African solution to Africa's problems

By Richard Lee | January 27th, 2012
African solution to Africa's problems

By Pansy Tlakula - As the African Union meets this weekend in Addis Ababa at its 18th Summit, most Member States will be preoccupied with the contest for the next African Union Commission Chairperson. The incumbent Jean Ping faces a challenge from the widely respected South African Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

They should also be celebrating the coming into force of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance after Cameroon became the 15th country to deposit its instruments of ratification on the 16th January. But not all countries will be cheering.

The Charter is one of the most progressive legal instruments that the AU has adopted. It promotes and protects the rule of law, democratic principles of governance, regular free and fair elections, and human rights. It recognises gender equality, multi-party pluralism, the independence of the judiciary, access to information and freedom of the press, citizen participation, and the condemnation and rejection of corruption as being some of the fundamental tenets of an open and democratic society. Almost every phrase associated with democracy and good governance is contained somewhere in the Charter. Perhaps it’s one weakness is that it tries too hard to be everything to all people.

One of the most contentious articles relates to unconstitutional changes of government. At the drafting stage, there was debate about whether to include language that deals with those who attempt to remove an elected government through unconstitutional means. Sadly, the continent still has examples of elections that have not met universally accepted free and fair standards, military coups and refusals by incumbent leaders to relinquish power after an opposition party or candidate has won the election. With the coming into force of the Charter, Africans will be watching the AU even more closely to see whether its members abide by its provisions and meet their collective responsibility to effectively address any future unconstitutional change of government.

The Charter can also help to entrench democratic practices that should become part of the way our governments do their everyday business. But, like all international instruments, it will require political will from government leadership for its effective implementation. A positive first step would to be for the 14 countries who have not yet signed the Charter to do so. SADC should encourage its members – Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Seychelles, Swaziland and Zimbabwe – to append their signatures speedily to signal their intentions to be part of the continental community that values and respects government accountability and transparency.

Other notable absentees from the list of signatories are those of the North African Member States – Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The latter three have provided the world with cogent examples of what can be achieved when the people of a country have had enough of one party rule with minimal checks and balances on executive power. The new regimes in these countries need to demonstrate their commitment to the African community of nations – and to a new more democratic way of governing.

The Charter has the potential to unite the continent and to counter the oft heard refrain that there is seldom consensus in the African Union. If the Charter can provide some degree of unity between Member States it will go a long way to dispel these kinds of criticism. Governments now have the opportunity to commit themselves to adherence to democracy, elections and good governance – ideals that most of their citizens have long held dear.

It is hoped that this opportunity is embraced, and that its positive consequences are recognised as far outweighing narrow sectoral or party political interests, which are seldom for the good of the nation or the continent.

Pansy Tlakula is a Commissioner of the AU Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Chairperson of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission. She writes in her personal capacity.

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