Why aren't African leaders giving more for famine relief?

African leaders talk often of 'African solutions for African problems,' but the paltry $70 million pledged at an AU famine-relief conference raises questions whether this mantra is just rhetoric.

Omar Faruk/Reuters
Internally displaced women wait to receive relief food from a distribution center in Hodon district in the south of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, Aug. 25.

Only four heads of state – presidents of Somalia, Djibouti, Equitatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia’s prime minister – were present at the African Union’s much-delayed pledging conference on the Horn of Africa crisis. In a statement, the AU said it raised more than $378 million, $20 million of which was in-kind.

Jerry Rawlings, former president of Ghana, hailed the conference as message to the world that “we are not incapable of supporting our own.”

The need for Africa to take charge of its own future – summed up in the mantra “African solutions for African problems" – has become a unifying call for African leaders these days, and a rebuke to richer Western nations to butt out. South Africa is among the most vocal of those African nations pushing for African-led solutions, and the most critical of Western intervention, from Ivory Coast to Libya.

But the relatively paltry aid response for the Horn of Africa – just $65 million in donations from AU nations, while the rest came from the UN-funded African Development Bank in Tunis – raises questions about just how serious African leaders are about putting their ambitious words into action. The African Development Bank receives funding from its 53 African member nations, as well as from richer nations such as the US, Britain, Canada, China, Germany, and France.

Somalia welcomed the money pledged at the AU summit.

South Africa’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said he was not in a position to comment on how much South Africa had actually pledged. He pointed out that South Africa had donated R8 million ($1.2 million) and provided other forms of support to Gift of the Givers, a non-profit organization that pooled together donations from South African citizens and businesses.

John Akokpari, a researcher on Africa's international relations at the University of Cape Town, says that the AU's agenda for African solutions to African problems has been on paper only. He sites lack of capital as the primary factor, despite the continent's abundant resources, and the AU’s relatively small pledges at this week’s pledging conference illustrate this. While the AU may aspire to lead the charge to solve problems on the continent, Mr. Akokpari says, everybody, including the United States and the UN, knows that the body lacks the capacity, so the AU is simply ignored.

Even so, the AU and its members – notably South Africa – have been pushing for a greater African role on the global stage, particularly in the effort to mediate political crises such as the recent near-civil-war in Ivory Coast, and the ongoing conflict in Libya.

In Ivory Coast – where former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Alassane Ouattara in the presidential race, despite UN and AU observer reports that Mr. Gbagbo had lost the election by wide margins – former South African president Thabo Mbeki, in his role as the AU’s mediator, accused France of imperialism and pushed for a negotiated settlement in his report to AU chair Jean Ping. Mr. Mbeki’s mediation role was largely ignored. France provided military support to Mr. Ouattara’s forces, who eventually captured Gbagbo and claimed the presidency.

In Libya, where the US and other UN Security Council members began to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, an AU delegation was turned away from a meeting with Muammar Qaddafi and the National Transitional Council. Once again, the AU’s designated mediator was a South African – in this case, President Jacob Zuma – who urged a negotiated settlement. South Africa, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, had voted for the Libyan no-fly zone resolution on the grounds that it would prevent the use of military forces against unarmed civilian protestors. South Africa later complained that NATO and other countries like France and Italy had overstepped the bounds of the original UN Security Council resolution, and were providing military support to the rebellion that has eventually brought an end to Mr. Qaddafi’s rule in Libya.

Yet for the advocates of African solution, today’s challenges are just a sign that Africans need to press harder for their right of self-determination. At a lecture to students at South Africa's Stellenbosch University on Friday, former President Mbeki suggested that African solutions to African problems will never be achieved without a mindset change on the capabilities of Africans, both on the part of Africans and the international community. He urged the students to challenge perceptions of what Africa is capable of.

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