I read an article under the title, “Is African union Good for Africa and Ethiopia” penned by Amanuel Biedemariam, dated January 25, 2018, posted on Meskerem.net. The article  argued that AU has not been good for Africans. It cited the lack of participation by Africans in setting the agenda of the organization, its direction, and funding. Furthermore, the article devoted a great deal of space on how the current Ethiopian regime has used the continental body to whitewash its domestic political turmoil.
While I partially agree with the points he raised, I believe there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye. Considering the space that he had given it, Amanuel presented as if Ethiopia and solving Ethiopian problems was the primary reason for which the AU exists. The article attempts to give the impression that it was criticizing the AU from a Pan-Africanist angle. Yet, it is clear that the author was arguing the subject from a perspective of the supporting base of the Eritrean government. Thus, my argument will follow the itinerary of his thoughts.
At this stage, I want readers to know that I’m not a fan of the African Union, nor an admirer of its predecessor. I understand the past historical mistakes of this organization concerning Eritrea and Eritreans. But I am a realistic person. I argue that it is better to perfect what we have than searching for a new organization.
It is a platform
As a continental organization, the African Union is a platform where member-nations advance their respective interests. Countries make alliances, trading partners, security pacts, etc. It is a continental institution where each member-nation tries to find a space. The notion that all members are created equal does not hold the truth in forums such as the UN, AU and other regional and international agencies. Where a nation finds itself overwhelmed by the cacophony of the mammoths, it teams up with friends that share its interests and demands. As it happens in similar institutions, nations need to be smart enough to outsmart their adversarial competitors. Opting out is like slipping down the negative zone- not only that you will lose benefits from engaging counterparts, but you will also incur repercussions equivalent to the positive impact your adversarial competitor is gaining in the AU.
The second point of the article’s thrust focused on criticizing the way the organization is funded and governed. Some of Amanuel’s assertions:
- “The African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa was built by China as a gift for Africa…”
- “…80% of the AU’s funds come from international donors… “
- “All its agendas are directed by directives from superpowers.”
- Therefore, the African Union has “no African bone and runs no African agenda… “
Some degree of scrutiny is needed here.
- The fact is that all international agencies including the AU are components of world order. Each of the regional bodies needs to be seen in a wider scheme where international cooperation and complementary roles are expected. Today, it is hard to find absolutely independent and self-sustaining entities. Our world is interconnected more than ever. Each polity is viewed within the broader global community. If Africa needs to grow its economy, inevitably, it will have to swallow a portion of its pride: it literally has to beg for donors and investors. Even developed countries lobby for big corporations and provide them with incentives to invest in their economies. China is the big guy with the deep pocket in that region of the world. Nevertheless, China has reached this status by bending for other countries and companies just the way African nations ought to do. Therefore, China’s donation to build the AU headquarter is a small token compared to the amount of money China has been pouring in Africa. How is that an Eritrean citizen scolds the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia (again, I have criticized him fiercely, but not on this particular matter) for persuading China to donate the money that built the building that Eritrean Representative to the AU is utilizing?
- Of course, setting African agendas by Africans is good. And no concrete evidence points to the fact that African leaders did not participate in setting the African agendas. The mere inclusion of foreign firms and individuals in developing AU vision and mission statements does not preclude AU from owning its agendas. It’s not uncommon for agencies and countries to seek for funds and technical assistance from qualified firms and individuals. It happens all over the world- all the time.
Today, big NGO institutions, such as the Bill Gates foundation, are influencing and shaping countries policies. International consulting firms are hired to assist with economic and financial plans. International agencies and tribunals are set to managing conflicts and for diffusing disagreements between and within nations, in some cases sending observers that monitor the validity of elections, which is more intrusive than Tony Blair’s role in developing African agendas. Multinational corporations are influencing policy instruments of countries; humanitarian agencies are delivering aids and development funds, and so on.
In a way, each of these organizations does what it does to increase the influence and interest of the countries that provide the funds. Those counties have independent media, civil societies, and constituencies that watch where their money goes.
Therefore, the mere appearance of China and Tony Blair on the scene does not change whether African people are going to own their agenda or not. Africans could own their agendas only when they can elect their leaders. African Union will be more perfected ONLY when the domestic politics of each of the member-nation is perfected. Leaders who don’t answer to their people could still set their agendas. However, there is no guarantee that they won’t behave the way they behave when they are propped up by foreign powers because the problem is not with China or Tony Blair but with the way African leaders assume power. That includes our leaders. So, where do I think the problem lies?
Lack of accountable governments
With a growing number of states endorsing constitutional governance, Africa may superficially look to be practicing modern politics where elected governments are supposed to be answerable to their constituencies. In reality, though, it has not moved considerably from the era of chiefdoms and “big-man” rule. One may see structures of government designed to ensure checks and balances but Africans are far from seeing their leaders restrained by the rules and regulations their constitutions sanction. Corruption and the abuse of power are rampant.
Why lack of accountable governments
- The elite class that romanticizes their colonizers
At the heart of the history of African politics lies an elite class that has tried to Europeanize Africa. Instead of custom-tailoring political features that fit the unique needs of their people, African leaders imported ready-made ideologies, and political practices from every corner of the globe, primarily from their former colonizers. They tried to install American and/or European political experience in their societies which were living in a much different socio-economic level. Instead of Africanizing democracy, where each of African societies’ experience had a role in writing the new constitutions, they set to Europeanize African political culture. The division of most African countries into Anglophone and Francophone Blocs is a telltale sign of that legacy. Even the administrative, judicial, and parliamentary laws and procedures, languages, customs, artifacts, etc., have made little changes. Just look at the magistrates in most Anglophone countries with their wigs!! Why do Africans need white wigs anyway? What does a wig have to do with dispensing justice, and why should Africans wear them when the Americans- who are close cousins to the British- cast them many centuries ago? Commonwealth? What have they gained from CommonWealth?
- History has not been kind to the continent
The Cold war had its adverse effects. Fledgling African nations became easy prey for superpowers. Soon after the period of decolonization, military take-overs became the norm. African dictators found refuge in the effects of cold war. Some have become lifelong servants of either bloc; others changed hands between the East and West depending on the need of prolonging their rule. Thus, since its foundation in 1963, the African Union has not changed much in the substance of its aspirational mission, and none of its founding objectives have been met satisfactorily. However, this should not hold us back from playing our role to make AU better.
- Africa and globalization
When ideas of globalization picked speed, African economies and political structures were unprepared to adapt to the changing economic, ideological and political trends. Spurred by computerization and internet technology, while the rest of the world strived towards global integration, Africa had not completely settled national sovereignty issues. Some countries, like Eritrea, were new on the scene; others, like South Africa, were emerging from centuries of white minority rule. Old grudges and mistrust prevailed among African leaders. When addressing Africans, each of the leaders acted as if they were wholeheartedly for African interest. However, behind the scene, each of them stabbed each other’s back by conspiring with foreign superpowers, undermining the advancement of Africa. The storm of globalization has sent urges in African leaders to make money out of every investment proposals. Big corporations have flooded the continent with money in an environment where there were no strong governmental mechanisms to control corruption and no sound justice institutions where citizens can take corrupt officials. In many African countries, citizens have been robbed off of their natural resources and in the process sustained environmental disasters. That has been the general trend in Africa with some exception of governments that have pulled some of their citizens out of poverty.
Therefore, Africa has yet to design smart economic policies to catch up with the rest of the developing world. This objective can’t be achieved while they continue investing their meager income in ensuring dictatorial regimes-instead of spending it on health and education. Amanuel argues that AU is not suitable for Africans because they “have no say in this because they don’t have access” to it. True, but this binds each of the nation-members including Eritrea. The complete picture would be one in which each of the member-nations has optimized their domestic affairs, and where AU was a projection of the internal prosperity and tranquility of each of the member-countries. The strength of AU comes from the strength of each of its members. Let’s strengthen our country so that it could contribute more in making AU stronger. Eritrea is a member of AU and it has a representative who participated in the 30th African Summit held from 22nd-29th of January 2018, in Addis Ababa.
- Now, let’s have a little talk about the elephant in the room: Ethiopia
Ethiopia was a founding member of the Organization of African Union (OAU, 1963), the predecessor of African Union. The espoused goals of OAU was to improve the living conditions and human rights of Africans; fight colonialism, mainly white minority rules; noninterference in another member and settling disputes among member-nations peacefully. Ironically, Eritrea was the first victim of OAU as Ethiopia shielded itself behind the “noninterference” clause of the founding charter.
Nevertheless, and generally, Ethiopia played an undisputed role in keeping the idea of African Union. It also played a role in the struggle against South African Apartheid system and the white minority rule in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.
This appraisal is by way of accepting history, and it does not negate the destructive war Ethiopia waged against Eritrea and its people, and it does not try to obscure the fact that there also were other countries that had shaped the idea of African Union. I’m stressing on Ethiopia because I feel the author of the article would not have been so scathingly critical of the AU had AU pressured Ethiopia to accept the EEBC ruling. I also don’t like scapegoating or providing poor excuses like, “Kemish adey hankiluni”- a Tigrigna saying for making lousy excuses- rough translation: I tripped on my mom’s dress, that’s when a kid is asked why he/she has not done what they were asked to do.
Additionally, there are some facts we Eritreans need to factor in when speaking about regional and international agencies. It is all about the same old human behavior: reciprocity, or as we say it in Tigrigna-enkan haban, or give and take. If any of the member-nations were to face up Ethiopia reminding it to abide by the EEBC ruling and to make efforts to persuade others to follow suit in pressurizing Ethiopia, it would have to be convinced that the return it got from aiding Eritrean position would outweigh the deficit it might sustain from losing Ethiopia. This “rule” is true in all dynamics of intergovernmental relations, be it in the UN, AU or individual intestate engagements. In this regard, responsible Eritreans should ask if our government has done a good job at augmenting the list of our friends before tabling where we have been wronged.
The HQ of the African Union has always been in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is the second most populous, and the tenth largest country in the continent. It has a long history of diplomatic ties with many countries and international agencies. Eritrean policymakers have to grasp and internalize this glaring reality: Ethiopia will continue to play an important role in shaping AU agendas. We may not like it for the fact that Ethiopia walked away from its international obligation to abide by the EEBC ruling and continues its hawkish stance against Eritrean sovereign demands, but it is what it is.
There is no expectation that African leaders will force Ethiopia to come to its sense. The current stalemate will be solved only by willing governments of both countries driven by domestic pressures and prospects of resuming bilateral relations. Meanwhile, we just need to learn to adapt. Adapting does not mean we have to surrender. It just means accepting reality as it is and becoming active players in a way that enhances our chance of making friends and advancing our interests within the current AU framework. For those who fancy with re-inventing the wheel, the train has already left the station. The other option is leaving the field for Ethiopia to continue maneuvering unhinged- which is not a sound choice at all.
The last time Eritrea recused itself from the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), Ethiopia found enough space within the regional body to use it against Eritrea. Eritrea has yet to regain its seat. Belligerence alone does not do the job. We are Africans; for good or bad, AU is our platform, and we need to use it for advancing our national interest. Where there are hurdles, it is the job of our diplomats and politicians to find alternative navigation and networking in offsetting Ethiopian maneuvers. We should not attribute our weaknesses to the commissions and omissions of AU that might have affected us negatively. So, let’s start with ourselves.
We can do better in boosting our role in AU
- It all starts from within. Strength is a function of internal efficiency. We need to put our house in order. Jingoism is not going to usher us solutions. ThePatriots in the government should think deeply: this is a country you have paid so much to liberate. You remember the faces and images of the heroes and heroines you have left behind; you should also not forget the heroes and heroines who have been held incommunicado for almost two decades. You have no information about their health or their whereabouts; you don’t know if they are guilty as charged because they have never been indicted, they have not been able to defend themselves in a court of law; you don’t know their fate, dead or alive; or when they are expected to be released. But they are imprisoned in your name.
Also, you understand the critical predicament of our country’s socio-economic situation; you have witnessed the isolation imposed on our beloved nation, with the last act of the Sudanese government, closing the only land connection to the outside world. Even if you believe all the above are the result of hostile foreign powers, would you be honest in asking yourself if you did enough to mitigate them?
- The first prerequisite of standing equal to your peers is the sense that you are elected by sovereign citizens- meaning, you own all decisions that have been taken in your name. That would mean you have the legitimacy to govern. But you know all the above are not true, and you know dying trying to do the right thing is an honor, even at this late stage of your life. Better late than never. Try to do the right thing at the end of your life. Leaving Eritrea in the shape it is would be akin to dying twice, or as the Tigrigna saying illustrates “klte mot eyu”. First, you sacrificed your personal needs to liberate Eritrea. And on the second sacrifice, you will leave a country with no clear future, battered and weakened by years of wrong policies. That will be the second death, and it is going to be an agonizing one.
- Eritrea belongs to all Eritreans regardless of whether they like PFDJ or not. Therefore, all patriot Eritreans should come together and stand up for what is urgent. We may have different political leaning, but we have only one country. There must occur a dialogue between responsible patriots, crossing partisan lines. Unless we ensure the existence of Eritrea, all the good-sounding constitutional debates and demands could not be implemented.
Therefore, there must begin a conversation between responsible elements in the opposition. There also must be a bridge linking the Patriots in the opposition with the Patriots in the PFDJ camp. Eritreans should stand against any dubious foreign interferences while at the same time working to achieving an inclusive national framework which could serve as an instrument in charting out Eritrea’s immediate and long-term directions. Patriot Eritreans who currently carry PFDJ cards would be negligent if they dismissed every criticism against the government as the wailing of sellouts. Similarly, the opposition would be making a big mistake if it had to discount anxieties of some members of PFDJ. The key to abridging differences is dialogue.
This should hopefully bring the government to its senses. If not, it could create a critical mass for change. Eritrea is in a dire need of a national reconciliation and for a truly national agency that leads its transition to democratic governance, something that fits it; something that is based on its unique experience.
- Some may cast doubts on the feasibility of such an initiative while Eritrea is under the shadow of a threat. The above measure is not counter-intuitive to the notion of prioritizing the safeguarding of national sovereignty. In fact, our country could best be safeguarded by rallying our resources and by narrowing our differences. It also assures an inclusive political roadmap. It optimizes the debates and inputs of free citizens on defense, economy, and foreign policy. It revitalizes Eritrean entrepreneurial ingenuity thereby increasing the quality of life. The cumulative effect could be a stronger nation. That internal strength will translate into creating a competitive edge in regional and international issues. Strength from within propels our role in regional and international venues. And no country has ever been able to stand tall among equals when it is internally divided and ill-managed.
- Many countries invested in AU for the past six decades. We are latecomers in the game, but we can catch up if we put our house in order and try to perfect our game plans. The current chairman of AU, the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, maybe the head of a small nation, but he has attained self-confidence by leading his country out of the ashes of genocide, similar to the proverbial phoenix. Regardless of how ruthless he is, I’m sure most Rwandans will attest that they feel prouder today compared to their predicament in the nineties of the past century when decomposing corpses populated the Rwandan landscape.
In conclusion, we may feel resentful about the way AU and its predecessor have handled Eritrean question and the current border stalemate. But resentment by itself will blind us from searching for our weaknesses. Even if we are bitter at the Modus Operandi of AU, parallel to that observation, we should ask if our leaders have pursued a pragmatic and smart foreign policy and if they have done enough to persuade AU and the UN members to listen to what we have to say. We should ask if our government has done enough to mitigate the foreign interferences it blames for all of its failures. We should ask if the current “no peace no war” is enough a reason to warrant the sprawling of prisons in Eritrea and the impunity that security and military officers enjoy in throwing anyone they don’t like to prison. We have to ask if Eritrea of today is worth the blood and sweat it cost. Should it be this way? Could not we have done better?
And, yes, about the boat that General Sebhat is reported to have used to make the point that we should stick to the status quo, it was a lesson specially prepared for naïve minds (mKrna aygbero). Here ere is why? Such rhetoric is designed to keep disarming citizens from asking. Why should Isias or Sebhat be the best? We have known these leaders. Yes, they were exemplary leaders during the liberation struggle era, and no one can take that away from them. But they failed miserably in nation-building. Today, Eritrea is lagging behind in all sectors. The ship is wobbling in a raging sea, its navigation system is out of order; there is no compass. But there are able sailors who can navigate the sea using the stars. It would be wise to give those sailors the chance to stir the ship to a harbor than waiting to repair the broken system. Eritrea could get better leaders from among the professors, teachers, engineers, doctors, members of national service, etc., who are serving it under difficult circumstances.
Countries are accorded respect based on their strength. Economic growth and political stability are the driving forces for projecting strong defense and robust foreign relations. We can be active in the eyes of AU members only when we are strong at home. Domestic strength comes through the inclusive participation of all Eritreans. Eritrea belongs to all, opponents and proponents of the current government. If Eritreans succumb to the notion that Eritrea will not make it without Isaias Afeworki or PFDJ, then the future of Eritrea is indeed gloomy. Isaias will not outsmart the design of his creator, and PFDJ will not rule forever. Meanwhile, Eritrea is in a precarious position. We need to make a decision.