Glimmer of hope

30 May 2013

The celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) and its successor the African Union (AU) last Saturday provided African leaders with a wonderful occasion for self-congratulatory speeches and mutual backslapping.


The founding fathers of the OAU have reason to show pride in the organisation they gave birth to, which has now become a firmly established feature of inter-state relations and diplomacy, both on the continent and the wider world stage.

The founders included towering figures and statesmen of African history such as Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Sékou Ahmed Touré, Ahmed Ben Bella, Gamal Abdel Nasser and of course our own Founding President Dr Sam Nujoma who attended as an observer.

They founded the organisation on the noble principles of promoting the unity and solidarity of African states and cooperation among African countries to achieve a better life for the people of the continent.

It further embraced the defence of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of African states and the eradication of all forms of colonialism.

Namibians have much to thank the OAU for, because without the tireless work, material and diplomatic assistance of the OAU’s Liberation Committee, the country’s path to independence would have been far more difficult and bloody.

The 50th Anniversary of the AU has given scholars and political analysts the opportunity to reflect not only on the organisations many achievements, but also its failures.

Some tend to over-state the OAU’s adherence to the Pan-Africanist ideology, although the organisations objective of unity and solidarity among African states no doubt embodies an element of Pan-Africanism.

The belief that people on the continent share common origins, a common history and a common destiny and should therefore unite for the common good of its entire people is central to Pan-Africanism.

To the disappointment of many, African leaders have largely failed to uphold this principle since the creation of the OAU on 25 May 1963.

What we have seen instead, is leaders that are more interested in their own self-preservation, self-enrichment and protection of their own personal fiefdoms.

They have corrupted the concept of African unity by interpreting it as a duty by African political leaders to protect each other – whatever crimes or outrages they commit – rather than furthering the interests of the continent’s people.

The original charter of the OAU had much to commend it but it also had some glaring flaws, the most obvious being its failure to clearly, and categorically, enshrine the principles of democracy and upholding human rights.

When writing about the 50th Anniversary African commentators have made much of political and economic independence, cooperation and cultural integration while largely remaining silent on issues of democracy and human rights.

For much of Africa’s post-colonial history it has remained fashionable among the African political, diplomatic and intellectual elite to denigrate democracy and human rights as western concepts that are foreign to African culture.

The cliché is that only longhaired, sandal wearing ‘white liberals’, neo-colonialist and the CIA have any interest in democracy and human rights.

They have stubbornly rejected the universality of the principles of democracy and human rights and that they apply to all members of the human family, whether white, black, Asian or oriental, thereby denying the humanity of their own people.

The conventional wisdom has always been that it is therefore somehow un-African or disloyal to one’s race to criticise dictators, kleptocrats or absolute monarchs like Robert Mugabe, Jose Eduardo dos Santos and King Mswati III.

In Namibia, this remains the accepted doctrine in the highest circles of our political establishment.

Our southern neighbour, South Africa, has now realised that it cannot allow the brutal political repression in Zimbabwe to continue.

It has gradually taken a firmer stand against autocracy in Swaziland with the country burdened by the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world and an imploding economy while Mswati accumulates more wives.

The OAU charter made no direct references to democracy or human rights and only touched on the subjects in very vague, general and unspecific terms.

“...freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples,” it stated.

It took the OAU a full 18 years after its creation to adopt the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, but the charter remains more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Internecine civil and ethnic conflict, military coups, corruption and economic mismanagement have stained post-colonial African history.

The people of the continent have experienced brutality and savagery at the hands of their own leaders as well as endured famine and poverty on a spectacular scale.

In recent times our leaders idly stood by while brigands such Charles Taylor, Laurent Kabila and Foday Sankoh launched wars, pillaged and raped their own countries, not because of political objectives but merely to enrich themselves through diamonds, gold or other mineral wealth. Others do it more subtly – through non-violent means – by abusing the machinery of the state to enrich themselves in the form of ‘State Capture’ – including in Namibia. We talk of economic emancipation as the second phase of the struggle for independence.

Surely then, the time has come to also accept that democracy and human rights are a necessary pre-condition for any human progress. Wilfred Nasong’o Muliro of the University of Nairobi offers a glimmer of hope.

“The AU has learnt from the loopholes and weaknesses of the OAU by providing for intervention and employing versatility in the interpretation of the non-interference principle, unlike the OAU which interpreted the non-interference principle dogmatically.

“The AU has focused on good governance, human rights, democracy and economic development,” he wrote.

About time, is all one can say!



The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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