Addressing a pandemic on a continental level

I wrote this piece for Africa is a Country a few weeks back and as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our economic, political, and social systems, I still find it to be an important read. Especially as countries like Tanzania and Zambia are pushing for the reopening of their countries to stimulate their economies. The African Union and the African Centres for Disease Control must be lauded for their commitment to tackling this pandemic through multilateral means. There is a clear understanding that given the continent’s interconnectedness, a solution will require countries to work together and not in isolation.

Critical Elections, Election Observers, and Bias

2018 has been a year of challenging elections across the African continent with much at stake for all political stakeholders. Considering how critical these elections are/will be the role of election observers becomes even more central. One such election was Zimbabwe’s in July. The European Union (EU) published its long-awaited report in October for these Zimbabwe election. This election was considered to be “watershed” election marking a change in guard with the ouster of former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017. However, this EU election observer report paints a different picture and highlights the shortcomings of the process. Even more concerning is the reaction, or lack thereof, of the EU’s counterpart the African Union (AU). According to the AU’s preliminary statement, “by and large, the process was peaceful and well-administered.” While the AU has made strides in its commitment to election observation as a tool for democracy promotion on the continent, we continually observe a lack of follow through when it comes to tackling critical elections demonstrated by its handling of the elections in Kenya, Zimbabwe and the recently held Cameroonian elections. This perceived lack of commitment stems from the AU’s emphasis on maintaining Africa’s “common position” at the global level.

In Cameroon, despite the concerns raised during the electoral process, the AU election observer mission noted that it was satisfied with the process with Kwesi Ahoomey-Zunu, former Prime Minister of Togo and Head of the AU Observation Mission, stating that “…we can agree that it (the polling) went well and we are satisfied…I do not have an exact evaluation of how things unfolded but by information I obtained, we can say the situation was not too good (in the Anglophone regions)…In spite of that I think my appraisal is positive.” By “not too good”, Ahoomey-Zunu is referring to the Cameroon Anglophone crisis that has been spiraling out of control over the last year when separatists made the symbolic proclamation of independence for “Ambazonia” which led to the deployment of the army and clampdown by Paul Biya’s government. Biya has referred to these separatists as criminals and terrorists with Cameroon as “the victim of repeated attacks by a band of terrorists claiming to be part of a secessionist movement.” These tensions were only worsened by the elections amid allegations of fraud, the Anglophone rebels boycotting the election, many English-speakers unable to vote, and the stifling of protests against Biya’s reelection.

To further complicate matters, voter turnout was 54% and only 10% in English-speaking regions. Aware of this difficult situation, the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, issued a statement on October 9thurging “all political stakeholders to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from any statement or action that could heighten tensions.” Still, Paul Biya, at 85 years old and having ruled the country for 36 years, pronounced the winner on October 23rd, with over 71% of the votes. With this election, he marks the start of his seventh term in office. The AU has yet to make a formal pronouncement following the announcement of these results but one can assume it will not be as critical as it should.

As I write this, Madagascar has begun the vote count after holding its high-stakes election marred by high poverty rates and allegations of corruption. We can only wait to see what outcomes are and how various opposition groups react. But, for now, everything appears to be going rather smoothly.

Outcomes such as this raise questions not only regarding the AU’s impartiality as an election observer but the implications of the organization taking a more prominent role in election observation in relation to its traditional counterparts and not being able to successfully execute its mandate. Considering that African leaders have suggested that non-African observers cease monitoring African elections as to not undermine the position of African observers, one would expect these same leaders are able to undertake role. However, this has not been the case, with mixed reactions on the part of political stakeholders at both the national and international level in regards to their ability to meet this goal of self-observation.

Therefore, the apprehension with all observers, African or not, remains. For example, the reactions to the EU’s observer mission report on Zimbabwe garnered mixed results. With some lauding it for its objectivity while others challenged it for being “a child of the US”. According to political and legal analyst, Mr. Tinomudaishe Chinyoka, the EU trashed the polls because its preferred candidate Mr. Nelson Chamisa and the MDC-Alliance lost. Furthermore, ZANU-PF legal secretary. Paul Mangwana, made it clear that all that mattered was the country has met AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC) standards. According to him, “It is their [EU] opinion and it remains so. We are measured by SADC and AU standards and we met those standards. The AU and SADC said so. We cannot be measured by standards we know nothing about”. However, during my fieldwork in Malawi, similar challenges have been raised towards the AU in terms of its ability to be truly impartial. One can argue that these various positions depend on whether or not one is the “loser” or “winner”.

Basically, when it comes to election observation, all international organizations have their respective biases. However, the African Union has guidelines to which it claims to adhere to and, if it is able to channel political will of its leaders, the potential for improving election management in Africa is there. The organization needs to focus less on its call for “African unity” but on its mandate to protect its citizens and not simply the head of state.  Given the important role it plays in democracy efforts on the continent this is an area that should be prioritized by organization.

Election observation remains a critical component of democracy assistance efforts but it needs to be done in a way that helps rather than hinders the electoral process. Rather than single out African observers for being partial, all parties need to ensure that they are truly committed to strengthening the electoral process in these emerging democracies or election observers will continually be challenged for not “doing their job.”



When the big countries refuse to play with their friends

Since its inception in 2002, the African Union (AU) has called for higher levels of political, economic, and social integration among member states. While this has been difficult to achieve for a number of reasons, including the lack of consensus among major actors like Nigeria and South Africa, limited funding mechanisms, and continued dependence on development partners, there has recently been a landmark move towards achieving this goal. Namely, on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018, 44 member states of the African Union signed the African Union Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA).

The AfCFTA seeks to achieve a number of objectives. Most importantly, it creates “a single continental market of goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments, and thus pave[s] the way for accelerating the establishment of the Continental Customs Union and the African customs union; expand[s] intra-African trade through better harmonization and coordination of trade liberalization and facilitation regimes and instruments across RECs and Africa; resolve[s] the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships and expedite[s] the regional and continental integration processes; enhance[s] competitiveness at the industry and enterprise level through exploiting opportunities for scale production, continental market access and better reallocation of resources.” This ambitious plan has been lauded for taking a crucial step toward implementing the AU’s mandate of accelerating the “political and socio-economic integration of the continent” and promoting “sustainable development at the economic, social, and cultural levels as well as the integration of African economies.”

However, despite the continued calls for the organization to do just this and fulfill its agenda to facilitate trade between African countries, 11 countries have not signed on to the agreement. One notable absence is Nigeria. President Buhari has argued that the country needs more time to consider the implication of this framework and how it might negatively impact domestic industries. According to Buhari, ‘‘We [the Nigerian government] will not agree to anything that will undermine local manufacturers and entrepreneurs, or that may lead to Nigeria becoming a dumping ground for finished goods.” His position was echoed by the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) which argued that the agreement would lead to many manufacturing companies dying “a quicker death.” Notably, this sentiment was not shared by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a key proponent of the AU’s transition from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), who referred to the rejection of the agreement by these 11 countries as “criminal”.

In addition, South Africa, Africa’s most advanced economy, signed the Kigali Declaration that signals its commitment to boosting trade between African countries but is not the actual Continental Free-Trade Area agreement. Ironically, two of Africa’s largest economies that championed the establishment of the AU refused to sign onto an agreement that deepens regional integration.

So, given these dynamics, concerns as to how well this framework will be implemented given its shaky start, are quite valid. From the organization’s standpoint, this is especially problematic given the constant push for the AU to establish itself as a critical actor on the continent and in the international community. This situation exposes the tensions that exist within the AU itself because, while the AU Commission might advocate the agenda set forth by the AU Constitutive Act, the leaders of the AU Assembly, the Heads of States, are the ones who really dictate the AU’s foreign policy. Without their commitment to AU initiatives, the likelihood that they will be implemented is not high.

The AU’s ability to act is consistently undermined by member states that remain tied to their ideals of sovereignty and statehood. Though the AU has often set itself as a challenger to the West, when it has to work with its fellow member states, we observe varying levels of apprehension. Nigeria and South Africa, as big players on the continent with the most to lose, are the one refusing to commit. In a similar vein, Nigeria has refused to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement that would establish a free trade area between West Africa and the European Union. Buhari argued that “[Nigerian] industries cannot compete with the more efficient and highly technologically driven industries in Europe…” While one can agree that the economic disparity between these two regions is noticeable, I am more concerned with the fact that the regional giant is not using its position to negotiate a better deal for West African countries. What good does it do to simply abstain from signing? In a similar vein, how helpful is it to not participate in a continental agreement that embodies the expressed commitment to finding better ways to integrate and strengthen African economies?

Nigeria and South Africa’s refusal to sign the AfCFTA is representative of the challenges to the AU’s effectiveness as an organization. Having to constantly mediate between the interests of the regional powers risks deterring from issues that truly matter, for example, how this free trade agreement could help people on the continent or, if problematic, what are ways to make the agreement more effective? There is a need to reevaluate the organization’s priorities because, beyond this trade agreement, we continually observe the lack of commitment on the part of leaders in addressing important issue areas which completely discredits their apparent agenda of furthering continental development. Again, there exists a disjuncture between the African Union Assembly and its Commission. The former is focused on the policy objectives of the “Big Men” while the latter seeks to address the challenges facing the continent despite the structural and political hurdles.


When Rex Tillerson toured some of Africa’s “shithole” countries

When, now former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced his five-day tour to Africa, I was a little skeptical as to how this trip would go given the alleged comments made regarding Africa’s “shithole” countries. Little did I know that this trip would end with the African Union failing to address the statements that caused anger and hurt and Tillerson getting fired immediately upon his return to the U.S. Still, this trip raised several questions about the role of the U.S. and China in Africa along with the issue of accountability of African leaders. Whose opinion matters most? Read my thoughts on these issues here.