‘Great Leap Forward’ for the African Union: an unfortunate choice of words

The African Union (AU) (formerly the Organisation of African Unity) has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend. Opening a specially-convened conference for the occasion, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, praised the “great leap forward in the pan-African quest for freedom, independence and unity”.

Like most regional organisations, the AU has had a checkered history since its founding in 1963. It became a rallying point for ending colonial, white-minority rule in several African countries and has provided a continental forum that forces some political cooperation between the African states.

An opponent of colonial rule, the Organisation of African Unity included among its ranks many dictators
An opponent of colonial rule, the Organisation of African Unity included among its ranks many dictators

Simultaneously, and particularly in its formative years, the AU has been accused of gross inaction. Previously pursuing a policy of non-interference in a state’s affairs, something the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) persists with, the AU has failed to prevent a series of coups, rebel insurgencies, civilian massacres and massive population displacements across the continent.

Even since changing its stance on interference in 2002, the AU has sometimes been slow to respond to challenges posed. Peacekeeping forces in Somalia, Darfur, Central African Republic and Mali have shown undeniable resolve and skill in fighting insurgents and terrorists but the political response has often been confused and cautious. When heavily-armed terrorists of Ansar Dine began their march through Mali last year, the AU stood idle, waiting for promises of French intervention and support before committing troops of its own. Responding so feebly to such a grave threat to the “freedom, independence and unity” of a member state is not a good advert for the AU’s crisis-management credentials.

AU soldiers have fought with some success in Somalia - but they need to be backed up by strong political action
AU soldiers have fought with some success in Somalia – but they need to be backed up by strong political action

Perhaps most worrying in opening the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the organisation, was the use of the term “great leap forward”. Had Prime Minister Desalegn properly done his research, he would know that such a phrase is synonymous with one particular period in modern history; the insane years of forced collectivisation and industrialisation in communist China between 1958 and 1961 under the deluded and repressive leadership of Mao Zedong.

Hoping to drag the largely rural and impoverished Chinese people into the modern world, Mao embarked on a ruthless period of economic transformation in which private farming was abolished for the good of the “collective”. Due in part to horrendous resource management, appalling working conditions, ruthless reprisals for ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and a primitive form of industrial expansion (in which backyard furnaces quickly became a symbol for the failure of the whole experiment), at least 20 million people perished as famine gripped the country.

Backyard furnaces involved a massive waste of resources and produced only poor quality steel
Backyard furnaces involved a massive waste of resources and produced only poor quality steel

Why then would an African leader use such words to try and describe the ongoing development of his continent, the least advanced continent on the planet? Some of Africa’s states are experiencing rapid economic growth and the need for this to be managed accordingly, whilst creating an economic interdepedence between other states to help forge the unity and prosperity the AU desires, will require consideration. Neither the AU itself, nor the economic experience of its member states, needs to be associated with a dark period in history when the desperation for modernity was pursued at a cost of civilian disaster and national humiliation.

For Africa to avoid a dissimilar fate to China, its leaders (both national and continental) need to show greater appreciation of the challenges facing them than Mr Desalegn’s comments suggest. Only by accepting these challenges can Africa begin its slow march forward. And, in this respect, a slow march is far better than a great leap.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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