Optimism and Unaddressed Challenges After AU Summit

Heads of state during the opening ceremony of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on January 28, 2018. The leaders of the United Nations and AU urged stronger international cooperation. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Those concerned about the current and future state of their countries were optimistic that the now-concluded African Union (AU) Summit would result in a successful push towards achieving the goals of socio-economic development on the continent. Such high expectations were dampened by the fatigue born out of the many unmet goals throughout the years, which has ultimately disconnected the search for solutions to Africa’s challenges from the reality surrounding them. At the conclusion of the summit it is worth taking stock of the challenges that remain.

The Same Questions (and a Few Others)

As with each African Union Summit, there were a range of new and recurring issues on the agenda. The priorities of the agenda, however, diverged from some of the pressing solutions needed. Somalia, or rather the presence and funding of international troops on the ground; the issue of the Nile waters between Egypt and Ethiopia; the continental free trade zone; a customs tax to finance the African Union budget; among other topics, were all on the agenda. But equally pressing questions were missing: migration and its causes; armed groups, terrorists, and other movements; and various forms of trafficking. Without adequate movement towards addressing these latter issues, achieving the “goals and prosperity” of Africa as a whole will not be possible.

Three topics should help African leaders demonstrate the seriousness of their intentions to improve circumstances in their countries: corruption that has become, in reality, public extortion; governance issues; and the ongoing retribalization of many states.

Great Corruption

The expectation of citizens across Africa remains finding an answer to corruption. Aware of the gravity of the situation, the president of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, ensured that corruption was the dominant topic on the agenda. This raised the hopes of many who have lived through corruption’s consequences. Because of the impunity around perpetrators, blatant corruption continues to plague economies and discredit the standing of public authorities. In some countries, corruption has been established as an economic and governance system, leading to the disintegration of institutions and their transformation into informal entities. The transformation of these public institutions is then transferred to the economies of these countries.

The persistent discrediting of a number of leaders and their countries’ economies results from what amounts to extortion practices and the squandering of government budgets. The lack of condemnation of blatant corruption has had a significant impact on business activities and the living conditions of citizens. An example is the devastating level of corruption in the Sahel region. In such countries where the economic base is narrow, connections between the activities of the executive and those of the private and commercial sectors is deeply destabilizing and should be denounced.

Additional pressure will hopefully come from an executive order signed in December in Washington. Through the Treasury, Justice, and State Departments of the US government, it aims to combat and link violations of human rights and corruption.

The Village Tyrant

In 1977, Dennis Hill, a British professor in Kampala, was sentenced to death for writing that the Ugandan president, General Idi Amin, was a “village tyrant” rather than a modern head of state. Many Ugandans owe him their life. These forms of governance issues remain crucial to addressing public management challenges, especially in the Sahel region where foreign troops are battling extremist groups who operate freely in remote and sparsely populated areas.

The issue of governance came most to the fore at the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism. Since that time, European allies have supported expanded freedoms and democracy both in Africa and Latin America. The fear of radical Islamism, however, seems to have had the same effects as with communism: to encourage a search for order. Unfortunately, European governments from “New Europe” seem to have postures towards African states more similar to empires and totalitarian states of their past (Habsburg Monarchy and Soviet Empire).

The current decline in freedoms is a triple disaster: for everyday Africans, for their partners in certain Western democracies, and for the universal values of freedom and dignity.

Today, the aim of European democracies to address extremism is based on an incomplete and especially dangerous approach for the future of both continents. There are lessons to be learned from the Cold War experience in this regard. The relentless efforts of democracies to protect the African continent from communism during the Cold War produced some of the worst current African political situations. Freedom and prosperity remained for the mature democracies, but minimal freedoms and much disorder and divisions for Africa. Counterintuitively, strong hard-line regimes often lead to the unexpected, or even worse circumstances than the initial problem they are supported to prevent.

The Retribalization of the Sahel

Fears for their own domestic order and hopes of reducing the influx of refugees are pushing Africa’s allies to be “realistic” by supporting “stability.” Stability, similar to the one that allowed Mobutu to lead the Congo for decades, is pushing the same democracies, years later, to lament the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that was primarily the victim of international neglect during the Cold War.

The more European partners from “Old Europe” remain ambivalent towards fundamental freedoms and the aspirations of people, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile their approach with their core values. It also perpetuates circumstances in African countries that result in the waves of migrants they are seeking to lower, and can also result in a form of terrorism that is more radical than Islamist. This would be the result of an Africa that is left to itself, where elites too often prefer to blame a more distant colonial past—over 60 years since the first independence, almost as long as colonization—than face the gradual disintegration of countries.

At present, bad governance, by political choice or by incompetence, creates circumstances where even the most ambitious citizens can be pushed to armed violence or migration. The “village tyrant” becomes thus occupied with retaining power, by first seeking loyalty within their inner circles of power. It is within the family and tribe, and then others who provide the advisors that most reassure a head of state who is worried about his lack of legitimacy.

The gradual disintegration of several states is now more along ethnic lines and should be a cause for alarm among leaders and allies. The case of Somalia, torn apart by 30 years of civil war, is telling. It is a country composed of people largely of the same ethnic group, with the same language, and the same religion, but devastated by tribal governance. Its case should serve as a lesson for those who dismiss state disintegration and implosion as unrealistic scenarios.

The AU Summit has ended with commitments from leaders, but others, especially Europe, must help. Europe can hardly overlook the future of Africa. With the help of the US, Japan, and other democratic partners, it must reinvigorate its power of influence; the only one that will have an enduring effect. Boosting economies is indeed essential, but that influence is fundamental for any change to be sustainable and in the interests of people across Africa.

A version of this piece was originally published on Centre4s. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah is the president of the Center for Strategy and Security in the Sahel Sahara (Centre4s). Previously, Mr. Ould-Abdallah was a mediator-in-residence for the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations after having served as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for West Africa and Somalia.