AFRICAN Union summits like giving rousing welcomes to new presidents, especially if they are from big nations and triumphed in elections through a crisis.
At the AU’s summit in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea, last year then newly elected Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the big draw, receiving rapturous applause as Egypt returned to the continental fold following its suspension a year earlier.
Sisi had just kicked off a storm of international controversy with the jailing of Al-Jazeera journalists a week back. And after the 2013 coup he engineered, Egypt’s first democratically elected Mohamed Morsi had been thrown in prison.
But Sisi had also started a crackdown against extremist violence that threatened to tear Egypt apart; won an election that was marred by an opposition boycott; and looked like the iron-fisted enforcer the AU so loves. Despite all that, there still was a palpable sense that someone who could re-impose order in Egypt had taken the reins. The summit just loved him.
This week’s summit was to be Nigerian president Muhammud Buhari’s debut party. Buhari, who was sworn-in just over two weeks ago, had just returned from the G7 meeting in Berlin with US president Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British prime minister Tony Blair & Co. to push his vision of how Africa might defeat terror.
The kind of former general beloved by the AU, Buhari won a resounding victory in March elections, becoming the first Nigerian opposition candidate to defeat a sitting president.
Defying cynicism about Nigeria, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan graciously conceded defeat, and the country pulled off a transition many probably hoped they would never live to see it do.
On both sides of the African leadership aisle, the militarists on one side, and the democrats on the other, Buhari offered something.
But Buhari didn’t really get his moment, as this summit was overshadowed by the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) case against a sitting African president, in this case Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.
Bashir: An unnecessary distraction? (Photo/AFP).
The previous two summits too were consumed by the ICC, as Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, faced similar charges and the ICC protested what it said was a biased court targeting mostly Africans. The case against Kenyatta collapsed and was dropped late last year, but that against Ruto continues.
Wanted by ICC
The ICC asked South Africa to arrest Bashir as he arrived in the country for the summit on June 13. The Sudanese president is wanted by the court over charges of war crimes against humanity and genocide during the conflict in the western Darfur region of his country.
But the drama hit a high point when a South African judge on Sunday ordered authorities to stop Bashir from leaving the country, pending a decision on whether to detain him as the ICC had requested.
South Africa is a signatory of the ICC.
From then on, the summit became a big international story, not for its deliberations, but over whether South Africa would hold Bashir or let him go.
In the end, Bashir left Monday before a final ruling by the South High Court. In Khartoum, crowds gathered to give him a hero’s welcome.
The Bashir episode was an unwelcome distraction, helping feed the view that African leaders are a gang of outlaws who close ranks and don’t respect international law when its goes against one of them.
Yet, the AU summit was meeting at a time of several breakthrough developments on the continent, confirming that rather that one reality, Africa is a four-track continent.
There are the “basket cases”, a clutch of countries being driven into the ground by either repressive, corrupt or incompetent leaders (Eritrea, Zimbabwe); a near-collapse in, especially, oil prices (Angola); or continuing conflict or recovering from war (South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Libya).
There are, like a brandy, the VSOPs (‘Very Superior Old Pale’) nations, that have been relatively democratic, or if not they are democratic then they have enjoyed long periods of political stability under a strong monarch or dominant ruling party, or seen decent economic growth (Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, Cape Verde, Senegal, Morocco, Tanzania, Zambia).
There are the “Yoyos”, nations that have seen dramatic rises in their economies, exciting political and social developments, but also equal slips into disgrace or stupor because of elections gone wrong, brief or sporadic upsurges in violence, some of it from terrorists, and intermittent periods of illiberal rule. This group is the largest. Among them are Kenya, Tunisia, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Seychelles, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso.
And then there are the “Trailblazers”, many of them not model democracies, have strong leaders and ruling parties that brook little opposition, but have driven aggressive social investment, fight corruption, seen big investments in infrastructures, and pulled themselves dramatically out of the hole they had fallen in. Here are countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Mauritania, Congo (Brazzaville), and Malawi, to name a few.
Many of the rest of the countries, like Liberia, Chad, Niger and The Gambia, straddle two or even three of these categories.
Africa is not all progressing, nor is it all in a funk. The problem for the AU is that if its collective voice remains stuck in matters that are a sideshow to the continent’s development, despite the high profile they have in media and in state houses, it will become irrelevant like its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
The AU needs to be seen to champion things and projects that end visibly in success, and which are seen to indisputably impact nations or regions for the better.
Last week top African officials agreed to create the largest free-trade zone ever attempted on the continent, and the world’s second largest.
The Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) deal, signed in Egypt, is expected to ease the movement of goods across 26 member countries comprising three current trade blocs: The Southern African Development Community (SADC); the East African Community (EAC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).
It has been also been dubbed the “Cape to Cairo” super bloc.
Analysts forecast intra-Africa trade will more than double to 30%, and stimulate at least $1 trillion’s worth of economic activity in the bloc.
That plan was presented to the Johannesburg summit for a blessing from the leaders – but against Bashir and ICC it felt more like the dessert, rather than the main course.
In north Africa, Nigeria, and the Horn, terrorism continues to be a menace. The fact that a West African coalition of Nigeria, Niger, and Chad managed to stop and then roll back what at one point looking alarmingly like an unstoppable march by the deadly Boko Haram jihadists, would have allowed Buhari to rally the continent in new commitments to battle terrorism.
Nigeria president Buhari (C) welcomed by the German Chief of Protocol, Juergen Mertuer on arrival for the working session of the G7 outreach programme at Schloss Elmau, Bavavia in Germany, June 8, 2015. (Photo Xinhua/NAN).
That opportunity too was drowned out.
Across Africa, economic growth is being pulled by lack of power, with giant Nigeria stuck in an electricity Stone Age, and now being joined by Ghana, South Africa, and others. Africa just seems unable to get power right.
The AU needs to back ideas for bigger regional electricity markets, to create the tempting economies of scale that will attract larger and faster private investment in energy on the continent.
As it is today, the AU isn’t just the type of organisation that speaks to such issues or is able to focus and mobilise sufficient political resources for their success. It will rush to get a unanimous vote against the ICC while power will struggle to make it even to the agenda. It will join the fight against Ebola, yes, but be the last to arrive on the front lines. Often the problem is resources, but then that is the point - members states need to more seriously contribute money to run the AU, and not just spend it on presidential jets to get the leaders to summits.
The good news is that countries, either alone, or acting bilaterally with neighbours or as regions (particularly the East African Community), are powering ahead.
Thus, as speculation mounted whether Bashir would travel to South Africa and what his fate would be, last Thursday the leaders of Sudan’s neighbour Ethiopia and Eritrea oversaw the completion of a railway linking their two capitals, with the ambition that the link might eventually extend across the continent to West Africa.
Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn attended the ceremonial laying of the last track in the 752-kilometre (481-mile) railway.
The first scheduled train is expected to use the desert line in October, reducing transport time between the capitals to less than 10 hours, rather than the two days it currently takes for heavy goods vehicles using a congested mountain road.
And on Saturday Egypt announced it will inaugurate a “new Suez canal” shipping route in August aimed at speeding up traffic along the existing waterway and boosting revenues.
Dubbed the Suez Canal Axis, the new 72-kilometre (45 mile) project will run part of the way alongside the existing canal that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
Nearly 85% of the project that is being executed by the army, has been completed so far.
Egypt raised $9 billion (7.9 billion euros) to build the new canal by selling shares in the project to domestic investors.
The previous week a meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in the South African coastal city of Cape Town, had heard ambitious and dizzying plans by international firms like General Electric to expand dramatically in Africa, and African banks like Kenya’s Equity to spread their tills around the continent.
This Africa, the Africa that works, that seizes the future, needs a leader that focuses on their issues too. If the AU is too caught up in parochial political fights to be that leader, they will find their own leader. It should be reason for deep concern for the continent that in Cape Town, that leader seemed to be WEF Africa!
The AU might borrow a leaf - hold big annual summits for the politicians, but also one quieter economic one for the business people and investors who create jobs and put food on Africans’ tables.