- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

LONDON Fanfare, fireworks, dances by Zulu warriors and bare-breasted women, and a military flyby at a sports stadium before a cheering crowd of 30,000 in the balmy climes of Durban, South Africa, gave a spectacular greeting to the African Union this week.

It replaces the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which has been buried after 39 inglorious years. In that period, the body squabbled on every issue except ending apartheid and was helpless in the face of decades of misrule, coups, wars, famine, human-rights abuses and corruption on the continent.

Now, after the razzmatazz in Durban before 43 presidents and monarchs, lies a daring venture that could help transform Africa's image. It aims to move Africa toward dynamism, democracy and transformation, pulling itself up by its bootstraps, no longer to be perceived as a continent of helplessness and degeneration.

But this hope is accompanied by the fear, as expressed by some diplomats in Europe, that the mission statement could turn out to be brave but empty rhetoric.

"We are very excited," Bheki Khumalo, President Thabo Mbeki's spokesman, told The Washington Times in a telephone interview. "The Africans themselves are taking control of their own destiny. But we recognize it's not going to be easy, and we face huge challenges."

The immediate task, he said, is to set up structures to deal with civil wars and to ensure adherence to democratic values and human rights. Mr. Khumalo pointed to secret meetings, also involving U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that were leading to troop withdrawals from Congo and a return to tranquility in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

Mr. Khumalo's acknowledgement of Africa's shortcomings and his assertion that the continent has the will to address them is seen as an enormous advance. Mr. Mbeki had tried long and hard, for example, not to condemn too explicitly the abuses occurring just across the Limpopo River in neighboring Zimbabwe hoping that quiet diplomacy and persuasion would check Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's support of violence against white farmers. The occupations of white-owned farms unleashed rapid economic collapse, hunger and turmoil.

Mr. Mbeki's efforts at diplomacy, despite support from Nigeria's experienced President Olusegun Obasanjo, bore little fruit. This demoralizing turn of events in part acted as impetus for major African democracies to demand a radical change of course.

The key to democratic change in Africa lies in two seemingly neutral words: peer review.

Messrs. Mbeki and Obasanjo have managed to get the African Union (AU) to endorse the idea that African states are no longer free to hide behind the OAU slogans of noninterference in one another's domestic affairs. The "peer review" mechanism will allow a committee of 10 leaders to evaluate one another's performance in achieving democracy and avoiding serious abuses of human rights.

"Peer review is a positive step, but only if the process is transparent and given teeth," said a statement from Human Rights Watch. "It must be backed up by institutions that can ensure proper scrutiny and enforcement of human rights."

That peer review does have some teeth was proved this year when a three-member Commonwealth committee, of which Mr. Mbeki was part, surprised doubters with swift action against Zimbabwe.

Days after that country's flawed election, conducted amid widely reported intimidation, had returned Mr. Mugabe to power, the panel's peer review declared the election was not free and fair and suspended Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth a prestigious though not wealthy body that carries considerable clout among a quarter of the world's leaders.

The biggest and most obvious test for the African Union will come if and when an African leader is overthrown in a coup. "Anybody who comes to power unconstitutionally cannot sit with us," Mr. Obasanjo told reporters. This was, he said, a key tenet of the 53-nation union.

The union has agreed to set up the following bodies:

•A Peace and Security Council, which would be able to intervene to prevent crimes against humanity in African countries.

•A Pan-African Parliament, consisting of elected representatives from every member nation, that can issue recommendations but not laws.

•A Court of Justice, which would have jurisdiction over member states.

•A Central Bank, to coordinate a single African economic policy.

•An Economic, Social and Cultural Council, which would give civil society a voice in the union.

For the abundant skeptics, the union's credibility is undermined by the antics of leaders such as Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who struck a buffoonish pose throughout the summit, not least by trying to steal the limelight.

Col. Gadhafi had pitched the idea of replacing the OAU with an African Union. He has tried several times to create Arab and African multi-state bodies, usually to no avail, and has long sought major influence in black and Arab parts of the continent, intervening in many local conflicts.

In Durban, the Libyan leader proposed radical amendments to the AU's founding charter.

The South African organizers sidestepped that sort of issue.

Col. Gadhafi, who grabbed center stage at the celebrations on Tuesday with trademark anti-Western rhetoric, wants Africa to be a single state with one army and believes Mr. Mbeki, as serving AU chairman, should move to the group's headquarters in Ethiopia.

These ideas likely are to be ridiculed in Western capitals.

Analysts said that some long-serving leaders would have to change the habits of a lifetime to fashion AU's aims into reality.

They noted, somewhat nervously, the absence from speeches Tuesday of any substantive discussion of the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent, the food crisis gripping southern Africa or the political tension in Zimbabwe.

But Mr. Khumalo told The Times that this silence did not bode ill; rather, the object was to avoid rhetoric on any subject except that of AU's importance while focusing on putting mechanisms in place.

"There is really a will to change," he said.

That change also would be reflected in a far more mature interaction with the industrialized countries, he said.

Indeed, a large chunk of Africa's future prosperity is tied to Europe. The two main former colonial powers, Britain and France, will join the United States in welcoming an AU effort to plan for the continent's regeneration.

The Africans say they are, at last, freeing themselves from the post-colonial hangover of dependency. "We are no longer going to the West with a begging bowl, we are going there as real partners," Mr. Mbeki declared.

That much was evident at the summit last month of the Group of Eight industrial nations, where the proposal of Africa joining the industrialized world as partners was cemented.

Many commentators and some African leaders derided the accomplishments of the G-8 meeting in Canada, pointing out that Russia had received huge promises of cash to wind down its defense apparatus while Africa, with its far more evident needs, received little in hard cash.

"We must avoid getting into a tirade over such matters," Mr. Mbeki later wrote. The object was to "build a partnership," he said.

That is coming about, Mr. Khumalo explained, through setting up specific links and teams to tackle particular issues, notably to ensure that money provided for development goes into the right pockets and is spent wisely and effectively.

"We are not disappointed with the industrialized world's reaction so far," Mr. Khumalo concluded.

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