by Fikre Mariam Tsehai
The African Union (AU) has just elected its first woman Secretary- General in the person of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa.
I think it is appropriate to weigh in and reflect on the challenges the AU faces as Dr. Dlamini –Zuma takes office as the first woman Chairperson of the African Union Commission.
The biggest challenge is – what has prevented the AU from coming forward and taking similar positions in the face of abuses of power by many African leaders ? Why does the AU impose silence upon itself in the face of blatant human rights violations in Africa? What kind of African Unity can we get through the AU as the first woman is elected to steer this continental body? Can the AU get it right this time?
In trying to answer these questions, I am conscious of the fact that there are a myriad of issues that must be examined and analyzed, if at all, the AU can bring about an African Nation – a continent where the values of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and basic civil liberties, and rule of law will not just become hollow declarations, but will also become values which must be fully respected by the Member States.
An African continent where all the member countries comply with the abovementioned values, while an ideal, is not a dream. Certainly, it will require time and involve shaping the behavior of the governors and the governed, establishing, revisiting and consolidating regional structures which will allow peace and democracy to flourish, eventually establishing a new collective identity and a broad perspective which transcends ethnic, clan or national outlooks.
If we examine the Principles in the Constitutive Act of the AU, Article 4 reads as follows: “[The AU] functions in accordance with the respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance.” And yet, this has been a pie in the sky. To put it nicely, the AU has been closing its eyes in the face of flagrant human rights. To put it more accurately, the AU has thus far rejected it as not being within their purview. To put it bluntly, the AU, has not only sunk into indifference, but has also condoned illegitimate and unrepresentative rulers who continue to violate human rights and civil liberties. This continental body continues to do – sitting in the new AU building the Chinese government has given Africa as a gift. Perhaps, the one thing the Chinese would have done was to engrave the Chinese proverb, “Govern well who Govern less” in the lobby of the building.
The fact is – most African governments have records of human rights which are dismal – a reality no African country wants to point out. To be committed to the respect of human rights means that governments have to possess a level of morality, propriety and legality corresponding to the behavior required by genuine democracy. Many of those in the position of power in Africa would rather cling on to power at whatever cost, even to the extent of denying subjects their legally constituted human rights.
When you have regimes which are neither representative, nor legal, the leaders metamorphose into despots – then engage in repression, killing, looting and plundering of the resources of their countries. In the end, they hide behind the cloak of sovereignty and prohibit the AU, or any other international body for that matter, from interfering in their internal matters. In today’s Africa, one can come up with monumental evidences which show the moral decadence accompanied by lack of transparency and accountability which have allowed scoundrels to rise to power and engage in all kinds of abuses.
That is the reason why we have so many conflicts within states; and not among states, as the AU Constitutive Act would have us believe. At this time, the security of the African peoples is of great concern than the security of African States. By one estimate, over 500 million of the 1.2 billion Africans are either victims of human rights abuses, or live in countries ravaged by war.
That is why the principle for good governance, rule of law and the respect for human rights in the AU Constitutive ACT has been nothing more than simple rhetoric. In this regard, Dr. Dlamini -Zuma has a daunting task ahead of her. Her primary duty will have to be to change this from becoming hollow declarations into a situation where all member states will fully respect.
If human rights violations go unpunished, if governments continue to ignore the inherent dignity of the human person and perpetrate barbarous and inhuman acts against their citizens with impunity, then the AU will have failed the African peoples. Or, has it already?
All people have a stake in ensuring that the perpetrators of atrocities of war and abusers of human rights are held accountable. African leaders must not be allowed to hide behind sovereignty while simultaneously persecuting their people. The AU must develop sanctionable codes of conduct to ensure good governance. Following the model of the war crimes court, an international court must be set by AU for trying violations of human rights. They need to realize that, in the end, this will in fact help the African leaders. This will also hopefully enable African peoples to have a recourse to higher international authority whenever their rights are violated.
It is time to begin to think about human rights – not as unenforceable principles, but as rights having adequate force and conviction of their own – that no government will ever be allowed to violate.
The AU is in a watershed. So far, we have been witnessing African peoples, who have no recourse to higher authorities, fight for their fundamental freedoms. Some of them self immolate in despair. Sadly, the AU has never had the courage and the determination to stand on the side of the African peoples even in the face of blatant human rights abuses.
We have seen that unlimited sovereignty impedes the respect of human rights and therefore, the African Heads of State ought to understand and accept that the concern for human rights overrides the traditional prerogatives of sovereignty.
The last of the Principles under Article 4 (p) reads “The AU shall…condemn and reject any unconstitutional change of government.” In effect, here, the AU condones illegitimate and unrepresentative rulers who continue to violate human rights and civil liberties, rulers who kill their own people with impunity. Quite simply, what the AU is saying is that any attempt to remove these rulers from power is contrary to the principles of the AU. The truth is, Africa has seen low ranking officers in army barracks or guerilla leaders in some remote countryside suddenly appear as presidents, and then in a very short time, transform themselves again, only this time as dictators. Certainly, this has to change. There is no constitutional repression nor unconstitutional struggle for the respect of one’s God given rights.
Can the AU find a sense of renewal? Can it also rise to the challenge and help Africa begin its future history?
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