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Opinion Divided Over Africa's Future as AU Turns 50

President Robert Mugabe at AU Summit in 2011.

President Robert Mugabe at AU Summit in 2011.

There is a saying: “with age comes wisdom.” As the African Union (AU) celebrates turning 50 years old on Saturday at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, many are asking whether the institution is any smarter and more effective as it faces mounting security and developmental challenges across the continent.

Africa Day

On May 25th 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—the precursor to today’s African Union—was born. Since then May 25th has been a special day on the African calendar.

Founded by visionary leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the Organization of African Unity started with 32 signatory countries. Today the African Union has 54 member countries. The OAU's main aims were to promote unity and solidarity among member states and, most importantly, fight colonialism in all its forms on the continent. For most that fight was won in 1994 with the end of apartheid in South Africa. The OAU drifted for a few years after that, but leaders like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi sought to reinvigorate the institution.

By 2002 there was enough support to disband the OAU and reform it as the African Union under its then-chairperson, South African President Thabo Mbeki. With the new name came a reprioritization of the institution’s goals, including promoting stability, security, good governance, and economic cohesion and cooperation. But has the AU been as successful in addressing these issues as the OAU had been in fighting colonialism and minority rule?

Vision 2063

Some analysts say significant progress has been made by the AU on the security and governance fronts, but most agree that major challenges still remain, particularly in the fight against poverty and economic inequality.

In response to the persistence of these problems, in January this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African Commission, and the African Development Bank began developing a new blueprint for Africa called “Vision 2063,” a blueprint modeled largely on the economic boom that transformed much of East Asia over the decades following World War II. UNECA Executive Secretary Carlos Lopes says if East Asia can so dramatically improve the lives of its people over a few decades, so can Africa.

“I want an Africa that is going to be among the stars,” he says. “I do not think it is a dream to think that, because if you look into the age of the world population in most developed countries of today and they will not be able even to survive without the energy, the force that is going to come from the younger continent and the continent that will be really the last frontier for development. There's no reason why Southeast Asia in 30 years turned around completely their fortunes and that Africa cannot do the same.”

Mr. Lopes says to implement any plan, especially one as ambitious as Vision 2063, the continent needs good governance, but he cautions that sound leadership alone will not bring progress.

“Make no mistake,” he says, “it's not only about elections. It's much more sophisticated than that. It's actually about having planning capacity. It's about having a vision, a development approach that takes into account the need for quality information, managerial capacity, and so on and so on.”

Lopes is optimistic about Africa’s future, saying Africans’ self-confidence is on the rise. Plus, he says, other countries are coming to realize that Africa has much more potential than many realized. Most importantly, he says, demographic and other changes over the coming 50 years will boost Africa’s competitiveness globally.

“I see an Africa in 50 years that is completely different from what we have today. It's much more urbanized, much more younger with megalopolies that need to be managed properly with the largest workforce in the world.”

While Lopes might be optimistic about what the AU can deliver to the continent over the next half century, there are plenty of skeptics. Among those who are critical of the AU’s track record is Moeletsi Mbeki—author, economist, and brother of former South African president Thabo Mbeki.

One reason, Moeletsi Mbeki says, that the AU has largely failed to deliver the continent from poverty, disease and conflict is that most of its goals and ambitions were modeled on the European Union. “The AU has set itself a bigger ambition,” according to Mbeki, “but a lot of its ambitions in my view were copied from the European Union, so like all copies, it has not been easy to achieve since they did not create their own objectives.”

Mbeki says the current crop of African leaders has failed, and blasts programs touted by the AU and its partners as “wish lists,” not programs that can be realistically implemented. “The AU has lots of programs like NEPAD and all the rest of it,” he said, “but personally I haven't seen much action in terms of results. At least for the first 50 years I can say I saw the action which was supplying arms to liberation movements, providing bases for them, providing training facilities for them and helping defeat colonialism.”

Vision 2063

How do Zimbabweans see the AU legacy and future? Takura Zhangazha is a young Zimbabwean pan-Africanist. He applauds the OAU’s founding fathers for liberating the continent from colonial rule, but says the current leadership is failing.

“The OAU and the AU are historic organizations, particularly important to the development of Africa,” Zhangazha said. “Agreed there have been mistakes and flaws. Agreed there were challenges over and about anti-colonialism and liberation, but the work has been done. It can only be improved on and it’s upon Africans and African leaders to ensure that the values, principles and objectives of the OAU originally and the AU now are met democratically in a people-centered fashion. But when you look at the contemporary leadership, what they have failed to understand is the need to remain principled and focused on people-centered policies to guard against the easy co-optation into aggrandizement and leadership by proxy.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, those in leadership are less dismissive. Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara says the AU needs serious reforms if it is to realize the dreams of the OAU’s founding fathers, adding that regional integration within Africa should be the immediate focus for African leaders.

“Africa has got so much potential but we are wallowing in poverty, we are suffering from under-development,” Mutambara said. “We need to identify the strategic bottlenecks we have in Africa so we can deliver Africa’s promise, emphasizing matters of regional integration, emphasizing matters of beneficiation, matters of good governance and the need to be masters of our own destiny. We cannot continue to depend on foreign aid. Why don't we mobilize our resources—our oil, our diamonds, our manufacturing? The motive is what do we have to do to deliver Africa's promise?”

Mr. Mutambara said regional economic alliances can be especially beneficial. “We are saying let us collectivize our natural resources. Let's have a diamond cluster involving, for example, Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana and Namibia, that will be a massive cluster which can then drive beneficiation and value addition in the diamonds. And we can do the same for platinum with Zimbabwe and South Africa. That would dominate the world because 90 percent of platinum in the world is in these two countries.” Mutambara suggested oil-producing countries in Africa could do the same.


Despite all the hope and potential in Africa, at least one outside observer harbors doubts. Professor Stephen Chan with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London says African unity, in particular, is a distant prospect.

“I don't think, not in our lifetime anyway, that there's going to be African unity,” according to Mr. Chan. “There are 54 different countries in Africa and they all have their own agendas. There's not even going to be in the near future what we have got in Europe because there's just not enough to integrate. That can only happen at a much, much later stage of development and even the EU has taken decades to bring its current 27 members, so bringing together 54 is not going to work overnight.”

Mr. Chan says he doubts whether Africa’s elderly leadership has the energy and dynamism to bring positive change to the continent. He also questions how realistic it is to model African development on what transpired in Asia in the late 20th century, and says the West is not helping Africa to industrialize, which was key to Asia’s transformation.

“There's a whole lot of different set of impulses on the Asian side of the world that has made rapid progress possible,” Chan said. “Also, the West very deliberately tries to prevent Africa from getting too industrialized. They have actually set a limit to modernity. When you look at the Millennium Development Goals, for instance, there's actually nothing there about helping industrialize Africa. Now as long as Africa is just a producer of raw, unprocessed, unindustrialized materials, as long as Africa can't add its own manufacturing to its own products, it's never going to be like Asia.”