The AU's love for dithering leaves the West in charge, again

The last time the African Union held a pledge drive, only four African presidents showed up, including the host, then-Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi.

The said fundraiser, for the Somali famine, had been much-delayed, despite fierce criticism of Africa’s own inertia over the unfolding humanitarian crisis with memories of the Ethiopian famine still fresh.

To make matters worse, the amounts pledged bordered on the pitiful, starting with the AU’s own paltry donation of $500,000 - against a budget of $1.5 billion.

This week, another fundraiser was held at the same venue, this time for Mali. This time round, the folks at the AU were brighter, pegging it to the just-ended heads of state summit to ensure a full house. Unexpectedly, the AU pledged what it itself agreed was an “unprecedented” $50 million towards stabilising the war-torn country.

Some $455 million—half of the target - was raised, again mainly by pledging. The identity of the biggest donors was interesting: Japan, still shell-shocked after losing ten of its citizens to the Algerian hostage crisis, will fork out $120 million; the US, clearly terrified of a new terrorism front, will give $96 million; and Germany $20 million.

Interestingly, China and India pledged only $1 million each. So much for the South-South co-operation.

But I digress.

At any AU heads of state summit the unstated theme is always of African sovereignty—the "African solution to the African problem" dogma. While already criticised as nothing more than a cloak to protect their hold on power, it has become even harder to defend in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Africa's decision-makers' love for twiddling their thumbs and sitting on their hands has been on full display, forcing the West to step in - the very idea that is anathema to many of these leaders.

For their African sovereignty ruse to even survive this decade, the leaders need to ditch the NGO-model of endless conferencing in plush hotels, which achieves very little on the ground.

'Total reconquest'

The assault on northern Mali was mooted last year as Islamists rapidly seized huge swathes of the country. The UN in keeping with its penchant for bureaucracy, needed former colonial power France to draw up an intervention plan. Even then, boots could only be on the ground in September, the clever people in New York said.

This should have been a golden chance for the AU, and more specifically West Africa through its Ecowas grouping, to seize the moment and chart a solution—political or military—for Mali.

Instead Ecowas and AU heads shuttled leisurely between capitals, while military chiefs from member countries were as late as last week still engrossed in planning meetings.

France had to swiftly step in as the militants begun an ominous advance south, threatening Bamako, the capital.

At the weekend’s summit, outgoing AU chairman Thomas Boni Yayi told assembled African leaders that their response to the conflict in Mali had been too slow. France's action was something "we should have done a long time ago to defend a member country,” he admitted.

But unfortunately AU lethargy is not an isolated event. While African leaders again dithered endlessly over what to do over Libya, NATO jets bombed Muammar Gaddafi out of power.

It again took the intervention of the French to eject Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo from power, after he thumbed his nose at the popular will following an election he handily lost.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mess in the east appears patently unresolvable because African countries are themselves accused of fanning the conflict. In neighbouring Central African Republic, foreign troops continue to provide a bulwark against rebels eager to oust President Francois Bozize from power.

It remains manifest that the West will always find a reason to intervene as long as African leaders lack spine and continue to shield each other's regimes from regional and international justice.

And with each intervention, a little bit more of the continent’s much-touted sovereignty, and pride, is chipped away. It was telling to hear France say that its goal in Mali is “total reconquest.”

Would anyone bet against the next round of neo-colonialism?


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