Short answer: I could say that most African leaders are cowards, but let's continue anyway for the sake of argument. It’s about sovereignty, stupid.
This brings up a different facet of this morning’s debate on self determination and power in the era of genocide. We’ll get to what I think is the overall issue in a second. First, southern African states and Zimbabwe:
From Stephanie Hanson at the Council on Foreign Relations:
Even in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki’s policy of quiet diplomacy toward Zimbabwe has been widely criticized, change seems to be afoot. Ahead of the SADC meeting, the head of South Africa’s ruling ANC party and current presidential front-runner, Jacob Zuma, spoke out against the delay in releasing Zimbabwe’s election results. Mbeki, by contrast, said there was “no crisis” (Times-SA) in Zimbabwe. While Zuma did not attend the SADC meeting, the region views him as South Africa’s “de facto leader,” says Sydney Masamvu of the International Crisis Group. Yet it’s unclear if these shifts will have any effect over Mugabe—who refused to take phone calls (Thomson Financial) from African Union leaders last week and didn’t even attend the SADC meeting.
Experts say one reason African leaders remain quiet in the face of regional turmoil is their strict interpretation of the concept of sovereignty. The African Union enshrines the principles of sovereignty and noninterference in the affairs of another state in its charter, which some analysts say has discouraged even soft, diplomatic initiatives to respond to crises. This makes it an ineffective body, writes Quentin Wray, a leading South African columnist. The African Union, he says, repeatedly sends the message, “if you are unlucky enough to live under tyranny you’re on your own.” An op-ed on Uganda’s New Vision website suggests the body reconsider its stance on sovereignty, calling it “a major contributing factor to the suffering of Africans.” At the same time, monitors like the International Crisis Group say the African Union played a positive role in resolving the Kenya crisis earlier this year.
Some experts suggest Africa’s leaders also find it useful to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of others. That way, writes Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Republic, they can insulate themselves from criticism, too. Other analysts worry the African Union’s failure to act on Zimbabwe might embolden other leaders to mimic Mugabe’s behavior. With elections on the horizon in Ghana, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea, the precedent of Zimbabwe is cause for concern.
Call the question, Mr. Roberts
The question I pose: In the face of a withering nation-state, must African leaders cling to supra-sovereignty no matter how badly it reflects upon them? First, I don’t think the nation-state is going away, but it has felt some blows, whether real or perceived; this is especially true in Africa.
Take globalization, for instance. The rise of capitalism over the past few centuries has been inextricably linked to the development of the nation state. But what happens when capitalism “breaks away from its national moorings”? The state, Noelle Burgi and Philip S. Golub argue in Le Monde Diplomatique, is reduced to becoming merely a caretaker – not mucking things up for the post-national companies doing business within its boundaries. Some would argue that is why the Europeans are slowly shifting their idea of sovereignty upwards to a more a multi-national conglomeration.
Things are different in Africa. For one, African governments – for a host of reasons – feel much weaker and less legitimate than their European counterparts. (Note African worries over multi-party democracy.) Even the most bullying state leaders feel at the beck and call of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The World Health Organization and UNDP are often very involved in governmental affairs; so are numerous NGOs, who make important policy decisions in some countries. Foreign investment may be miniscule throughout most of Africa, but it is growing, putting more power in the hands of outsiders. Let’s not forget political and financial arm twisting by super foreign powers like the United States, or in this neck of the woods, France.
It is no wonder then why one can hear whispers of further African integration, either through regional bodies like ECOWAS or a continent-wide organ like the African Union. Although many may scoff at the practicality of a United States of Africa, a more relaxed policy of overseeing the needs of regional trade and cross-border issues like the environment, immigration, traffic, food and agriculture has already taken hold on many levels.
For all the perceived slights against them, African leaders still hold a lot of power. If they have to wag it to remind the world every once in a while, so be it. (It’s one reason they stand behind Mugabe, who has already beat the colonists once.) Africans will also point out that it was less than 125 years ago that the continent’s was carved up virtually tabula rasa, and its borders officially ratified just four decades ago. The fight for independence took a long time; leaders are not easily going to give that up, no matter what obstacles they face.