African Nations Try Self-Help, Seeking Strength In Unity

OAU works to 'play a more constructive role'

THE Organization of African Unity was born 33 years ago to promote solidarity among states newly liberated from colonial rule. It then evolved into a sort of dictators' club that mainly denounced imperialism.

Now Africa's biggest political organization is trying to revamp its image and become a peacekeeper on the world's most war-ridden continent.

But despite a new dynamic breed of African statesmen, such as South African President Nelson Mandela and a wave of democratization among the 53 member states, diplomats say, the bureaucracy and nature of the OAU makes its goal difficult.

African countries are far from united to take stands on human rights abuses in Nigeria, Algeria, and Sudan, and fighting in Burundi, Liberia, and Rwanda.

"The OAU is changing and trying to play a more constructive role," says a Western diplomat based in Addis Ababa, where the organization is headquartered. "After Rwanda and Somalia, they realized the outside world was not going to do anything for Africa. But they are too bureaucratic, and they have so many issues."

Answers needed

There is a sense of urgency that African solutions must be found on this continent where internal conflicts have claimed 25 presidents' lives and led to about 80 unconstitutional changes of government over the past 30 years. United Nations peacekeeping in Africa - which cost $5.2 billion between 1991 and 1995 - have failed to solve the problem.

Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim is viewed by diplomats as a competent and dynamic leader capable of leading the OAU into a new age. But he is seen as delegating little authority and has no control over a budgetary crisis. The organization is $37 million in arrears - more than the $31 million earmarked for its next budget.

Daniel Antonio, the assistant secretary general for political affairs, admits that "not much has been done yet" on two major tasks - integration and economic development. But he mentions some minor achievements in preventing and resolving conflicts, such as the decision last June that each country should earmark troops for peacekeeping.

In the Comoro Islands, he said, the OAU helped stabilize the country last year after France ousted mercenaries. In Sierra Leone, the OAU helped facilitate peace talks between the government and rebels.

Less impressive are its missions to observe peacekeeping in Liberia, where peace accords have broken down with ferocity - and to seek a solution in Burundi where civil war continues unabated.

Possibility for cooperation

Mr. Antonio sees the main responsibility for peacekeeping in the UN, although the OAU can play an intermediary role. But Salim himself admitted earlier this year that the OAU's Mediation, Reconciliation, and Arbitration Commission had been practically inoperative.

The organization's tendency toward indecisiveness was never more evident than at a January seminar in Addis Ababa on the concept of an "early warning system" to detect and then take precautionary action to avoid conflicts and costly peacekeeping operations. "Debate from the floor swirled around. It's difficult to say anything really came out of it," says one Western diplomat.

The OAU prides itself on using quiet diplomacy to pressure democratic change and respect for human rights. It has suspended but never permanently expelled a member. (Morocco was the only member to quit, in 1982.) This quiet approach has succeeded in not isolating errant members but also limits the OAU's effectiveness.

For instance, the OAU was unanimous in denouncing Sudan in its role in the assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the OAU's summit last year in Addis Ababa. But Sudan continues to promote fundamentalist guerrillas in the region with impunity. Likewise, the OAU response was tepid last November when Nigeria's military government executed opposition activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

"Many members were too scared of taking on Nigeria," says an African diplomat.

A growing feeling among many African officials is that close sub-regional cooperation may be more effective than the OAU in resolving border disputes and promoting economic development.

"We don't think the OAU is capable of solving problems in Africa," says Eritrea's Deputy Foreign Minister Saleh Idris Kekia. "Sub-regional organizations are better to tackle these issues.... The continent is very vast and very huge."

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