Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Africa: Lessons from North African Uprisings for 2012 as AU’s Year of ‘Shared Values’

Source: ISS

Lessons from North African Uprisings for 2012 as AU’s Year of ‘Shared Values’

Solomon A. Dersso, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, Addis Ababa Office

The launch of ‘The year of shared values’ at the 18th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Assembly later this month is taking place in the wake of unprecedented popular uprisings that toppled authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. If shared values of the AU are to play a meaningful role in the discourse and practice of democracy and human rights in Africa, lessons should be learnt from the North African popular uprisings.

The events in North Africa brought into sharp focus the tension between the AU’s commitments to both human security and state security, with the latter prioritising state-centric norms such as sovereignty and stability, over commitments to democracy and human rights. As former South African President Thabo Mbeki observed, the North African uprisings presented Africa with a painful dilemma of how to resolve the tension. In Mbeki’s words, ‘The stark choice Africa faced was – should we side with the demonstrators or with the governments they demanded should resign?’

How did the AU manage the dilemma? With the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt unfolding with shocking speed and vigour and Libya descending in to a full-blown civil war, the AU decided to ‘have its cake and eat it’. While the AU expressed support for the aspirations of the peoples of these countries for freedom, democracy and better opportunities, its approach towards the governments that such people demanded should go away, was weak and lacking in resolve. The AU did not go further than condemning what it called ‘indiscriminate attacks’ against peaceful protestors by the Libyan authorities. Although there were dangers of serious crimes – envisaged under Article 4 (h) of the Constitutive Act – being perpetrated, the AU did not invoke the required measures including sanctions and intervention.

Despite weaknesses in the AU’s approach to the events in North Africa and its not-so-unreasonable opposition to NATO’s military intervention, one clear message of the North African uprisings was that democracy, human rights and good governance should be taken much more seriously within the AU system than has been the case thus far. This is also the most logical means to justly resolve the tension between the AU’s commitment to human security and state security. The AU needs to sieze the opportunity that the events offer to press on its member states to address visible deficiencies in their commitments to democracy, good governance and human rights as well as equitable socio-economic development. Such steps would give meaningful expression to the ‘Year of Shared Values’.

Statements that the AU leadership made in recent months give credence to the fact that the AU needs to capitalise on the issues that the uprisings highlighted. In a statement that he made during the 275th meeting of AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) Ministers, dedicated to a debate on the state of peace and security in Africa, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ambassador Lamamra, told member states of the PSC:

Regarding democratisation and the building of good governance, we need to spare no efforts at all, as failure to uphold democracy and good governance brings big dangers to our continent. The continent is witnessing an increase in election‐related and governance‐linked crises. This trend must be arrested before it reaches unmanageable proportions. The deepening of democracy and improving political and economic governance could significantly contribute to our efforts to prevent conflicts on the continent.

Last, but not least, it is urgent that we invest in employment‐generating economic policies that would provide jobs and better incomes for the population, especially the youth, and contribute to elevating standards of living across the continent. Indeed, this is one way of preventing future uprisings, like those we are witnessing in North Africa.

Jean Ping, Chairperson of the AU Commission, reiterated similar points. At the opening of the Malabo Summit on 30 June 2011, while hailing the changes in Tunisia and Egypt as a "new advance" in Africa`s decades-long march towards democracy, he urged all African governments to see "the popular uprisings" as an occasion to recommit themselves to the AU`s democracy agenda.

This message received further force from another lesson of the uprisings on the relationship between socio-economic development and democratisation. With the rising economic fortunes of Asian countries that eschew democratic systems of government and their increasing influence in Africa, the view that economic development should take priority over democratisation has been gaining traction as many in Africa look to the East both as model and source of capital. The events in North Africa cast doubt over this view and revealed the inadequacy of delivery-based legitimacy. The lesson for Africa is that, while it is appropriate for governments to accord urgency and priority to addressing the pervasive socio-economic needs of their Africans, African governments ignore achieving functioning democracies and institutionalising and deepening good governance at their peril. The North African events are indicative that in the years to come popular demands for more democratisation are likely to be a source of political instability and crisis on the continent.

Meanwhile there are certain fundamental questions that need to be properly addressed if meaningful progress is to be made in terms of democratisation and respect for human rights. Does the AU have the requisite legal and political powers to scrutinise the democratic and human rights performance of its member states and enforce compliance with principles of democracy and human rights? Can the AU tell a member state what to do and how to do it? Does it possess the technical capacity for initiating and supporting democratic reforms? What are the measures that the AU and its member states are willing to take against defaulting states?

One measure that the AU Commission may need to explore is to elaborate credible sanctions that would need to be attached to states’ commitments to democracy and human rights, akin to those applied against unconstitutional changes of government. In this regard, the statement by the AU Peace and Security Commissioner, Lamamra, at the 284th meeting of the PSC, is commendable. As he explained,

The AU should have the necessary capacity to enforce compliance by all Member States with all its instruments. This should be coupled with credible deterrent measures against non-compliance and violation of AU instruments and frameworks by member states.

With regard to capacity, the uprisings in North Africa illustrated that the role that the AU plays in facilitating and ensuring the implementation of the norms on democracy, human rights and governance in member states is critical if such uprisings and other crisis situations are to be prevented. Ultimately, this will also be a litmus test for the AU to prove its continued legitimacy and credibility particularly in the eyes of ordinary African men and women throughout the continent who routinely face oppression and injustice at the hands of their governments.