Hopeful signs from the African union

Some years ago I was in Washington, USA, for a conference on democracy in Africa. Speaker after speaker from America or Europe presented case studies of how they had brought democracy to Benin, Togo, Malawi, and various other countries thus blessed. I noted that one participant remained silent during these earnest discourses. This was Professor Claude Ake of Port Harcourt University, Nigeria. He was the penultimate speaker and was devastating. He first presented his credentials as a forthright proponent of democracy in Nigeria and then stated baldly that elections in Africa have often made the situation worse not better. Elections, he said were the consequence of democracy, not its cause, and without a culture of democracy, and with political parties often based on tribes, elections ran the risk of legitimising the domination of one group over another.

Sudan is a classic example of Claude Ake's concern. It is the largest country on the continent - larger than Western Europe - and is a direct product of the nineteenth century colonial carve-up. In return for French influence in Egypt, an Anglo-Egyptian condominium was established in Sudan in 1899. This lasted until an independent republic was proclaimed on 1 January 1956. For thirty of the following forty-eight years Sudan has had a military dictatorship. Even when there have been elections the ruling Arab elite has faced no serious political opposition. As a consequence the north of this vast country, with its links to the Mahgreb communities to the north west, was historically always able to dominate its minority 'black' population in the south, many of whom are Christian. Islamic influence is backed by the government, including, recently, a dress code that imposes head scarves for women. Increasingly, however, the Khartoum government's writ does not run in the south where John Garang's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Sudan controls a huge area, running schools, building roads and issuing 'laissez passer' documents that are more influential than official Sudan passports.

The present situation in Darfur, in the west of Sudan, and itself a province as large as France, is nothing new. Only its scale is different. Even before the current crisis three million Sudanese refugees had fled from the incipient civil war. Given that many of the refugees in Darfur and now in Tchad are themselves Muslims, the basis of the pogroms is clearly racial rather than religious.

As with any regime that relies on force for its continuing power, the Sudanese president and his government have to be careful to avoid making enemies of the powerful militias, such as the Janjaweed guerillas responsible for the recent atrocities. Although called 'rebels' they have been able to maraud everywhere in the region without let or hindrance from the regime in Khartoum. It may well protest that it is acting to disarm them but its capacity - politically and logistically - to do so is clearly limited.

Reluctantly, and under protest, the Sudanese government has accepted the intervention of the UN Security Council. World opinion clearly has influence, but what is significant in this case is the leading role being played by the African Union in implementing the Security Council's resolution. I doubt whether Sudan's President and Prime Minister Lt General al-Bashir would have accepted intervention under any other circumstances. The Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, is proving to be a tough guy and a most effective leader of the African Union. He has backed his stance with Nigerian troops which, with others, are now deployed in Darfur. He needs the active and vociferous support of the UN and of the international community. The disarming of the militias and ensuring safe passage for relief supplies will be difficult and it may be some time before the people of Darfur can return to their villages to recreate what they can of their shattered families.

This is the second time in recent years that Africans have taken responsibility for African problems. The peace-keeping forces in Sierra Leone are under the authority of ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African States - a sort of copy of the original way that the European Union was started - and these two examples bode well for the future.

Looking to the longer term, Sudan with its present structure, is ungovernable in any sense recognisable in Europe. Without political parties based on some body of ideas rather than on tribe or religion it will continue to stagger from crisis to crisis. The most alarming aspect of the Darfur crisis is that reputable agencies on the spot were warning about it long before it reached its current horrendous proportions. Had the messages from Oxfam and other agencies, and, for that matter, from journalists, been heeded early enough many lives might well have been saved. The financial constraints on our diplomatic representation in countries termed non-strategic inhibit our ability to have people on the spot quickly enough. One lesson from Darfur should be that EU countries could well co-ordinate their foreign affairs coverage for the benefit of those under threat.

The democratic process as we know it depends on a concept of alternance in government, with an informal but recognisable structure of voluntary organisations ensuring pluralism. As of now this is a dream in Sudan and in much of Africa. There has to be continuing movement towards federal groupings, such as ECOWAS, which both allow natural communities their autonomy and prevent tragedies such as Darfur. Pragmatic solutions to acute problems may take different forms. After all we in the United Kingdom do not permit the majority in Northern Ireland to have untrammelled power via the ballot box. If solutions to terrorism there require pragmatic power sharing, why not also in other contexts?

5 September 2004