Africa adopts new self-help plan

Thursday, the Pan-African Parliament will be inaugurated in Ethiopia.

Africa, it seems, is mustering new resolve to tackle its problems.

After decades of being mostly unwilling or unable to deal with widespread poverty, corruption, conflict, and disease, there's growing political will behind several efforts to address these troubles - with or without outside help.

Thursday, for instance, in Ethiopia, delegates from 45 nations will inaugurate the Pan-African Parliament, a first-of-its-kind body that will eventually make continent-wide laws.

Earlier this year, African leaders also agreed to create a continental military force to help stamp out wars. It will take orders from a new Peace and Security Council, which will have the power to intervene in any African conflict.

Also on the horizon is a human-rights court. Its judgments will be legally binding, though only on nations that give it jurisdiction. So far 15 have done so.

And this month, Ghana became the first of 18 countries to undergo "peer review," whereby nations open their finances, policies, and programs to scrutiny by fellow Africans.

Efforts to combat poverty through European-like economic unions continue. This month's rebirth of the East African Community will meld Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda into an open market of 94 million people.

All the moves represent a growing understanding that, "If [we] Africans don't help ourselves, nobody else will come to our salvation," says Lula Gebreyesus, head of the Africa Institute for Policy Analysis and Economic Integration in Cape Town, South Africa. "We've been begging and begging, but nobody has really helped us."

Many have tried. Rich nations have sent untold billions to Africa. But without concerted efforts by Africans, those efforts have failed, she says. Just as "God helps us when we help ourselves," she says, Africans are realizing they have a big role in their own salvation.

There's a long, tattered history of efforts to integrate Africa under Pan-African or other banners - and thus plenty of reason for skepticism about the latest ones. But the new round appears to be less ideological and more pragmatic. It's driven, observers say, by the growing understanding that in a world dominated by the European Union, NAFTA, and other regional groupings, Africa's countries will largely prosper - or collapse - together. "The emerging consensus in African politics is that everybody is affected by everyone else," says Francis Kornegay, an Africa scholar at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Already, he says, it's clear the African Union - the umbrella organization that includes the Pan-African Parliament, the Peace and Security Council, and the African Court on Human and People's Rights - is "radically different from its predecessor," the Organization of African Unity.

The OAU was a heads-of-state club with a "collegial way of doing things," he says. Leaders avoided interfering in each others' realms.

Creating the Pan-African Parliament is an effort to inject grass-roots populism into the once-elite club. The 265-member body will be only consultative until 2007, when it will begin making laws.

It's symbolic of what Mr. Kornegay describes as a gradual "erosion of sovereignty," and a new willingness to begin nosing into neighbors' affairs.

The most dramatic example of this may be the African Standby Force. It's designed to have five brigades of soldiers, policemen, and observers - about 15,000 people total. The Peace and Security Council will order the force into action. Unlike the United Nations Security Council, no members will have veto rights. Motions will pass with the relatively low threshold of a two-thirds majority. Theoretically this means the force will be used more often.

Another key element of Africa's self-improvement is the peer-review process. So far 18 countries have agreed to be rated in categories that include democracy, good governance, human rights, gender equality, and development. It's being run by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

Indeed, peer review heralds the rise of the "NEPAD-istas" as Kornegay calls them - leaders passionate about shaping up the continent, if only out of enlightened self-interest. But there are plenty of old-school leaders resisting the NEPAD tide. A prime example: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who has refused to submit to a peer review.

Yet the self-help strategy may already be having one ironic effect: increased aid. Aid to the continent rose from $16 billion in 2000 to $18.8 billion in 2002. One reason 18 nations have signed up for peer review is to gain credibility with overseas donors and investors.

Another tool for luring investors is economic integration. In addition to the unified market in East Africa, this year the Economic Community of West African States began issuing one passport for citizens of its 16 member states.

Ultimately, some of these European-Union-like efforts have a skewed rationale that says, "If Europe has continent-wide institutions, and Europe is strong, then if we have them we'll be strong," says Steven Friedman at Johannesburg's Center for Policy Studies. But at least, he says, Africa is making a fresh and concerted effort.

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