The 38-year-old Organisation of African Unity held its final meeting Monday and was replaced the next morning by a successor organization, the African Union. Few commentators mourned the OAU’s passing. The Times of London dismissed it as “a discredited and moribund body that has outlived its original purpose and proved ineffective in dealing with the continent’s challenges today,” and South Africa’s Sunday Times said that “despite its noble beginnings, the OAU ended up as nothing more than a boys’ club where eloquent speeches were made and little else was accomplished.”
The Star of Johannesburg, South Africa, identified the institution’s Achilles’ heel: “Its most cherished principle was non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. That often became a licence to turn a blind eye to undemocratic, incompetent and even brutal rule.” The Sunday Times acknowledged that there were other reasons for Africa’s failure to thrive—”European nations left behind dysfunctional states, with economies that were designed to serve the colonial motherland”—but it said Africans had given their leaders too much power, “resulting in the wanton looting of nations’ coffers by many of them,” and had “allowed tribalism to become an integral part of its political makeup,” resulting in numerous ethnically driven wars.
The African Union’s constitution is based on principles of democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights, but as the Star observed, “[I]t will take more than a piece of paper to ensure these values are realised.” The Sunday Times noted that although the new body is brimming with good intentions, “some of the leaders who will commit themselves to the AU’s objectives are themselves dictators, murderers and thieves.” The editorial concluded, “The dream of a new continent will only be realised when Africa’s people … begin to siphon power from their leaders.”
There were other signs that the AU’s lofty ideals may be doomed to failure. Kenya’s Daily Nation noted that the new group inherits its predecessor’s insolvency—only nine of the members are paid up; the other 45 owe $54.53 million in dues. The poor financial situation means that the OAU had a budget of just $12,000 for election observation in 2002, with 12 elections, including the controversial Zimbabwe vote, on the calendar. “The $12,000 budget is barely enough for one election.” The Times added more ill omens: “Kenya, Libya and Zimbabwe are likely to try to sabotage any mechanism to suspend undemocratic governments. The summit agenda in Durban did not even include Zimbabwe, where one man’s tyrannical egotism is hastening a vertiginous downward spiral. It did not invite Marc Ravalomanana, the President of Madagascar, because the OAU leaders sided with his predecessor, an old crony, in ruling his election illegal.” The editorial counseled the AU to cut the rhetoric and focus on social development and spiraling HIV-infection rates: “Before embracing such distant goals as a single currency, the AU needs to focus on ways to make Africa safer, fairer and richer, and respond to the pandemic that is clouding its future.”