Although there is no organisation in Africa that is as frequently “badmouthed” as the African Union (AU), it has done it again! At its summit in Addis Ababa in July, it voted four times before it selected the person who should head the commission that runs its secretariat (or in former times the “secretary general” of the organisation). The word used by the news agencies to describe the voting process was “acrimonious”. Yet the organisation was supposed to move on immediately to discuss trade relations between member countries – a subject that needs “acrimony” as much as a bullet in the head.
The AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), had been in similar situations before - in the debate over recognition of Angola in 1975; and much earlier, a split down the middle in 1971 over a secret diplomatic offensive mounted by the apartheid regime in South Africa, attempting to try to pry the independent African states from their unconditional support for the liberation movements of South Africa, especially the ANC. The secret diplomatic offensive was dubbed the “dialogue” initiative, and was canvassed in the councils of Africa on behalf of South Africa by the then Ivorian president, the late Felix Houphouet-Boigny.
Houphouet-Boigny got the support of a group of African leaders all of whose surnames somehow began with the letter “B” – Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Kofi Busia of Ghana, and Omar Bongo of Gabon.
Unfortunately for the “B Class” of African leaders (as they became known by irreverent African political commentators), many of their fellow heads of state saw through the manoeuvres of the apartheid regime: they asked themselves, “if the apartheid regime truly wants ‘dialogue’, why doesn’t it negotiate directly with the South African liberation movements but with us? In what way are we different from, or superior to, the black-skinned leaders of the liberation movements?”
Thus, the “dialogue” offensive was defeated, but not before it had sown seeds of suspicion amongst the African community of nations. Indeed, eventually the issue of South Africa was resolved through “dialogue”, but “dialogue” of the correct type; that is, one between the principals – namely, the apartheid regime and the main liberation movement, the ANC.
Lessons of history
The earlier proposal for “dialogue” had been meant to put the South African liberation movements on the sidelines, and in reality, what the South Africans had been trying to do was to pretend that since they were willing to “negotiate” a solution with the independent African states, the latter should not only allow South Africa to open embassies in African countries but also urge the UN to drop the economic and political sanctions that had been imposed on the apartheid regime.
It was a very ingenious initiative which, as was revealed later, was accompanied by monetary bribes. The revelations, which came from South Africa itself, became known as the “Muldergate scandal” – the disbursement of vast sums of money in both Africa and elsewhere in the world, by a group headed by a bureaucrat of the information ministry of South Africa, Eschel Rhoodie, and his minister, Dr Connie Mulder. They purchased, or tried to “organise” political goodwill for South Africa abroad, by clandestinely infiltrating media bodies, especially newspapers, worldwide.
They bought West Africa magazine, for instance, though this was so badly received that they had to give up ownership, which was then taken up by the Nigerian government-owned Daily Times Group.
It is thus ironic that the most recent “acrimony” within the AU should also involve South Africa. It occurred over nothing more than the wish of South Africa to get its home affairs minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, elected as chair of the AU Commission (the body that controls the AU bureaucracy at its headquarters in Addis Ababa). That the occupation of this post occasioned so much rivalry only served to cement the perception that African countries are currently preoccupied more by matters of prestige than in the crucial issues that matter to the continent.
Dlamini-Zuma won the chairmanship after four balloting sessions. She is the first female ever to head the organisation. That it took four ballots, although balloting had been postponed six months earlier, because neither she nor Jean Ping of Gabon (the incumbent who was seeking re-election) had managed to obtain the two-thirds majority needed, shows how tight the voting was.
In the six months following the first and second votes, much campaigning was carried out by supporters of the two candidates, and it is that which might well have damaged the AU for many years to come. For the campaigning indicated clearly that the organisation is badly split between its two main linguistic groups – the Anglophone and Francophone countries.
But that seems a bit simplistic: a subtext was revealed, which shows that some of the Anglophones support an informal “understanding” that had hitherto emerged, under whichthe two “giant” nations of Africa – South Africa and Nigeria – voluntarily refrained from contesting the more important positions in the AU.
Of course, in breaking this unwritten convention, South Africa is fully within its legal rights. But it will no doubt be rewarded with a certain amount of suspicion from some member states.
Has South Africa indeed won a “pyrrhic” victory? Certainly, the accusations that have been levelled against South Africa during the campaigning have sometimes been embarrassing. For instance, the deadlock had caused the AU’s chairperson, President Yayi Boni of Benin, to warn his fellow heads of state that failure by the continental body to resolve the leadership problem would divide and undermine the AU and its credibility in the world.
At a news conference earlier in the day before the vote, Dlamini-Zuma sought to dispel fears that South Africa might seek to use the AU post to try to dominate the continent. And the South Africa newspaper, the Times of Johannesburg, claimed in an editorial that “the race was ... spoiled by dirty tricks by some who said South Africa did not deserve to hold the top post.”
The paper alleged that campaigners for Jean Ping “allegedly launched a stinging attack on President Jacob Zuma”, accusing him of trying to use his former wife “as a Trojan horse for the benefit of international financial institutions”.
The Times expressed the belief that Dlamini Zuma’s election would give “millions of women and girls across the continent hope for the future. Above all, it also levels the playing field in the male-dominated realm of African politics.”
It quoted Dlamini-Zuma as saying that some smaller countries had argued that South Africa, by pushing her candidacy, had broken “an unwritten rule that Africa’s dominant states should not contest the AU leadership.” But, she explained, South Africa was not “going to come to Addis Ababa to run the AU. It is Dlamini-Zuma who is going to come to make a contribution.”
But several charges were levelled against South Africa’s campaign tactics. One allegation was that South Africa had paid Malawi to vote for its candidate. But Malawian and South African officials rejected the suggestion of impropriety. Nthombile Mapude, Malawi’s high commissioner to South Africa, said that although South Africa gave Malawi a $35m loan this April, the money was to be used “to mitigate the country’s fuel crisis”, and had “nothing to do with the [AU] chairmanship vote whatsoever”.
Such incidents produce a particularly depressing effect on Africans in general. But we must not forget that our leaders have stopped shy of constituting the AU into an “African government”, and it is therefore unrealistic for us to expect the AU to perform functions that are best performed not only by a single government but one that has real teeth.
The Mali coup
If such a government was in being, I doubt whether the coup in Mali would have been allowed to create the situation in which the country now finds itself, with a weak, almost non-existent government in the centre at Bamako, whilst holy shrines and monuments in northern towns like Timbuktu are being desecrated by religious militants linked to Al Qaeda. Four months after the coup, the AU is still talking about forming a government of national unity, whereas it should have taken action immediately it realised that Captain Amadou Sanogo (the leader of the coup) and his entourage were opportunists who did not have the interests of Mali at heart.
The Mali coup of 22 March was typical, in that it started as a mutiny by ordinary infantrymen dissatisfied with their living conditions, and was seized upon by a crafty, disgruntled officer, who had an agenda of his own.
Captain Sanogo, 39, announced on Mali TV that the military had overthrown the government headed by a respected ex-general, Ahmadou Toumani Toure. Toure was highly thought of because he had saved Mali from the dictatorship of General Moussa Traore in 1991. Instead of staying on in power, he organised elections which brought in a civilian president, Alpha Omar Konare (who later became the first chairman of the AU Commission). It was only after Konare had completed his two terms as president of Mali as demanded by the constitution, that Toumani Toure was persuaded to stand, as a civilian, for the presidency.
Now, why would any sane person overthrow a president who was due to leave office in six weeks time? Captain Sanogo’s excuse was that President Toure was not providing the Malian army with adequate resources to effectively prosecute a military campaign against Touareg rebels in northern Mali.
Those who knew Mali well realised that the Touareg rebellion could not be the true cause of the coup, precisely because the Touaregs had been fighting every regime in Mali since the country gained its independence from France in 1960. In fact, the reason why Sanogo carried out his coup was both personal and opportunistic.
Mali is a landlocked nation that has long taken pride in its democratic record, “despite”, says the Associated Press (AP), “its chronic poverty and repeated rebellions in the north.” In the past decade, AP adds, “the US alone has poured close to $1bn into Mali, including development aid as well as military training to battle an al-Qaeda offshoot in the north.”
In furtherance of its programme of “training” the Malian army, the US had sent Sanogo on six training missions in the US. The missions started “in 1998 when [Sanogo] was sent to an infantry training course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He returned in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2010 to attend some of the most prestigious military institutions in America, including the Defence Language Institute at the Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
What ideas did these training missions in America put in the head of Sanogo? Probably that he was smarter than his superior officers, and certainly, the president of his country?
Just a few weeks before his March takeover, Sanogo had been due to go abroad again, this time, on a peacekeeping training course. Sanogo, then an English-language teacher at a military college, had earlier failed several exams in officer school, but because of his previous training courses in the US and because he spoke and taught English, he gave off a worldly air, which made the rank-and-file soldiers look up to him. He frequently socialised with them, unlike other officers who adhered to the strict hierarchy of military life.
But Sanogo was not looked upon with favour by his senior officers, and was among several instructors fired in 2011 at a military college, where five recruits had died in a widely-publicised incident involving the initiation of recruits. He was sent back to another camp with no function, where, according to an officer interviewed by the AP, he “had absolutely nothing to do!”
In the meantime, anger had been growing at the corruption of military generals who sat in lavishly decorated offices while their soldiers were routinely sent to the battlefield without proper boots.
Troops at a camp called Kati started to plan a march to protest against the way the government had handled the Touareg rebellion. At around 1 pm on 21 March, the Malian minister of defence, Gen. Sadio Gassama, went to the Kati barracks to ask the soldiers to call off their march. But, predictably, the minister’s attitude infuriated them, and as they became rowdy, the minister’s bodyguard fired shots into the air. They then stoned the minister’s car as his driver sped away. The soldiers next went into full mutiny mode, broke open the armoury, and emptied it of its arms and ammunition. Then they began hunting down officers. Nearly all of the officers fled or went into hiding. All, except Sanogo, whose recent troubles had given him credibility with the ordinary soldiers.
Led by Sanogo, the soldiers took the presidential palace. The president was not there: he had fled from the palace and gone into hiding. The mutineers then went to Mali TV and announced that they had taken over.
Sanogo said the army had only seized power to address the rebellion in the north. But it was a total lie, for the coup in Bamako actually emboldened the rebels to take advantage of the confusion to seize the northern half of the country.
Among the groups that invaded the north was Ansar al Din, or “Defenders of the Faith,” an Islamic faction with ties to al-Qaeda. It is Ansar al Din that recently destroyed some of the holy shrines and tombs that form part of Timbuktu’s cultural relics, some of them UNESCO “World Heritage” sites.
As usual, the AU left the Mali troubles in the hands of the regional organisation, in this case, Ecowas. And Ecowas, under the chairmanship of Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire, asked President Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso, to negotiate with Sanogo & Co. for a return to constitutional rule.
Ouattara might have thought that since Campaore was an ex-soldier who had seen the benefits of civilian rule, he would be able to negotiate with Sanogo to see reason. But Campaore and his foreign minister, another ex-soldier, were rather sympathetic to the soldiers and saw in them an opportunity to increase their own influence in the region. So they agreed to Sangono’s demand that the president of the National Assembly, Dioncounda Traore, should take over the country.
Meanwhile, Sanogo would be treated as an ex-head of state, retained in the government without specific functions but plenty of influence (derived from the soldiers he controlled) and paid $9,000 per month – more than 30 times his salary as a captain!
He had apparently sold the illusory idea to his Burkinabe fellow-soldiers that he was the only one who could lead the Malian army to take Ecowas troops into northern Mali to reunite the country. And they, in turn, had sold the idea to Ecowas!
So, encouraged by the conciliatory attitude of Ecowas towards him, Sanogo’s followers showed their hand by physically assaulting the interim president he had himself installed, Dioncounda Traore. He was so badly beaten that he was evacuated to Paris to receive medical treatment.
Now, at last, Ecowas has served Sanogo notice that it does not recognise him as a former head of state, and has threatened sanctions against him if he continues to obstruct the return to constitutional rule.
But the delay in getting a government with a firm grip in Bamako has meant that the rebels in the north continue to hold sway there, threatening to destroy ever more relics of Mali’s culture, left as a heritage to the people over hundreds of years.
I discovered, when I attended an AU meeting in Tunis in April this year, that some of the African diplomats at the conference were apologists for Sanogo’s military rule.
Because of the Al Qaeda connection with the Touareg rebellion, some of these diplomats were not interested in restoring constitutional rule to Mali, in case the new government that came to power did not exhibit the same hostile attitude towards the rebellion as Sanogo did.
And these diplomats seemed to be carrying Ecowas with them, and in consequence, the AU. Another complication was an unstated question but one that was as huge as the elephant in the room: Did Sanogo have the secret support of the Americans?
Until the AU can look at issues of that nature with an objective eye that appraises situations on the basis of a principle it has enunciated itself – in this case, an intolerance of the coups d’etat, no matter who carries it out – it will not be able to fulfil its role of saving Africa from crises. It will continue to fail the people of Africa. And one day, the people will make their voices heard. And it will not be a pleasant noise for the leaders, I am sure.