The African Union’s crisis of legitimacy

If it cannot address systematic human rights abuses on the continent, what really is the purpose of the African Union?

Zimbabwe violence AP photo
Zimbabwean police and army roundup people at a checkpoint in the country's capital, Harare, ahead of planned anti-government protests, July, 30, 2020 [AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi]

On May 29, just four days after George Floyd’s death in police custody, African Union Commission’s Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat issued a scorching statement condemning the Black man’s “murder … at the hands of law enforcement officers” and reaffirmed “the African Union’s rejection of the continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the United States of America”.

A few weeks earlier in April, following the news of the Chinese government’s mistreatment of Africans living in the city of Guangzhou, Mahamat summoned China’s ambassador to the African Union, Liu Yuxi, to express the body’s extreme displeasure with anti-African racism in the country.

Taken on their own, despite admittedly not making much difference on the ground, the African Union’s public condemnation of racial discrimination and police brutality targeting Black people in China and the US could be seen as a reaffirmation of the continental body’s stated commitment to promoting universal human rights.

The Union’s actions – or rather, its careless inaction and passivity – in Africa, however, tells a completely different story.

On March 27, the first day of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, two police officers assaulted 56-year-old Petrus Miggels in Cape Town. He died shortly after that beating. His only crime was allegedly breaking the country’s strict lockdown rules by purchasing alcoholic drinks from a nearby shop.

Following Miggels’ sad and mystifying demise, the African Union not only failed to launch an investigation, it did not even issue a simple statement of condemnation.

This disturbing act of police brutality, it seemed, was not worthy of the AU’s attention.

Why would the AU condemn Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, but wholly disregard Miggels’ suspicious death on the Cape Flats? Why would it express “extreme concern” about the maltreatment of Africans in China, but fail to caution South Africa for killing one of its own citizens, in broad daylight, under the guise of implementing COVID-19 lockdown rules?

Police brutality and abuse of power in South Africa, after all, is as systematic, widespread and deadly as it is in the US.

South Africans reportedly lodged 42,365 criminal complaints against the police between April 2012 and March 2019. Amongst others, the reports included allegations of rape, torture, assault and murder.

Still, despite the severity, consistency and enormity of the complaints, South Africa has avoided being investigated or publicly rebuked by the African Union to this day.

The African Union was similarly passive in the face of growing human rights abuses in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Earlier this month, the small and perennially troubled southern African country was accused of stifling dissent after forcefully crushing an anti-corruption demonstration planned for July 31 and arresting scores of journalists and activists who criticised the government for the economic collapse, deepening poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses in the country.

The situation swiftly deteriorated to the extent where, on August 6, South Africa announced its decision to appoint two special envoys to Harare to help resolve “difficulties that the Republic of Zimbabwe is experiencing”.

The Zimbabwean authorities responded to the news with fury, and in an explosive news conference accused the South African government of being “completely out of order”. Pointing out South Africa’s own despicable human rights record, especially its brutal response to the 2012 Marikana miners’ strike which resulted in the deaths of dozens, they urged their neighbour to refrain from intervening in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs.

On August 7, as the situation in Zimbabwe became one of the main discussion topics on the continent, the African Union finally felt the need to say something on the issue.

In an official statement, Mahamat urged Zimbabwe “to uphold the rule of law allowing for freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the right to information”, and welcomed South Africa’s decision to appoint special envoys to the country.

In his restrained rebuke of the Zimbabwean government, Mahamat also stated that Harare’s actions “are a breach of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance”.

While the issuing of such a statement would have been appropriate in the face of a similar crisis in a country outside Africa, where the Union is not able or expected to lead the way in countering human rights abuses, it was not sufficient or acceptable in the context of Zimbabwe.

When it comes to systematic human rights abuses committed by delinquent member states like Zimbabwe, the African Union has a duty to do more than issue empty statements. It must take swift action, and where need be, institute strong disciplinary measures. If it does not, or cannot, what really is the African Union’s current role in Africa?

In September 2019, for example, when Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered a massive crackdown on anti-government protests, the Union said or did nothing to help the people of Egypt defend their most basic human rights.

Had the African Union stepped in to help restrain el-Sisi’s tyrannical madness, had it urged its member states to break ranks with Egypt’s illiberal regime and denounce its actions, it could have saved thousands of innocent people from ending up in prison. And, perhaps even more crucially, such groundbreaking actions, even if they failed to convince el-Sisi to change his repressive ways, would have signalled to other African leaders that the Union would not hesitate to take action if they abuse African citizens. 

But, as the recent surge in cases of police brutality, unlawful arrests and questionable deaths in Uganda, Mali, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe demonstrate, Africa’s leaders are unmoved by the African Union’s authority and impressive charters. The organisation’s supposed ability to translate the heaps of signed declarations and agreements that it routinely refers to in press statements into implementable and sustainable policy and actions has proved tremendously limited.

The African Union’s timid, imbalanced and disorganised approach to promoting democracy and human rights is allowing oppressive regimes to operate with impunity on the continent. The Union must establish a robust surveillance system to monitor systemic repression and police brutality in member states or risk becoming irrelevant to the development of democracy in Africa.

It is great to see the African Union taking a principled stance against human rights abuses outside Africa, from China to the US, but until it actually takes action against abuses on its doorstep, it cannot justify its existence and avoid becoming irrelevant.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.