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African Union Representative Explains New Continentwide Organization
Refugees in Darfur, western Sudan.

African Union Representative Explains New Continentwide Organization

UN representative faces sharp criticism of AU role in Darfur during UCLA discussion.

Omatayo Olaniyan, permanent representative of the African Union to the United Nations, speaking as part of an October 22 panel in UCLA's Public Policy building, offered an upbeat account of this comparatively new successor to the Organization of African Unity. Academic discussants were more skeptical, however, and discussion from the audience focused on the weak response of the AU to the genocidal massacres in Darfur in western Sudan.

Olaniyan was joined on the panel by Gerald Bender of the USC School of International Studies and Ruth Iyob of the University of Missouri, St. Louis. The panel was part of a day-long conference sponsored by the UCLA Center for African Studies, the Globalization Research Center Africa, and USA for Africa. Two other panels heard a presentation on a project of the African Union to seek support from persons of African descent in the Western Hemisphere through the creation of a new international membership organization and took up business, investment, and development prospects in Africa.

The Organization of African Unity had been founded in 1963 in the heyday of the emergence of independent states in Africa from the dominance of European colonial powers. It was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the African Union. Omatayo Olaniyan explained the change: "As time went by leaders felt that colonization and apartheid were resolved and development became primary." He said a major goal of the new African Union was a continentwide integration. "Poverty was accelerating, we were being left behind. We have 54 countries on the continent, some of which are very small, some with a population of under one million. If we can integrate these states they will be able to export at a lower cost to the rest of the continent."

The AU, Olaniyan said, "established some 17 organs for the community of states to carry out its functions." These dealt with various functions including a Peace and Security Council. "There is an annual assembly of the heads of states . . . and the decisions of the assembly are binding on all members." The Peace and Security Council, finalized in December 2003, "addresses conflict management." Omatayo Olaniyan said that the AU hopes to emulate the European Union and "develop a common currency and continentwide financial institutions." The current chairman of the AU is Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The Discussants Raise Some Issues

Ruth Iyob opened the discussion, beginning with some general comments such as noting "the importance of African initiatives and global partnerships." But she cautioned, "Africans need to face their horrors, one of which is Darfur." She characterized the AU leadership as mainly intellectuals whose political strengths are as yet untested.

"The African Union is facing a crisis," she said, "like the United Nations crisis in the Congo. It faces a number of unaddressed grievances: The Darfur problem can be traced to 18 years ago, with the Khartoum government's policies not to address some of the land issues. In eastern Sudan, the government in Khartoum favored settled agriculturalists, but in the west it favored the not-settled. It is a land issue, in a war that has been going on for 20 years. It also involves drugs and oil, and the intervention of the United States with its emphasis on evangelical politics."

U.S. Evangelicals and the Massacres in Darfur

In the long civil war between the Arab Muslim government at Khartoum in Sudan's north and black African Christian and animist peoples of the country's south, American evangelical churches lobbied the American government to intervene against the Arab state. "This was promoted by the evangelical churches that support Bush," Ruth Iyob said. "The U.S. played a very good role in the east but this was lacking in the west." In the west, the struggle has been between the Arab Muslim state and impoverished black African populations who are also Muslim.

Human Rights Watch describes the conflict in Darfur: "The government of Sudan is responsible for 'ethnic cleansing' and crimes against humanity in Darfur, one of the world's poorest and most inaccessible regions, on Sudan's western border with Chad. The Sudanese government and the Arab 'Janjaweed' militias it arms and supports have committed numerous attacks on the civilian populations of the African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups. Government forces oversaw and directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians - including women and children - burnings of towns and villages, and the forcible depopulation of wide swathes of land long inhabited by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. The Janjaweed militias, Muslim like the African groups they attack, have destroyed mosques, killed Muslim religious leaders, and desecrated Qurans belonging to their enemies."

American evangelicals, Ruth Iyob concluded, have had little interest in defending the African Muslim victims in Darfur, in part because "a large number of Darfurians were fighting against the south in the war in the south." This means that the United States cannot be counted on to take an active role in halting the ethnic cleansing, and places an added responsibility on the African Union to make efforts to halt the slaughter she concluded.

Africa Should Use More of Its Own Resources to Confront Crises

Gerald Bender of USC was more broadly skeptical of the effectiveness of the African Union. "I have seen this all before, in the early 1960s," he said.

The time has come, he continued, "for Africans to do things on their own, to focus on corruption and recover some of that corrupt money that is invested in the Cayman Islands and places like that and invest it productively. The money needed should come from Africa. I agree with Ruth that Darfur is a litmus test. The Americans sent two planes to get the 150 troops in to guard the observers. Almost every African leader has a private jet. Those private planes could have easily done the task."

If the African Union is serious, Bender challenged, "why are there only 150 AU observers in Darfur? It should be done by Africans but why by such a paltry number?"

Bender was also critical of African Union inaction in Zimbabwe. "Mugabe has told the World Food Programme to go away when hundreds of thousands are facing starvation. That should be criticized. If African institutions are new then we want to see them functioning and want to see them helping Africans."

He also castigated the African states such as Nigeria, whose president heads the AU, for not contributing part of their oil profits to the common cause. "If the oil producers took just 10 cents a barrel it would pay the whole African Union budget in less than a month."

South Africa's Consul General Speaks on Darfur and Zimbabwe

When the discussion was opened to the floor, South Africa's Consul General in Los Angeles, Jeanette Ndlhovu, rose and commented on her government's position of the Darfur situation. "Within the context of the African Union," she said, "it is our position that we should be in the driver's seat in development and in solving conflicts. We are monitoring the situation. I fully agree with you that the problems started years ago. As it is, we are the active organization on the ground with support from the European Union and the United States. We have 300 military observers, and troops to protect the observers. We have agreed with the government of Sudan that within the next 12 months 3,000 to 4,000 observers will be sent -- we should distinguish this from peacekeeping; this is not peacekeeping. It is to monitor the peacekeeping agreement."

Ndlhovu also responded to Gerald Bender's criticism of her government for its lack of action in neighboring Zimbabwe. "The issue of Zimbabwe is firmly on the table of the African Union," she declared. "It is very simplistic to say that South Africa must go into Zimbabwe and resolve the crisis of Zimbabwe. Prior to the last elections in Zimbabwe the British began to broadcast negative messages supporting the opposition MDP, which violated all international norms. We cannot send South African troops to topple Robert Mugabe. Clearly the approach of going into other countries with guns and bullets, we do not subscribe to that approach. Clearly Africa can do more, but we must not forget the mandate of the UN to maintain peace and security."

She pointed to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where African states had mounted peacekeeping missions, saying that these kinds of action can be taken under certain circumstances. "In Burundi where the United Nations was not willing to go in and resolve the Burundi crisis, South Africa sent in troops as an African Union mission. In the DRC we lobbied the UN to send in troops to resolve the crisis. We mustn't expect this new body, this baby the African Union, to do things it cannot do."

200,000 People Will Die If the Troops Delay for a Year

Richard Sklar, a well-known Africanist and professor emeritus in the UCLA Political Science Department, raised an anguished protest. "The 3,000 to 4,000 troops will be dispatched to Darfur over the next 12 months -- I thought they were leaving yesterday. They are already 7 months too late. Probably 200,000 people will die. That is a disgraceful situation. And they will come with a totally inadequate mandate, to protect the peacekeepers, not protect the people. If they are not going to be there for several months in full force I think there is no hope at all."

Sklar was critical of the African Union for including the Arab states of North Africa. "The North African countries with their membership in the Arab league will bring that baggage to the African Union meetings," he said, "rather than look at the actual issue. The Arab governments have invariably stood with the Arab government of Sudan. How will the AU deal with the issue of the Arab Islamic countries?"

Omatayo Olaniyan responded that "it took a long time to negotiate with the government of Sudan to agree on this number. On the 3,000, there is a somewhat broader mandate that will allow them to protect the citizens of Darfur and not just the observers." On the decision to include the Arab African states in the AU, Olaniyan said, "When you have a group of countries coming together there are bound to be differences. We have different perspectives, but I do not see that as an insurmountable obstacle."

Other speakers from the floor disagreed. One said of the Sudan government, "The mandate of security is given to the government that is perpetrating the crime in Darfur."

Another offered a broader criticism of the African Union: "We have governments that do not have functioning parliaments at home but they are sending delegates to a continentwide parliament. How ironic can this be?"