A crisis in continental leadership
the African Union ( AU)’S lethargic response to the deadly ebola crisis in West Africa and Boko haram’s bloody surge in northern Nigeria, affirms how ineffective the continental body really is, reflecting a profound lack of solidarity between African countries, and how empty talk of African integration of economies and politics is.
the AU’S long-awaited continental response to Boko haram in Nigeria, by sending a regional five-nation force of 7 500 African troops, is inadequate. Unless it is combined with getting the Nigerian government to govern in the interests of all its citizens, behave more accountably and spread the benefits of growth more fairly, the AU military response is likely to fail. Poor governance — elite groups benefiting from politics, government and economics, while others are glaringly excluded, and often ignored or suppressed when they complain — is at the heart of most of Africa’s recent conflicts, popular uprisings and religious fundamentalism.
the irony is that the decision by the AU to finally intervene in the Nigerian crisis by sending in African troops coincided with Robert Mugabe, who personifies the worst of African poor governance, taking over the chair of the organisation. one reason for the slow reaction by the AU and individual African governments to local terrorism directed against ordinary citizens, such as those of Boko haram, is that the guiding principle of the Union and most African countries, is to protect the sovereignty of governments and national leaders, and not ordinary citizens.
the irony is that the Nigerian government typically dismissed demands from Boko haram in 2009, when the group was still in its infancy. the typical African government response to local demands for change has often been to ignore it or crush it, rather than address it. there has been a lot of debate about why the attacks by Boko haram in Nigeria’s Borno state, which last month alone killed about 2 000 people within two weeks, got so little international attention, compared to the terror attacks in Paris over the same period, where 40 world leaders joined the “March for Unity”.
sadly, African lives are still less valued than Western ones. A massacre in Africa is often seen as “ordinary” and global leaders and organisations are unlikely to fall over themselves to find a solution. After all the years of Boko haram terror, it predictably took the UN until midJanuary last month to decide on sending a special envoy to “assess” the situation in Nigeria. Yet more than 13 000 people have been killed and more than one million made homeless by Boko haram violence since 2009.
however, the sad truth is that African leaders don’t appear to value the lives of their citizens. An African life lost is often not met with outrage by African leaders, unless of course, it happens to be their immediate family, friends and allies. African leaders, like Western leaders in Paris, should have rushed off to Nigeria and shown their solidarity in a march. some African leaders were in Paris in the march against terror last month, but they could not organise a march against Boko haram.
Granted, the Nigerian government has tried to downplay the number of citizens killed in Boko haram attacks. of course this was partially for political expediency, as it did not want to show it is losing control of the situation. the slowness of an African regional response to the Boko haram threat is also an indictment of the lack of African regional integration beyond the insincere rhetoric of “pan-africanism”. Last year, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan had to seek France’s intervention to get its neighbours, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, to co-operate across borders to tackle Boko haram.
It says much about the ineffectiveness of the AU and regional African organisations, which were spectacularly ineffec- tive in getting Nigeria and its neighbours to co-operate and pool resources to deal with Boko haram. similarly, African countries struggled to muster a collective response to the ebola virus. the sierra Leone and Liberian governments last year say they felt “abandoned” by the AU’S lack of intervention to help them deal with the ebola crisis.
the spread of the ebola virus arises from a lack of investment in health infrastructure and public services for ordinary people. African leaders go to Western and eastern countries for health care. their citizens don’t have it. As long as the leaders are looked after, they don’t care about their citizens.
It is essential that African countries build useful infrastructure – hospitals and schools and invest in human resources, and pool specialist infrastructure, but one country alone cannot afford such health research centres – this will promote practical regional integration.
Pan-african solidarity must become real, rather than rhetoric. the truth is that unless African leaders and regional and continental organisations focus on protecting their individual citizens, and not leaders and governments, outsiders will also keep ignoring attacks on the continent’s people.
African security forces must also be re-orientated to protect individual citizens rather than concentrate on protecting leaders and governments. Africa is entering a period where there will be fewer wars between countries but more demands from ordinary people for political rights and fair economic benefits compared to ruling elites. the irony is that many supporters of Mugabe claim he is a “strong” leader who will not let the West dictate to the continent. however, Africa’s concept of a “strong” leader needs to be changed dramatically.
strong should mean caring about individual citizens, governing in the interests of the people, putting one’s country above personal interests, and above all, governing honestly.