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African Union & Nepad Should Rein in the Tyrants, e.g. Eritrea? 
By Makau Mutua
Last year, amid doom and gloom, Eritreans observed 10 years of their independent republic, born after the bitter divorce with Ethiopia in 1993. Although a decade is a fleeting moment in the life of a nation, the future of Eritrea does not augur well. The problem is all too familiar. After three decades of a deadly war for independence from Ethiopia, Eritreans now find themselves in the claws of a maniacal dictator who has dashed their hopes of paradise.

What is sad is that Eritrea is bucking the trend of more open, democratic, and progressive states that are steadily growing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Over the last decade, we have witnessed an irreversible, if uneven, movement towards more accountable governments in many formally one-party or military dictatorships in Africa.

Even veiled dictators like President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda have been subjected to elective politics. At the continental level, new institutions for regional governance are more openly, even if only rhetorically, committed to democracy.

Two important continental initiatives bear this out. In June 2002, in Durban, South Africa, African states formally buried the Organisation of African Unity and triumphantly inaugurated the African Union, on which all hopes for a renaissance have been pinned. The other equally interesting initiative is the New Partnership for Africa's Development, which is supposed to lead to good governance and economic renewal. The bet by African states is that if you clean house, more assistance and better terms of trade and investment will be forthcoming from the West.

But neither the African Union nor Nepad, touted as the master plan for Africa's rebirth, will deliver the continent from damnation if leaders like President Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea continue to be the rule rather than the exception in Africa. Africa's hands are already full with the negative effects of globalisation. African states have little choice today in the global market. They have to remove whatever obstacles exist for development.

But Mr Afewerki, a freedom-fighter-turned-despot, is not alone in defying popular demands for democratic reform. Several long time African dictators, such as Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar Bashir of Sudan, have made a career out of pillaging their own states. In Rwanda, the post-genocide state is busy entrenching Tutsi exceptionalism and domination, a basis for a future genocide. What is shocking is that Mr Afewerki, dubbed in the 1990s by the Clinton administration as one of a new breed of African leaders, has turned out to be more Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and nothing like Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

Eritrea was much admired both in Africa and the West after it gained freedom from an oppressive and backward Ethiopian state. But everything has been downhill ever since. Led by the then popular Mr Afewerki, Eritreans and their supporters abroad viewed the new state as tabula rasa on which a utopian democracy would be established, a shining example to other African states. But in the last six years, Mr Afewerki has dashed those hopes, instead bucking the democratic trend that has haltingly swept most of Africa in the last decade.

In 1997, after Eritreans ratified the country's first democratic constitution, Mr Afewerki refused to promulgate it. He has rejected free elections, and now rules by fiat. Since 2001, he has instituted a sweeping crackdown on democratic reformers and outspoken government critics. He has detained without trial senior government officials. Afewerki has closed down all independent media and employed the Judiciary as an instrument of repression.

Yet it is Afewerki and his ilk who the African Union and Nepad must target if the continent is to be pulled back from the abyss. Unlike the defunct OAU, the African Union promises not to be a club of dictators.

A new African Army should have the authority to enter member states to stop genocide, war crimes, and other gross violations of human rights. These are commitments of enormous significance because they most probably would have stemmed the Rwandan genocide of 1994 or helped prevent the catastrophic dismemberment of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

The African Union hopes that the democratisation of African states will open the way to regional economic integration.

That is why member states have agreed to establish an African Central Bank, a common currency, a Pan-African Parliament, and a regional security council.

But African leaders must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Theories of regional economic integration presume the existence of viable, legitimate states. That is why the African Union cannot simply mimic the European Union. It is absolutely essential that the internal structures of African states be rewritten. Otherwise, there will not be any political and economic revival.

Both the African Union and Nepad must not be cost free receptacles, ready to embrace any and all African states. Nepad requires that member states establish democratic, honest, and accountable governments to be eligible for participation. The African Union should follow suit. The peer review system of Nepad - in which African states oversee the compliance of each other to the tenets of the body - must be extended to the African Union so that unfaithful member states are excluded. It will be counterproductive to launch these new bodies, only to allow Afewerki and his fellow travellers to hijack them.

The African Union and Nepad will only succeed if the West forgives Africa's crushing debts, substitutes fair trade and investment for aid, removes domestic subsidies for agriculture, and gives Africa a larger voice within the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organisation.

But defiant and recalcitrant leaders like Mugabe and Afewerki are first and foremost the responsibility of the African Union and Nepad, and not the West. In the case of Zimbabwe, for example, the African Union ought to kick Mugabe out of the club.

African leaders such as President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa should not, as he did at the Commonwealth, defend the decrepit and totally objectionable Mugabe.

The case of Afewerki is equally blatant. In the past two years, he has embarked on the construction of a republic of fear, a police state. All independent media has been vanquished. Political opponents rot in jail. The judiciary is completely meaningless. Unless something is done, both the African Union and Nepad will become sad shadows of the OAU.

It is true that running a liberation movement is not the same as ruling a state. The guerrilla freedom fighter must be transformed into a statesman. This is a difficult transition to make. Just look at the slow mutation of former freedom fighters or guerrillas like President Museveni when they capture power. We should appreciate these difficulties. But we should not use them as an excuse to apologise for dictatorships. The AU and Nepad must squeeze Afewerki - and hard - if they are to fulfill their mission.

Mutua is Professor of Law at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
The East African Standard (Nairobi), 22 August, 2004