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A Civil Society Of African States

Paula Akugizibwe assumes observer status at the African Union and finds the ‘new sovereign’ in a state of afro-centric rebirth. But under the silky sheets of diplomacy and people-power pillowtalk, she discovers, is a charm offensive that puts paid to the ‘Renaissance’ and keeps the West in control.

“Ninety-nine problems, but the people ain’t one,” may as well have been the message beamed from the African Union (AU) Executive Council at the opening of its May 2013 meeting. On the eve of the AU’s 50th anniversary, the main message from this closed-door session seemed far removed from the messy matters of continental conflicts and international criminals, which would later dominate the golden jubilee summit. The continent’s leaders, it seemed, were first and foremost concerned with their relations with The People.

Having learnt from its military disasters of the early 1990s, the US, through the AU, has draped its operations in kente cloth and secured African solutions for American problems.”

The chief of protocol stifled a frown as she surveyed the African ministers of foreign affairs, AU commissioners and other invited guests trickling into the chamber. Streams of French and English mingled cordially in the air-conditioned plushness, belying the tensions that circled linguistic divisions in the union. But their dress sense was uniformly disappointing.

In keeping with this year’s theme of African Renaissance, the commission had subtly encouraged all summit delegates to don afro-centric regalia. Yet here was the executive council looking every bit like a syndicate of distinguished English butlers. It’s at times like this that one missed Gaddafi, the chief of protocol mused. At least Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the commission chairperson, was leading by example in a kente kaftan complete with head-wrap – one of a dozen that had been tailored specifically for the summit, from reams of premium Vlisco® fabric imported from Holland.

Madam Protocol made a note to reiterate the message before Saturday’s golden jubilee celebrations. Appearances were not so important here behind closed doors, there were more pressing matters at hand. Like drawing the chair away from that loose cannon of a minister: “How are preparations for the elections?” “You mean the constitutional coup?” Cue contrived laughter. Fact is stranger than fiction and the jester is truer than the judge – this was the perfect moment to step in: “Excuse me, Madam Chair, can I borrow you for a minute, this press release needs to go out before we open.”

“Executive Council opens with a call for a people-centred union,” read the headline. Madam Chair skimmed through to her quote: “We must be mindful of inputs from our people…We must be mindful of our people’s expectations…” She nodded. Good enough. The statement, if not particularly stirring or unique, carried sufficient significance in the context of an organisation that, for the first few decades of its existence as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was dubbed the “dictators club” by critics. The OAU paid little lip service to engaging with The People as an entity, preferring a focus on governments, whose sovereignty it upheld unconditionally.

A wave of – what was it, nostalgia; a dreary déjà-vu? – brushed over Madam Chair, as her mind flashed back to reviewing a similar stream of documents on the eve of the AU’s inaugural summit in Durban in 2002, one year after the OAU met a timely death and back when she was South Africa’s minister of foreign affairs.

Jacob Zuma’s editorial in the Sowetan at that time had hailed “the birth of the AU on South African soil… [T]he era we live in calls for a new way of doing things.” This new way was all about The People. Central to the AU’s design, explained another carefully crafted brief, was the need to enlist the cooperation of African civil society, labour unions and the private sector: a determined shift away from “the overly state-centric character of the OAU and its concomitant lack of civil participation”.

From the periphery to the centre

Although civil participation as a political ideal is not new, it was over the past two decades that it was nudged into the institutional spotlight in African countries, becoming a policy cornerstone, a criterion for legitimacy and a potentially lucrative career. From the 1990s, an influx of foreign donor money, flowing through intellectual funnels that were crafted largely by US-based academics, fuelled the boom of the African civil society sector.

This coincided with the end of the Cold War, when political and economic liberalisation was increasingly a priority for western foreign policy – especially the US and Germany, which took an early lead in funding African civil society. Suddenly, civil society organisations (CSOs) – a term applied to the broad range of institutions that are outside the state, outside the market and organised around representing the interests of The People – moved from the periphery to the centre of the aid agenda.

Some CSOs took on service delivery functions, filling the gaps left by under-performing state structures that had been further weakened by the World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes. But it was a particular kind of CSO that excited most donor interest: the professional, urban, advocacy-oriented kind, focused on influencing government policy.

“The major thrust of the discourse on civil society in Uganda,” wrote Nyangabyaki Bazaara in 1998, “has not been about the actual history of civil society in Uganda but on social engineering of a new type” – creating an advocacy elite that promoted national policies aligned with their international funders. To this day, says Bhekinkosi Moyo, the program director of the grant-making organisation, Africa Trust, advocacy-oriented CSOs are the preferred recipients of international funding.

At the same time, by tapping into existing discontent with the state at the time, such CSOs built up political capital in the spaces where they operated. They publically criticised governments, airing the concerns of the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘marginalised’. They demanded a seat at the table, access to decision-making processes, changes to government policies.

An Affront to Sovereignty

An unceremonious chuckle rippled through the speakers, swinging attention away from the podium, where the chair had just confirmed plans to enforce the Executive Council’s earlier decision to bar CSOs from observing the summit.

“This one is a godly decision,” interjected the jester, jewelled finger waving before bloodshot eyes as he paused for effect, “The Bible says, outside are the liars…” He switched off his microphone and reclined with a smirk, certain that smiles bubbled beneath poker faces.

Governments have never taken kindly to CSOs, particularly the advocacy types that frequent these summits. From their early days, CSOs were suspiciously viewed as tools for donors to indirectly meddle with African countries’ sovereignty. In 1998, Nelson Mandela issued a scathing critique of CSOs that lacked a popular base locally, yet claimed to represent popular interest while relying on foreign funding for their activities and promoting the interests of their funders. He quoted a US government review of the USAID programme in South Africa:

Old ‘struggle NGOs’ have been re-designated by [US]AID as “civil service organisations” or “CSOs”.AID now funds CSOs to “monitor public policy, provide public information, and advocate policy alternatives” and to serve as “sentinels, brokers and arbiters for the public will”… Through its NGOs, AID intends to play a key role in domestic policy concerning the most difficult, controversial issues of national politics.

Mandela’s concerns did not slow the boom of the CSO sector in South Africa, as in the rest of the continent. Alongside this boom, recent years have seen increasing scrutiny from African governments towards CSOs’ funding sources, usually voiced when they face political challenges from this sector.

Ethiopia, where the AU is headquartered, prohibits advocacy work by CSOs that receive more than 10 per cent of their funding from foreign donors. The AU’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council, which was set up to engage with civil society, is open only to member-based organisations that receive at least half of their funding from membership contributions – a criterion that effectively excludes most African CSOs.

This stance is stooped with irony. The AU itself, like most of its member states, is heavily dependent on foreign funding, with more than 50 per cent of its 2013 budget coming from outside funders. He who pays the piper calls the tune and, as the AU increasingly courts international military excursions on the continent, this tune assumes ominous undertones.

‘Human Security’

The embedding of civil participation in AU rhetoric is not just ideological window-dressing. Over the past decade, the hub of the AU’s activity has been its peace and security architecture, which is to say, its readiness for war. In seeking to legitimise this architecture, The People are paramount.

The AU’s security regime differs from traditional ‘hard security’ paradigms, which focus on violent conflicts. Instead it embraces the broader paradigm of ‘human security’, under which hard security remains the exclusive domain of states, while soft security – democracy and elections, human rights and governance – are also stressed, in turn demanding an emphasis on civil society.

Conventionally, and conveniently, the AU has read this emphasis in the light of conflict prevention: if The People are happy, the country is stable. Of all international bodies, none is more explicit than the AU in its consideration of soft (in)security as grounds for military intervention.

The flip side of this, explains Mehari Maru, a former legal expert at the AU Commission, is “the re-definition of sovereignty as responsibility”. In the human security paradigm, sovereignty is guaranteed only so far as the state is perceived to be meeting its responsibility to The People. And, as seen in the AU’s reaction to Egypt’s popular coup, it is the international community, not The People, who define the rudiments of this responsibility.

With the demise of the OAU, ultimate sovereignty on the continent shifted from states to the AU and its sub-regional structures. This shift ushered in a new era of geopolitical dynamics, since the sovereignty of the continent’s new sovereign was, at best, questionable – especially in its most prominent area of activity.

The pet programme

As the Executive Council meeting progresses, more and more heads digress from perfunctory to slumbering nods. Dozing is a given in these meetings, and has worsened since the move into the swanky Chinese-sponsored headquarters, where chairs are so comfortable that some suggest in jest that they might be an act of sabotage-by-lullaby.

It’s a different story at the AU Peace and Security Council, which offers no country for sleeping men. The Security Council building is under construction, courtesy of the German government, at a workable but decisive distance from the rest of the headquarters. Location is not the only thing that sets this organ aside from the larger AU structure.

The AU security missions receive much of their funding directly from the European Union’s (EU) African Peace Support Facility, separate from the overall AU budget. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) also provides direct military and technical assistance for operations, as does the United Nations.

As a rule, no African mission can proceed without UN approval. This is required to access funds from the EU facility, which has dispatched €740 million to AU missions since its establishment a decade ago. The extensive technical support provided to security means that despite its colossal budget, this pet programme is able to utilise funding at a level much higher than that observed in the rest of the AU Commission.

On average, Maru says, the AU absorbs less than half of the funding it receives. He points to the AU’s social affairs department, which uses only 12 per cent of its budget due to under-staffing, operational inefficiencies and poor leadership that prevent the department from achieving most of its programmatic goals. The same can be said for most AU programmes in the sphere of soft security, particularly those focused on engaging with The People – which, despite the rhetorical emphasis on this area, remain exceedingly weak.

Take the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights (ACPHR), which CSOs have long lamented for being notoriously slow, inaccessible and lacking legal authority. The fact that governments appoint commissioners further cripples its political muscle since, according to Lassana Kone, a former commission legal officer: “Some would say the AU member states are like a syndicate… [They have a] tendency of protecting each other.”

Most striking is the ACPHR’s location in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, whose president, Yahya Jammeh, made his hostility very clear when in 2009 he declared on national radio and television:

If you think that you can collaborate with so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it… We are not going to condone people posing as human rights defenders to the detriment of the country… rest assured that your security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my Government.

His statement sparked outrage from CSOs, who launched an advocacy campaign to move the commission’s headquarters. They were unsuccessful. Lynette Mabote, the advocacy coordinator of the AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, which has observer status at the commission, describes it as more of a mechanism for logging human rights violations than a tool for change. Change, she says, can only be driven by a critical mass on the ground.

Instead, CSOs are pressured by donors to prioritise participation in regional mechanisms.

“The so-called human rights agenda has already been set for you,” Mabote says, and they are constantly shifting in focus. “Two years down the line it’s a new issue, we forget what we were talking about. There is no critical mass that can keep it up. That’s why nothing moves.”

Nothing moves but the money, most of it flowing from the EU and international human rights organisations, to cover the costs of CSOs that fly in twice a year from around the continent to report to an institution that appears to exist purely for symbolic purposes.

But in the era of The People, such symbolism is indispensable. Its necessity boils down to layers of legitimacy. Good governance gestures provide the AU with a semblance, however frail, of political legitimacy through ‘civil participation’. This, in turn, benefits the donors who fund both its hard and soft security programmes.

 As the new regional sovereign, the AU is paving the way for its funders’ agendas in the continent (just as its member states have accused CSOs of doing), most markedly in the area of military intervention.

“African engagement has served as a catalyst for the return of UN peacekeepers to Africa after the tragedies of Somalia and Rwanda,” writes Jakkie Cilliers of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

An early illustration of this was the AU’s role in Darfur where, initially, the Sudanese government insisted that only African troops would be allowed entry. But the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which was deployed in 2004, found itself dead on arrival – crippled by the lack of delivery of funds that had been promised by the EU and other donors. As a result, it was unable to carry out its operations and instead became a target for violence.

The UN then offered its hand in marriage, putting the Sudanese government under pressure to permit the establishment of a hybrid African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) that could better respond to the violence. Complemented by the international humanitarian sector, which relentlessly broadcast celebrity studded images and stories of suffering in Darfur, and by civil society organisations that launched campaigns in support of the hybrid force’s deployment, the pressure was successful and UNAMID deployed in 2007.

A few years later, Ethiopia served as an arbiter for deployment of the United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA). UNISFA, according to Maru, was able to deploy to the contested oil-rich region between Sudan and South Sudan at record speed in 2011 “solely because of the trust both parties [had] in Ethiopia”.

African solutions for American problems

Ethiopia was also instrumental in paving the way for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to launch in 2007. The AMISOM is now staffed by 15,000 African soldiers whose salaries are paid by the EU and UN, with the US handling the rest of the support: training, communications, intelligence and arms. It is, in effect, a Euro-American war waged with African bodies.

In a July 2012 Los Angeles Times article that the newspaper has since removed from its website, David Cloud reported that:

Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union. But in truth, according to interviews by U.S. and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon, trained and supplied by the U.S. government and guided by dozens of retired foreign military personnel hired through private contractors.

Having learnt from its military disasters of the early 1990s, the US, through the AU, has draped its operations in kente cloth and secured African solutions for American problems. Addressing a delegation of South African media that were invited to AFRICOM’s headquarters in Germany in early 2013, Carter Ham, the former head of AFRICOM, singled out Somalia as the best example of an effective US-AU military partnership, an ideal model for the future, “where there is an African view, an African plan, an African-led operation where they’ve asked for a little bit of help”.

But if the AU doesn’t ask for help when and where it should, it quickly finds itself – much like the peeved CSOs that were barred from its ‘people-centred’ summit – left outside to channel grievances through the media. In the case of NATO’s intervention in Libya, to which the AU was opposed, then-AU Commission Chairperson Jean Ping complained to the BBC: “Nobody talked to us. Nobody consulted us.”

‘A decipherable and controllable constituency’

What’s in a consultation? There is the space and the owners of the space who issue the invitations. There are voices selected to represent and brokers appointed to negotiate. There are rules of engagement, frameworks for participation, vocabularies for articulation and, finally, if all goes according to plan, there is compromise and consensus. It is on these elements that institutions are built and maintained.

In order to thrive in the liberal era, CSOs, like most actors in the theatre of democracy, had to abandon popular militancy for institutional consultation. Radical confrontation has been replaced with power-point presentations at policy meetings, process prioritised over outcome. Civil society has been compelled to be civil.

Funders play a crucial role here, through strategic support of particular types of civil society formations. In the US, according to historian Karen Ferguson, the Ford Foundation’s involvement in 1960s and 1970s anti-racism activism was aimed at developing indigenous power brokers who were “amenable to both groups’ respective visions”. These brokers served the larger goal of organising working-class black people into “a decipherable and controllable constituency”.

Through its peace and security architecture, with The People as its principal pretext, the AU is seeking the same. Public perception of the AU as an ineffective bureaucracy might just be the perfect smokescreen to obscure what the continent’s new sovereign has effectively been enabling: the creation of a civil society of African states that offers the Washington Consensus, and its arsenal of enforcement accessories, a permanent home in Addis Ababa.


CHRONIC_II-3This article first appeared in the Chronic (August 2013). Read the article together with an interview with Addis Ababa-based consultant on international law, security and governance, Mehari Maru and a quick guide to the African Union at work illustrated by Ricardo Sa, Atang Tshikare and Roger Williams, get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.




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 Paula Akugizibwe is a writer and journalist based in Kampala. She is also a contributing editor of Chimurenga.

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