Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - The African Union headquarters complex in the capital Addis Ababa stands in stark contrast to its immediate surroundings.
The wide planetarium-like structure sitting comfortably attached to a 100-metre lightly glazed tower dominates the city’s skyline. Inside, the combined leadership of 54 nations gather in state of the art conference rooms to contemplate Africa’s future.
Outside the complex, taxi cabs jostle for parking space and pedestrians are questioned by security guards, while local residents navigate the grime and dust of urban life walking along narrow alleys.
The continental bloc might be celebrating 50 years on Saturday, but there is an unmistakable cynicism surrounding the nature and value of the union in meeting the needs of ordinary Africans.
The AU plans to host commemorative celebrations at a reported cost of $1.3m, despite ongoing conflicts and insecurity in five countries across the continent, including Sudan, the eastern DRC and Mali.
Disarray still reigns in Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic and Madagascar. Moreover, despite recent economic growth across the continent, living conditions remain abysmal for many average people, with the UN’s signature index suggesting that 24 of the 25 countries at the bottom of the human development index are African.
These types of statistics compel critics to describe the AU as a talk shop, rudderless and crucially disconnected from African citizens like its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
Change of focus
Joram Biswaro, Tanzania’s ambassador to Ethiopia, believes criticism of the AU is unfair and out of context. Despite its limitations as a continental bloc, the fact that Madagascar, CAR and Guinea-Bissau were banned from attending the summit for ongoing political irregularities signalled the AU was headed in the right direction, he said.
"Perhaps had it not been for this organisation, Africa might not have achieved what it has achieved … If you want to assess its performance, one should look at its charter,” Biswaro told Al Jazeera.
The original organisation, the OAU, built by 32 African nations originally on May 25, 1963, focused primarily on liberating countries on the continent from the grip of colonialism.
|One street away from the headquarters of the African Union, average people are living in poverty [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
The OAU came under sever scrutiny for its inability to intervene in member states during times of strife, coups or government repression earning the name of "dictators' club" for upholding the interests of member country’s leadership above all else.
But since the formation of the AU in 2002, with a renewed focus on solving conflicts, engineering socio-economic development and improving governance, hard questions are being asked over the political will of the AU to reignite the lost dream of pan-Africanism.
During the Arab Spring of 2011, the AU was an anonymous spectator as a revolutionary fervour that was born in North Africa spread across the Middle East. The AU appeared to be particularly hamstrung in its response to the armed revolt against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
“The crisis in Libya was a very difficult time for the AU’s Peace and Security Council to reach an agreement,” reminisced Yemane Nagish, a political analyst at The Reporter Newspaper, in Addis Ababa.
It is this type of accountability, transparency and political will that needs to improve, says Ashebir Woldegeois, the chairperson of the Health, Labour and Social Affairs of the AU’s Pan-African Parliament.
With 60 percent of its annual budget reportedly funded by overseas donors, it remains unclear how much political clout and independence the African Union can wield in reality.
Solomon Dersso, senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), says he has no issue with African countries partnering with outside groups to solve problems. Difficulties on the continent need to be viewed in proper context, he said, as some problems come from outside sources, rather than from within Africa.
“The idea is not that only Africans should do it; the idea is that Africans should be at the centre for the search of solutions,” he told Al Jazeera.
Other observers wonder if ordinary Africans are actually at the forefront of the AU’s concerns. With so many Africans living in politically repressive regimes, like Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and the Gambia with limitations on freedom of expression, and restrictions on opposition parties, the AU is not yet representative of the African people, critics say.
“Despite being home to several of the world’s worst performing countries in terms of respect for human rights, the region saw overall if uneven progress toward democratisation during the 1990s and the early 2000s,” Freedom House, a US think-tank, reported in regards to Sub-Saharan Africa.
While elections are being held regularly across the continent, these apparent gains towards a culture of democracy are sometimes little more than masterful con jobs.
Votes are scheduled this year for fragile states like Zimbabwe and Madagascar, and scrutiny has fallen on the efforts of the African Union to be an honest broker for democracy. In the past, Human Rights Watch has slammed the AU as an organisation ostensibly created to support democracy and freedom but wary of grassroots social movements.
The idea is that Africans should be at the centre of the search for solutions
The AU, however, has not been aloof to the challenges posed by political repression on the continent. In 2007, the organisation adopted the Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance to address a tendency towards authoritarian rule in some African countries.
Highlighting human rights, the rule of law, democratic elections and unconstitutional changes of government, the charter aims to "reinforce commitments to democracy, development and peace in Africa". There certainly is no faulting its intention but critics say commitment to the Charter has been poor.
Woldegeois, the parliamentary member, said the situation has improved, despite set-backs. "We are getting there, but many opposition parties in Africa are still immature; many are not willing to work hard in the villages, build their constituencies."
But other observers said the root problem of representation at the AU can be seen in the group's founding constitution.
“Compared to the United Nations charter which starts off with ‘We the people of the United Nations, the AU constitution starts off with ‘We the heads of the state and government," said Dersso, the researcher. "Make no mistake, this [the AU] is in many ways still a club of heads of state and government and not necessarily a body that truly represents the African people."
Young and restless
Almost 65 per cent of Africans are below the age of 35, and many are uninterested in the traditional politics of patronage. The face of the continent has changed.
The new AU Commission Chairperson, Dr Nkhosozana Dlamini-Zuma, has vowed to frame the next five decades around the themes of African identity, integration, economic development and democratic governance, among others.
But without action, analysts warn the continual talk shops at summits can last only for so long.
“There is a great sense of empowerment on the part of the youth," Dersso said. "If the actions of leaders are not in sync... [then] these types of governments have no future in Africa."
As African leaders enjoy the pomp and ceremony in Addis Ababa this weekend, many outside its headquarters still believe the continental body is adrift from the aspirations of its people.