The Crisis in Egypt and the African Union’s Relevance Deficiency Syndrome (By Babatunde Fagbayibo)

Posted: July 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

The current political crisis in Egypt has once again pushed to the fore the complexity of democracy on the African continent. The truncation of the nascent democratic experiment in Egypt is not exactly a surprise. It is an open secret that the Egyptian army remains the dominant player in the political scene. The financial support it receives from the U.S. makes it a formidable force and also reinforces its strategic influence. This has also ensured the tacit condonation of the coup by the U.S. and its strategic ally, the E.U.

The AU as the primary regional organisation on the continent has rightly condemned the coup. In line with the objectives in its Constitutive Act, it has further suspended Egypt. Such bold move has rightly earned the AU praises. Now that the AU has spoken, the key question remains the substance of its action. Put differently, how influential is the AU in the matrix of the on-going crisis?

The sad reality is this: the AU remains the least of the problems of the Egyptian army. The organisation does not have the kind of influence needed to restore democracy in Egypt. Beyond the complex nature of the political landscape in Egypt, including the influence of the U.S., the AU lacks the institutional capacity to enforce its objectives on democratic governance. This is one of the organisation’s biggest problems, a situation I refer to as the “relevance deficiency syndrome”.

Member states have not demonstrated the necessary political will to strengthen the capacity of the AU to monitor and implement governance standards across the continent. Very few African countries are truly democratic. From Ethiopia to Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea to Zimbabwe, Uganda to Eritrea, democratic standards are routinely violated. Such violations have raised questions on legitimacy, especially regarding the manner in which the AU will, or should, respond to the removal dictators, and even democratically elected governments. Have the revolutions in Egypt (that toppled Mubarak and also Mursi) and Tunisia set precedents on what constitutes “legitimate overthrow”? Knowing full well that many of these leaders are beneficiaries of sham electoral processes and the fact that they engage in serious violations of human rights, will the AU give express and tacit support to a coordinated peoples’ revolution? These questions are not only relevant for the AU; they also underline the trends that are beginning to define democratic development across the globe. Democracies such as Brazil and Turkey have in recent time experienced sustained national protests, and more countries, both democratic and illiberal democracies, are likely to face similar situation.

The AU’s condemnation of the coup in Egypt should be seen in the context of its search for relevance. The logic is this: if the EU can assert its organisational authority within its regional sphere of influence, the AU should also be able to do the same within Africa. Such logic, however, falls flat on its face when the institutions designated to exercise authority lack any meaningful power(s). This only reinforces the bark-and-no-bite posture of the AU, and its pitiable quest for relevance. Through their express and tacit actions, member states have afflicted the AU with this serious “disease” – the “Relevance Deficiency Syndrome”. The antidote to this is empowering the organisation with the competence to be able to qualitatively assert itself – both in theory and practise.

You can follow the writer on twitter @babsfagbayibo

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