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Debate: African Union

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Should countries in Africa become a political and economic union?

Background and context

In July 2002, the fifty-three members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) disbanded that organization and inaugurated the African Union (AU). The goal of the AU is to create an international organization similar to the European Union. It is to have a pan-African parliament, a court of justice, a central bank and a shared currency. Already, there is discussion for creating common electoral standards and an African "peace and security council" The AU is, in part, the brainchild of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. In October 2002, he withdrew his country from the Arab League. His foreign minister is now called the secretary for African Unity Affairs and he has renewed calls for a United States of Africa, possibly with him as its first President.

Contents

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Argument #1

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Yes

The objectives of the AU are different than that of the OAU. To begin, it is modelled on the European Union, a successful blueprint for building regional institutions and alliances. Second, its current chairman, South African President Thabo Mbeki, is focused on simple goals: good governance, economic growth and free trade. The common electoral standards already agreed call for independent observers before and after any national election. And the peace and security council will have the authority to send troops to stop crimes against humanity or war crimes. The buzzword at the AU is "people-centred" as opposed to the OAU’s focus on state sovereignty.

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No

In its thirty-nine year history, the OAU can only be judged as an abysmal failure. It failed to challenge any major dictator on the continent and stood idle while civil war, ethnic conflict, poverty and disease ravaged ordinary Africans. Idi Amin, the former Ugandan despot, even served as the OAU chairman for a brief spell. Its only success was in preserving the notion of sovereign borders in Africa. The AU is the OAU in a new guise: its membership is the same and there are no new institutions to suggest that it will be any more successful.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The AU initiative was spawned by Qaddafi but, today, it enjoys widespread support amongst all African states and especially amongst South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria and Algeria. These five countries can assist in growing a coalition to support new AU initiatives and can provide the economic counterbalance necessary for such an undertaking. Also, African countries are already somewhat integrated: many use the CFA franc as currency and there are regional blocks in West Africa and East Africa. More importantly, the EU remains a good model for the AU: no one would suggest that the EU is in danger of being disbanded. Though its members might have differences as to its exact structure, that debate is no different than in any other confederation.

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No

The AU’s model, the EU, is a work-in-progress. Even in Europe, there is some concern that the EU will not hold. Even if the EU were a perfect model, it was established in a time of peace. In Africa, war rages in most parts of the continent. And in Europe, unification is broadly supported by international and economic heavyweights: Britain, France and Germany. In Africa, the comparable AU anchors are Nigeria and South Africa, neither of which can guarantee AU commitments by themselves. Africa also has huge economic concerns that don’t plague Europe: most African countries trade with their former colonial masters rather than each other, and the standard of living varies widely across the continent (e.g. South Africa’s GDP is ten times that of Nigeria).

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Argument #3

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Yes

For some commentators, Africa’s biggest problem is that its countries are remnants of colonial empires. In the post-colonial period, borders were drawn between states randomly, creating ethnic tension and geographic dissonance. Qaddafi argues that peace will break out when Africa’s borders disappear. Though unification is the end goal, the short-term objective is to create an African free trade area with some semblance of regional organization. Most importantly, the AU has abandoned the notion of absolute "state sovereignty": it can "peer review" the human rights and political situation in any of its members. The EU was established after WWII to assist in the rebuilding of Europe; why can’t the AU do the same in Africa?

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No

Many of Africa’s wars are ethnic conflicts (i.e. Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, the Congo). These conflicts will not be dissipated by simply redrawing national borders. A pan-African organization must be willing to stand up to African dictators and military rulers, the real cause of bloodshed and poverty on the continent. So far the AU has failed in this mission: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is a charter member of the AU and, like the OAU, it has failed to recognize Madagascar’s Marc Ravalomanana as that country’s rightful elected leader. As for economic cooperation, it took the EU forty years to establish a shared currency and a central bank. How will Africa, home to some of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries, do it any faster?

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Argument #4

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Yes

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the UN has slowly changed its relationship with regional organizations. It is more willing and, in some cases, demanding that regional organizations be responsible for peacekeeping, state-building and humanitarian assistance. Part of the reasoning is that these states are more sensitive to local customs, concerns and diplomacy. Already, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has taken on peacekeeping initiatives in some West African conflicts. The AU is an extension of this model and, because it is "people-centred" it will be better able to respond to threats of genocide or ethnic conflict.

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No

The AU is putting the cart before the horse. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has noted, "no amount of aid or trade will make the difference" unless war ends on the continent. There is too much distrust amongst the AU’s membership already: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone all accuse each other of backing rebel movements in their respective civil wars. The UN is asking regional organizations to shoulder some of its "peace and security" responsibilities out of desperation, not as part of some strategy. In Kosovo, NATO had to intervene because Russia blocked any UN action at the Security Council. There are no other successful examples of regional organizations (i.e. ASEAN, APEC, OAS) getting involved in a military conflict.

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