‘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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Street Violence the Ultimate Insecurity: tragedy on a Woolwich street

The brutal and very public murder of soldier Lee Rigby on a Woolwich street in London yesterday afternoon has sent reverberations of shock throughout the capital and the rest of Britain. Not only was the attack reported to be particularly macabre, with machetes and knives used, but the release of footage showing one of the presumed culprits, hands bloodied, making political statements against the British government added to the unease of civilians worried about both further attacks and possible retributions.

The attack was carried out in broad daylight in a crowded street
The attack was carried out in broad daylight in a crowded street

Early reports suggest the attack was religiously and politically-motivated with the perpetrators seemingly Muslims targeting a British soldier in the most full-blooded anti-war statement possible. The attacker caught on camera spoke of women and children in “his country” being exposed to the type of violence he perpetrated “every day” (a probable reference to the ongoing War in Afghanistan) and warned that “you people will never be safe”.

Such a graphic message has the power to instill a rampant fear in the public. For, at the base level, one of our greatest concerns is the random attack; the public act of violence. It is often indiscriminate, occasionally seeking maximum collateral damage, and has become a constant, if underlying, threat in modern society.

The gun violence in the US over the past year, along with the Boston Marathon bombings, has sent a reminder that nobody is safe in today’s world, even when performing the most mundane tasks like going to school or visiting a coffee shop. 

The proliferation of weapons, coupled with a growing population, inevitably leads to more violent confrontations. But there is also a growing awareness amongst terrorist organisations and disturbed individuals alike that targeting members of the public is the most effective way of distributing a “message”; the best way to instill fear.

1995 brought the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, committed by a religious cult targeting the government through its people. Many Japanese did not use the subway system for months afterwards, a sentiment shared by some of London’s population following the 7/7 bombings in 2005.

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Commuters were struck down in Tokyo by the nerve gas Sarin

Over the past few years, China has witnessed a horrifying spree of stabbings within primary schools, with children butchered to death by lunatics either alienated by a modernising society they cannot cling onto or hooked on violent video games that corrupt their reality. 

Of course one cannot live in constant fear of attacks by extremists or reprisals by those that have suffered. As mentioned recently on this blog, it takes an event such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the Woolwich murder to remind people of their perpetual insecurity.

The nature of the public act of violence is that there is no exclusivity. It is not reserved for those with a political/religious motive or for madmen wanting to go out in a blaze of glory. It comprises a disturbing possibility, an undercurrent to society that one cannot entirely ignore. Complacency will always be eradicated; vigilance is often futile. 

It is out of respect to the slain, and in defiance of the evil, that we must try our best to carry on as normal.