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African civil society and the AU: time for self-organisation?


20 June 2005

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The African Union Heads of State Summit will be held in Libya from 28th of June to 5th of July 2005. Unlike previous summits, there will be no AU-facilitated civil society meeting preceeding the Summit in Libya. As there has been no official and public explanation by the AU, it is best not to speculate on why the expected meeting will not be held.

The fact that it will not be held however raises important questions the most obvious of which is - Should African civil society be reliant on the AU to fund its pre summit meetings? A No answer - has its implications, the major question being how then will it be funded.

A Yes answer - also has implications in respect of independence and ethical questions, especially given that the state, its agents and agencies in many African countries are the main violators of human, political, economic and social rights on the continent. This is not withstanding the fact that the AU as an institution has surpassed the expectations of many cynics in terms of its engagement with civil society and its vision for Africa.

To go further, the leadership and many officials of the AU have been exemplary in their relations with African civil society.

Nevertheless, the fact that the regular AU supported civil society meeting will not be held will raise a question mark over the relationship of civil society with the AU with regards to summit arrangements. Will this be a one off situation? Will the next one be guaranteed to be held?

The most important question though on the minds of many across Africa will be: how is it that African civil society’s major annual meeting will not be held in the very year when Africa and Africa’s problems are the focus of the world? Is it that African civil society is so insignificant in the equation that the governments of Africa, Europe, America and the G8 can decide Africa’s future without the input of civil society - even at a time when rock musicians and pop stars across the West can claim to have influence on the future of Africa.

The issues of debt; gender equality; human rights and democracy; conflict, peace and security; HIV/AIDS; agriculture and food security and many more are too crucial to be left to drift for another year without African civil society input.

Of course African civil society is not insignificant. However to actually demonstrate that they are significant, civil society will have to go the extra mile and jump the extra foot to show that to a reasonable extent it has an independent voice and that its voice can be and must be heard at a time when it is most crucial to Africa.

In political and logistical terms this means that gravity must be defied and an African civil society meeting must hold before, parallel to, or immediately after and in response to the AU Heads of State summit. Can such a meeting be organised within two or three weeks? Despite obvious difficulties (the major one being finance) the answer is yes.

Can it be organised in Libya without the moral if not financial support of the AU given the strength of Libyan civil society, and the logistics of getting there? It is possible but not guaranteed. If not in Libya, where then? Obvious alternatives could be Lagos, Johannesburg or Nairobi.

These are logistically easier to reach, and have strong civil society with the organisational capacity to host African colleagues. Holding such a meeting outside of the venue of the AU summit will be breaking with tradition. However the point should be for the meeting to take place, not where it takes place. This means the meeting may also loose its traditional opportunity to feed into the AU summit process, especially if it holds parallel to or after the Executive Council meeting, or even parallel to or after the Heads of State summit itself.

Again, the point is for the meeting to take place at a time in history when it is imperative for it to do so. In any case the official AU supported meeting is not going to take place so the opportunity to feed in is already non-existent. However effective use of the media can overcome this shortcoming.

Not holding an African civil society meeting this year will set a precedent that may be too costly for Africa to recover from. The impact on democracy and rights issues in Africa may not be felt immediately but it will be definitely be felt sooner rather than later. Key African civil society actors and organisations must step forward to prevent this. There is no time to waste. Will it be held? Will it be Johannesburg, Lagos or Nairobi? Can you help it hold it? Can you attend, if it is held? Can you help others attend? The responses from us all will decide. Please Act Now!

Written by Rotimi Sankore and Chidi Adinkaluy. The former is coordinator of CREDO, an international African rights organisation focussing on Africa and Africa related issues while the latter in an African civil society activist.

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