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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/6/18

Can the African Union rise from the ashes?

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Message Melodie Dendrick


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When President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Joseph Kabila lied about his forces shooting pro-democracy protesters, his timing could hardly have been more ironic. At the same time, African leaders were getting ready to gather in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa for the 30 th African Union (AU) summit. Under the theme of anti-corruption , African leaders struck an upbeat tone about the future of the continent -- even if the reasons to be optimistic are few and far between.

At the center of this year's agenda were long-touted efforts to end corruption across the continent, as well as implementing AU reforms spearheaded by a commission under the leadership of Rwandan President and AU chairman Paul Kagame. The reforms are meant to improve the impact of the organization, enforce anti-corruption measures and hopefully usher in a new era for Africa.

Kagame was keen to spread positive vibes, but after two days of high-flying speeches, it's clear the summit won't change much. The AU is only as strong as its weakest members, of which there are many. Consequently, it's unsurprising that the organization has remained ineffectual and dysfunctional since its founding in 2001.

It's a fact that corruption in Africa takes many forms and goes far beyond the financial realm. At the core of Africa's corruption issues is the abuse of power and fleecing of public resources for personal gain, with the perpetrators usually occupying the highest positions of power. Africa is home to most of the longest-serving autocrats in the world , many lording over countries broken by decades of strife and conflict.

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And it starts with the AU chairman, Paul Kagame. Though keen on promoting the image of a new Africa, he stands accused of engaging in acts of high-scale corruption that have led Rwanda to be addicted to aid and hobbled by foreign debt s exceeding $2 billion. Once a shining hope for the country, Kagame's star has waned dramatically after he decided to trample over basic democratic freedoms and run for a third presidential term -- which he won last year with over 95% of the vote.

If the AU's leadership is crooked, there's little hope that other countries will adhere to calls to end corruption, stop audacious power-grabs, or halt societal repression. Under Kagame, any forward-looking statements will be just for show. And right before the summit, it was DRC President Kabila's press conference that painfully showed how far the AU is from making a difference.

Much like Kagame, Kabila has clung to power for seventeen years, in violation of presidential term limits. Refusing to uphold his end of a deal brokered in December 2016 to hold elections at the end of his mandate, pro-democracy protests erupted on every side of the country -- prompting him to send in the army to calm things down. This has forced the United Nations peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, initially deployed at Kabila's behest, to take on the mantle of protecting civilians.

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More significantly, opposition leader Moïse Katumbi has been raising the temperature on Kabila's regime. As a result, Kabila forced him out of the country on bogus allegations, and Katumbi has since sought refuge in Europe to escape political persecution. Katumbi, a former governor of the DRC's Katanga province, has much support in the country due to his outspokenness against Kabila's increasingly violent rule. In January, he warned that Kabila will be " chased " out of office if he goes through with his plans to hold a referendum to change the constitution, allowing him to run for president once again..

In Uganda, meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni seems equally determined to hold on to power forever. Museveni, who has been President for more than three decades since taking the reins in a 1986 rebellion, was audacious enough to describe himself as a "wonderful dictator" in a 2017 interview. He staunchly insists that -- seeing how he has been "elected" five times -- Uganda is the most democratic nation in the world and that he does need not be schooled in the ethics of democracy.

If extensive vote-rigging weren't enough, Museveni has also succeeded in extending the presidential age limit, which is capped at 75 years (Museveni is 73). The Ugandan Parliament recently voted to scrap it altogether, and extend presidential terms to seven years. This new law could see Museveni potentially rule till 2037, provided he achieves Robert Mugabe levels of longevity.

Against this backdrop of developments, the need to reform the AU is particularly salient. However, while institutional changes, such as making the organization financially self-reliant, are important on their own, they're missing the point. The AU needs to develop teeth, and the best way to do so is to enable it to effectively intervene in member countries and upend conflicts where need arises.

This requires the revoking of member states' power to invoke sovereignty as an excuse for their actions or implement continental decisions. For that to happen, support from other leaders across the continent is needed. The Catch 22 is that Kagame and other strongmen like Kabila and Museveni have no interest in seeing the AU intervene in their countries. Proposals of that kind are therefore doomed from the start. A vicious circle thus created, it's no wonder the AU has consistently failed to achieve its objectives.

The hurdles to overcome are enormous, especially since the majority of Africa's challenges lie in the political ambition of African leaders. Kagame may speak like a reformer but given his own background, such claims become ridiculous. The continent's best hopes lie not in dated figures of the past but in opposition figures like Katumbi winning power and reversing old mores. Until then, it's just going to be business as usual in Africa.

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Melodie studied international affairs and African politics at the University of Edinburgh with stints in various African countries for her thesis research.
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Can the African Union rise from the ashes?