Of piety and profanity

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The cycle has not so much turned for the modern day titans of pan-Africanism as ground to a halt. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was, as always, resplendent in a golden toga-like garb and matching headgear. He is the foremost champion of continental African unity, but pan-Africanism cannot be treated as personal patrimony. 

Gaddafi was the superstar at the 12th African Union summit held this week in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. He was elected chairman of the AU, replacing Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. A coterie of luminaries attended the much-publicised event including AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. This year’s summit, however, witnessed a record low attendance of African leaders. Perhaps, many were suffering from summit fatigue. Conspicuously absent were North African leaders, with the notable exception, of course, of Gaddafi. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif represented Egypt, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit was also in attendance. 

To be sure, the AU has had more than its fair share of unresolved history. Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, a pioneering pan- Africanist, had envisioned the continent as a United States of Africa. Nkrumah’s dream was not to be. Other African leaders were suspicious of his motives. History appears to be repeating itself today with Gaddafi calling for the realisation of Nkrumah’s vision and a host of other African leaders rejecting it. Most African leaders today adopt a “gradualist” approach to African continental unity. This strategy is far from risk-free.

Gaddafi, like Nkrumah, conceives of nothing short of a single continental government. However, such a government entails the relinquishment of sovereignty and few African leaders are prepared to concede such vested interests. 

The 53 member states of the AU are divided over the question of African Unity. South Africa and the host nation Ethiopia, along with two thirds of the member states of the pan-African body want a slower pace towards continental unity and a sharper focus on the immediate challenges facing Africa. These states are always cautious in a crisis. Firebrand Libya and the smaller African nations buttressed by Tripoli’s largesse insist on unity now or never. Underdevelopment has thrust Africans together. But a longer lasting coincidence of interests underpins the necessity for continental unity. Forging a union of big and small nations is in the interest of a more effective and emphatic AU. But the differences go deeper. Richer and potentially more prosperous African nations are reluctant to share their wealth with the poorer ones.

Yet the predicament is not as stark as at first appears. All African countries agree that some form of unity is prerequisite if the continent is to advance socially and economically. “Do we form a union government at the continental level with ministers of defence, foreign affairs and finance as Libya says? Or, do we reinforce the executive powers of the AU Commission on the model of the EU which means a body with an executive based on the principle of subsidiarity?” explained the former chairman of the AU Commission, ex-Malian president Alpha Oumar Konare. 

Subsidiarity? Now that is a somewhat clumsy word, and yet one instinctively gets the gist of the London-trained economist Konare. And, more importantly the AU is not exactly on the brink. The pan-African body is not fighting for its life. It is more a question of giving meaning to its dispirited existence. 

To some, this may seem an overreaction. The fact that the 53 nations could not reach an agreement was disappointing, to put it mildly. No consensus was reached for a concise roadmap pointing the way to continental unity. Yes, a draft Social Policy Framework for social development on a continental scale was approved. And, yes, the onus was on the Peace and Security Council (PSC) that is intended to resolve the continent’s problems on a continental basis. 

But, the paparazzi were not interested in either the PSC or the SPF. What the world wanted to watch was the spectacle of the noble savage of yesteryear. And, the African leaders gathered in Addis Ababa heartily approved. Among the dignitaries present were Iguru Solomon of the Kingdom of Bunyoro, Queen Best Kamugisha, Mother of the Toro Kingdom (both Bunyoro and Toro are in modern-day Uganda). And, there was King Tossoh Gbagnidi of Benin. The personal chemistry between these colourful representatives of colonial and pre-colonial Africa and the spectacular Gaddafi was palpable. This was, ironically, colonial theatre at its finest. After all, it was the British who invented these faux royalty and tribal leaders were invariably darlings of the West, however mischievous. What was noticeably absent was a rational justification for their attendance from the point of view of African independence.

Of course the spectacle was bound to show up inadequacies in the AU’s rationale. But then it’s difficult to decipher the reasoning behind some of the AU official statements. For instance, AU Commission Chairman Ping boasted that the capture in Rwanda of Congolese armed opposition leader Laurent Nkunda was “heralding promising prospects”. How that is promising defies logic because the AU in fact had nothing to do with Nkunda’s demise. 

It’s all right for a rebel leader to be brought to book but it is unacceptable for an African head of state to face the music. The African leaders characteristically came to the defence of Sudan’s beleaguered president, acceding that the “AU urges the suspension of International Criminal Court charges against Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir,” and in the same breath “urges an end to the problem of impunity in Darfur”. Of course, they declined to specify exactly how they intend to square this circle.

Gaddafi was once again on a pedestal all by himself. The other star attraction at the AU summit was Somalia’s new president, Sheikh Sherif Ahmed. He has everything going for him for the time being. An American citizen, a moderate Islamist leader — whatever that means — who abhors violence and preaches peace and reconciliation, his youthful good looks and Islamic dress conferred on him star status. A leader of the Council of Islamic Courts, he quickly rose through the ranks with Washington’s nod of approval to fill the vacuum created by the departure of Ethiopian troops. 

Appurtenances and appearances, it seems, counted for much at the Addis Ababa summit. What Gaddafi really makes of him is a mystery. 

This Somali was not the only newly-elected African leader. Zambia’s President Rupiah Banda, South Africa’s Kgalema Motlanthe and Ghana’s John Atta-Mills were all warmly welcomed to the exclusive club of African leaders assembled in Addis Ababa. 

However, all eyes were fixed on the Somali leader. The handsome sheikh’s ascendancy suggests that for all the energy and professionalism the US-approved Islamists of Somalia display, they are not only capable of staving off a Taliban-like government but of acting directly in the interests of the US. 

A throng of adoring crowds cheered the sheikh and yet there are worrying signs. The militant Islamist Shabab movement remains formidable. It is impossible to wander around Somali cities these days without coming across enthusiastic hooded young canvassers with AK machine guns. 

Whatever the problems ahead, the new Somali president seems up to the task. Or, will he? Like the exquisitely tailored Karzai of Afghanistan, he must create an entire Western-style democracy out of less than nothing, a sound, transparent and accountable public administration. Whether the Somali people would allow him is another matter.

The lesson from this week’s gala is an inconclusive one. The chemistry of personal relations within the African Union was both spooky and startling. The stimulus for African unity must come quickly even though complexity militates against collective action. The most politically potent emotion of the past was African liberation. Today, the animating passion is overcoming poverty and want.

African politics can be correspondingly raw. The revolutionary rubbing shoulders with ghosts from the past was grating for anyone who actually cares about the serious quest of meaningful African unity, that is, economic development, political presence, empowerment of the underdog. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was still a Russia, however battered, to carry on as a counterweight to American hegemony. Unfortunately, behind the AU there is no such a coherent power to act as catalyst in the face of the relentless pressures from across the Atlantic. The fear now is that with an African-American as US president and another African-American representing the US at the UN, Africa will be seduced by this scripting and become the Jewel in the Crown of pax Americana.