First test of African Union

July 15, 2002

NOW THAT inaugural pomp and circumstance are over, the newly founded African Union must quickly establish its credibility as an effective advocate of democracy and sane economic policies. Otherwise, it will be doomed to fail just like its predecessor, the 39-year-old Organization of African Unity.

On the surface, things look promising. No one can doubt the reform commitment of South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, the 53-nation organization's first chairman. He was the architect of a recent partnership that ties aid from leading industrial nations to African countries' practice of "democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance."

However, the reality of such goals was thrown into question when Zimbabwe's increasingly despotic president, Robert Mugabe, played a visible role in the AU's inauguration this month. And when Libya's strongman Muammar el Kadafi is among the organization's key financial backers. And when Kenya, which is at odds with its most important foreign donors, is a member of the steering committee.

These concerns perhaps could be overlooked if the AU's goal wasn't so ambitious. It wants to become like the European Union and hopes to establish a Pan-African Parliament, a peace and security council, a central bank and a common currency.

Such goals are easy to dream about but nearly impossible to realize. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania exemplify those difficulties.

Once ruled by the British as a regional unit with parallel legal systems, joint mail, railroads and airline, they are trying to revive the East African Community, which collapsed in the mid-1970s because of political and ideological differences. But despite the three countries' shared language and history, this is proving to be far more difficult than anticipated.

Yet the outside world -- including the United States -- cannot afford to resign itself to the possibility that the AU will not succeed. Too much is at stake. Unless Africa, already ravaged by AIDS and famine, can start moving in the right direction in its development efforts, it will be left further behind. That, in turn, would produce more human misery and instability that could explode into international crises.

The AU was born with the best wishes of the world's leading industrial democracies. That's what Mr. Mbeki's economic development partnership is all about. But no outsider can help unless African countries implement reforms that would give the AU the initial credibility it so desperately needs.

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