Africa's ambitions

The new African Union promises to be more than the sum of its parts. Unlike the now dissolved Organization of African Unity (OAU), its progenitor, the union has been created specifically to promote democracy, to pressure autocratic regimes to reform, to end intrastate conflicts, and to foster economic progress. It also intends to create a military force capable of intervening with African countries to create peace.

Those are ambitious aspirations, especially for the nations of a continent where civil wars continue to kill millions of combatants and civilians, where poverty prevails, and where dictators regularly rub shoulders warmly with popularly elected leaders.

Africa certainly needed to replace the OAU, which African leaders had kept weak and woefully underfunded since the 1960s. Consequently, the OAU never did more than posture rhetorically and hold meaningless conferences. But the new union has the same members, the same financial constraints (unpaid dues from members, many poor, and Trojan-horse gifts from Libya), and the same built-in reluctance by heads of state to offer honest public criticism of other heads of state.

President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal called the OAU a support group for aging despots. It is not yet clear that the union can be anything else.

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has become the union's first chief. He promises to use the union to uplift Africa by ending its wars and compelling errant national leaders to put the welfare of their peoples first, not last. But at its organizational meeting this month in Durban, South Africa, the despots were very much in evidence: Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Issayas Afewerki of Eritrea. Indeed, they were honored and widely photographed with Mr. Mbeki and other African democrats at the same time that the union refused to seat the new, if contested, government under President Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar.

That very first action illustrated the contradictions intrinsic to the union. Unlike the European Union on which it is modeled, membership in the African Union is based on geography, not on stringent political and economic criteria. Thus, the failure of most African leaders, including Mbeki, to condemn Mr. Mugabe for stealing Zimbabwe's March election, has been accepted by the African Union despite its professed intent to promote and cherish democracy, and ostracize miscreants.

The European Union was created organically and painstakingly over nearly five decades. At each step in its evolution, new thresholds and conditions were stipulated, and elaborate incentives created for the achievement of tough goals. A common currency, for example, was only possible in Europe when members met severe inflation and deficit targets. At the end of 2002, the European Union may admit six or seven new members; each will have had to satisfy strict criteria, have demonstrated democratic pursuits, and met economic targets.

For Turkey, which also wants to enter the club, its admission depends on ending the death penalty, giving civil liberties and human rights to Turkey's large Kurdish minority, unifying the Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot segments of Cyprus, meeting difficult economic targets, and becoming more thoroughly democratic.

The European Union started with a handful of like-minded nations as core members and gradually embraced Spain and Portugal and nearly all of Scandinavia. There was a commonality of purpose that was more than geographical. But the African Union starts with 53 members, embracing the very different Africas that lie north and south of the Sahara Desert, and adding Indian Ocean island nations as well.

Given the number and variety of its members, and their vastly differing cultural and colonial backgrounds, it is no wonder that the members of the African Union have so little in common.

As the dance of despots with democrats shows, the moral backbone that so thoroughly strengthens the European Union is conspicuously lacking in the African Union.

If the African Union can realize even some of its self-proclaimed mandate, the peoples of the continent will benefit enormously. Yet early auguries are hardly promising. Dictatorial regimes are being cosseted, pontifications prevail, and economic objectives remain grandiose. If this pattern persists, the African Union will remain merely a renamed OAU, and Africans will benefit little.

• Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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