With armed conflicts raging in at least 20 African countries, the continent's leaders are preparing to adopt a recovery plan that would put greater peacekeeping responsibility in the hands of Africans themselves.
But many analysts are questioning whether African heads of state, traditionally loath to criticize their counterparts, have the political will or institutional capacity to tackle regional security issues such as the growing instability in Zimbabwe and continued conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The African initiative, expected to be adopted today in Lusaka, Zambia, at a meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), merges South African President Thabo Mbeki's Millennium African Recovery Program (MAP) and a separate plan proposed by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.
"We need to see MAP as a program by African leaders and governments to take ownership and responsibility for the sustainable socioeconomic and political development of the continent," Mr. Mbeki told South Africa's Parliament in March. He added that for the plan to work, African states would have to take a greater role in policing each other.
The combined plan has been endorsed by international leaders, including US President George Bush and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana. It will form the cornerstone of the new African Union (AU), a European Union-style body that will replace the 38-year-old OAU, long criticized for its ineffectiveness on security and development issues.
African leaders are lauding the new initiative and the new union as heralding a new era for Africa, in which African nations will accept greater responsibility for their own future.
Though largely focused on economic recovery, the plan is based on the idea that development is not possible without peace, stability, and democracy. The plan calls for the building of African capacity for conflict resolution, peacekeeping, and post-conflict resolution, and for increased efforts to combat the proliferation of illegal weapons and land mines. It also seeks to strengthen the continent's democratic institutions and hold member nations accountable for human rights and the rule of law.
While analysts laud the spirit of the initiative, many say it falls short on substance.
"I think MAP makes all the right noises about the need for good governance and democracy and conflict resolution," says Greg Mills, national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs. "The much more relevant question about MAP in particular and the AU in general is: How do you set up and utilize mechanisms to ensure good governance and democracy through which this process of conflict resolution can be nurtured? That is where we're all still waiting to be enlightened [on]."
The initiative leaves it to a yet-to-be-formed committee to work out details on how peacekeeping forces would operate.
The top concern of many Africa specialists is whether the political will exists for joint, continent-wide conflict resolution. Because decisions in the OAU were made by consensus, it was rare for the body to act against one of its own, and analysts say there is little about the structure of the new African Union to change that.
Recent developments in Zimbabwe, and the response of African leaders to the growing economic and political crises there, have reinforced fears that many African leaders remain unwilling to criticize their colleagues.
In recent weeks, the Zimbabwe government has escalated attacks against white farmers and has targeted almost all the country's remaining white farms for seizure and redistribution. Mr. Mbeki has faced enormous criticism at home and abroad for his unwillingness to condemn the land invasions. Now it appears that other African states may go one step further and praise them.
The Associated Press reported Monday that a group of foreign ministers at the OAU conference had drafted a resolution, expected to be adopted today, supporting Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's land-seizure policy and blaming former colonial power Britain for much of the country's current economic turmoil.
"It's another example of sticking their heads in the sand," says Robert Rotberg, president of the World Peace Foundation and director of the Intrastate Conflict Program and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It shows the solidarity over thoughtfulness and discrimination."
Although African nations have been forced to take a greater responsibility for regional peacekeeping in recent years as international support for such operations has dwindled, most lack the military capacity or financial muscle to support a sustained effort.
In a few instances, however, regional peacekeeping forces have intervened in African conflicts. Troops fighting under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were used in efforts to keep the peace in Sierra Leone. In 1998, forces under the Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervened in Lesotho to prevent a coup. But in both cases the action was led by a regional power - Nigeria and South Africa respectively - that had a direct interest in the affairs of a close neighbor.
By contrast, the African Initiative calls for peacekeeping to be a continent-wide endeavor run under the auspices of the new African Union.
But Jakkie Cilliers, director of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, says it is unlikely that the union will succeed where the OAU, which has an annual budget of $31 million, has long failed.
"Africans do not have the capacity to keep peace on the continent. They can try to keep people together and they can send observers," he says. "They can appoint leaders to go and mediate. But when conflict erupts, it is only the international community and the developed world that has the capacity to respond."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor