation already operates some form of regional offices that could be transformed into co-ordinated regional hubs for specific initiatives. RECs in the future will likely play important roles in assisting poor, landlocked African states share pooled regional technical, financial and technical resources. Collaboration between RECs will also become pivotal in the future.

For example, RECs in East Africa and Southern Africa are likely to play a critical role in developing tourism into a blockbuster source of economic growth in the continent.

The two RECs are also likely to play a critical role in the creation of regional hubs for information technology, road/sea/air transportation networks and generation of electricity.

Sustained economic growth and widespread economic prosperity is likely to be the ultimate challenge of the AU in coming decades. As noted in the recent State of the Africa Union Statement by the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, published in this medium, the economic fortune of Africa has come a long way since 50 years ago. In 1960, Ghana and South Korea had the same GDP per capita; China was poorer than Malawi 30 years ago, and; until 1975, Botswana had higher growth rates compared to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia. Today, Asia Tiger economies have leapfrogged their African counterparts due to multiple reasons beyond the purview of this article.

Suffice to say that protracted wars and conflicts, political disagreements, misguided economic policies and misappropriation of resources played important roles in the decline of Africa’s economy.

However, as noted by the AUC Chairperson, I and other contributors to this medium, Africa is on its way to becoming a destination of global economic prosperity with consistent economic growth rate of average 5 percent over the last decade, a fast rising consumer market, substantial increases in global foreign direct investment and some of the highest rate of returns on investments. In addition, Africa rode out the 2008/2009 global economic meltdown better than most regions.

However, these rosy economic scenarios may come undone if Africa does not improve on its woeful less than 2 percent share of global manufacturing. The continent must also move away from emphasis on export of raw materials rather than finished products. Continental leaders should do more to increase intra-Africa trade, now less than 15 percent of all continental trade, and quickly end destructive restrictions on free-flow of goods and services across the continent.

Lack of sustained progress on regional integration efforts, the constant danger of food shortages, the impact of climate change and the socio-economic consequences of the Aids epidemic can also scuttle chances of sustained economic progress in the continent.

The AU should partner with ADB, the ECA and RECs in providing policy and implementation templates for the way forward. A well prepared and resourced AU is also best positioned to partner with multilateral agencies and the organised private sector on Africa’s economic transformation issues.

Another past and future challenge is dearth of infrastructure. Infrastructure deficit is so serious that no African country, including South Africa — the economic powerhouse — can finance up to 50 percent of outstanding obligations. Governments continue to bear unsustainable significant burden of infrastructure cost at more than 60 percent, with private investors contributing 25 percent. Basic infrastructure for potable water and sanitation remain at premium. Less than 30 percent of Africans enjoy regular electricity supply.

Virtually all sectors of the economy, with the exception of telecommunications, suffer from infrastructure woes. Africans have embraced telecommunications facilities, with mobile phone subscribers in the continent accounting for the second largest market in the world, behind Asia. The AU can bring together public/private partners and investors in Africa and around the world to explore financing and management opportunities in infrastructure development. The AU, working closely with the ADB, can facilitate access to various infrastructure funds to jumps-start viable projects.

The AU can also spearhead industrial revolution in the continent by enabling massive investments in energy, transportation, agriculture, information and telecommunication technology.

Peace and security remain significant challenges

In the next decade, the AU will face challenges of terrorism in the Maghreb, the multi-nation “war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the failed or failing nations hobbled by ethnic conflicts and narco-politics and the delicate political and economic transition in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan. A major question is whether the AU can meet financial and logistics costs for maintaining peace and stability across the continent. The AU Peace and Security Architecture requires technical, financial and logistics resources to assure robust implementation. I am not aware of easy answers. However, AU can invest significantly on proactive, pre-emptive strategies. The AU can also finalise action on establishing a highly mobile tactical force with deterrent capabilities.

Despite progress made, democracy remains tenuous in Africa. Today in Africa, it is rare to find countries without some form of democracy, a marked departure from the situation three decades ago. However, conducting elections remains a struggle on the continent, despite the best efforts of the AU and other international entities such as electoral monitors.

Dr Chinua Akukwe is the former Chair of the Technical Advisory Board of the Africa Centre for Health and Human Security at the George Washington University, Washington, DC.

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