The idea of the grand debate remains everything but grand in so far as the debate is seen as an imposition by our leaders, to the exclusion of the people, especially the masses, and of course we know that women constitute the bulk.
When I first heard about it, I asked myself a couple of questions which I did not get answers to. First, I asked why it is qualified by the adjective, ‘grand’ when there is really nothing grand about it in either scope or substance.
The idea of the grand debate remains everything but grand in so far as the debate is seen as an imposition by our leaders to the exclusion of the people, especially the masses, and of course we know that women constitute the bulk. There can be nothing grand about the debate so long as its train is moving, and the people, both women and men, are not carried along with it.
One of the next questions I asked myself was: why should we be having this debate in the first place? I would have thought that the question 'to be or not to be' on regional integration is as good as answered; and the questions remain ‘when’ and ‘how’? The question should not be: whether or not. It is a given, and there is no going back. It is a situation of forward ever, backward never. Unlike the OAU, the AU's envisioning for Africa of a peaceful, united and prosperous continent driven by its people lays claim to be a union of African people, and not just a club of heads of states. But how far this is true, we are yet to see.
Our leaders did not stop at theorising. They stepped further by creating new organs like the Pan African Parliament (PAP) and the Economic and Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) through which the voice of the people will be projected to provide room for popular participation by the people in its activities.
The adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights in 1999 signalled one of the preliminary and important steps towards including African peoples, including women, in deciding their own affairs. This was further elaborated with the signing of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003, and its coming into force in 2005.
The difference between the OAU and the AU is also seen in the AU's highlighting of human rights, which includes gender equality. This is evidenced by its excision of the clause of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations, for which the OAU was notorious, and also the adoption of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa of 2004. But the extent to which these have made a difference in the lives of African women, if at all, is not clear.
Speaking of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality, it struck me that when a document is referred to as being solemn, it simply depicts the deep sincerity underlying its signing and adoption. In all the AU documents I have come across, it is only this very important document that, paradoxically, bears this adjective. I stand to be corrected. The document could anyway have been referred to simply as a ‘declaration on Gender Equality in Africa’, given the little or no attention paid to it by our leaders, thereby connoting neither deepness nor sincerity.
But come to think of it, when our leaders signed the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality, no one held guns to their heads. They were not cornered, threatened or blackmailed into making commitments to it, leaving one wondering why they are now paying lip-service to it. Why they are dragging their feet and why are we having such a hard time getting them to implement it? At the recently concluded G8 meeting in Heilingendamm, our leaders accused the G8 of reneging on their promises to Africa, but many Africans sadly do not see our leaders in the same light.
Not only is the low level inclusion of women noted in the grand debate, the inclusion of the masses generally is rather more than a little disappointing. If most of the citizens are not included in the debate, how then is this situation different from what it was centuries ago, when our forefathers ceded our entire land and livelihood to the colonial masters for mere ‘shoestrings’. Women were not consulted then, as we are not now. How many peoples and groups have had the opportunity to deliberate and contribute to this ‘grand debate'?
Analysing the official AU study on the proposed union government, gender was mentioned in passing as an area of focus, but did not carry with it any substance. It was not clear what is to be done with respect to gender. As a matter of urgency, African women want this to be broken down so as to be sure we are not being ‘offered’ another white elephant. If gender is a crosscutting issue, as it is often said, and all the areas of priority would be viewed through gender lenses, this should not just be done, but be seen to be done.
Apart from African women, civil society organisations should be included to make the debate meaningful. It is recognised that one of the causes of collapse of some previous regional integration arrangements, e.g. the East African Community (1967-1977), was the low level of involvement of civil society in their activities buttressing the fact that the effectiveness and sustainability of regional integration in Africa will be ensured through sustained political will and involvement of the people in the continental integration processes.
Civil society organisations have been challenged severely on what and who gave them the mandate to represent the people, who elected them and what the basis is of their legitimacy. But when patients are referred from government’s hospitals, due to inadequate facilities and expertise or both, to Nairobi Women’s Hospital, no one raises the question of legitimacy.
The AU has secluded itself in this debate so much so that even the legislative authorities at national level and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are left behind in the grand debate, despite the fact that Africa’s integration process has always been government-led. Yet the latter are supposed to be the building blocks on which the foundations of the union are based.
It is essential that involvement in the debate on union government should not stop at jaw-jawing, but include considering the peoples’ interests and opinions, taking them on board, and basing them on the strategic area of focus on shared values and common interests.
They should not stop at just soliciting public participation and opinion, but should also find ways of exciting them, just like it is done in voter education before an election, where political parties state their manifestos, who is contesting and what the electorate stands to benefit.
It is noted that there has been a dearth of information from the media, both of the process leading to it, and also of the debate itself. But that is understandable, such is the inactivity on this question for the media to cover widely and deeply.
I am sure when our leaders started thinking and deliberating on these issues, right from the beginning, they did not foresee that it was not going to be a thorny path. This path hopefully will be in a smooth and straight road. Yet they should remember that they can only get there if they remain dedicated to the cause of the journey and do not waver.
We can see from the experience of the EU that there certainly will be conflicts. We should then, even at this formatory stage, begin to think of the conflict prevention and management that should put mechanisms we want in place without waiting for them to erupt, and we start applying the fire brigade method.
* Roselynn Musa works with African Women’s Development and Communications Network, FEMNET, Nairobi, Kenya.
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