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Tajudeen Abdul Raheem says the appointment of Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai to the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) of the African Union represents a dangerous conflict of interest as she is already a Kenyan government minister. Wangari should either quit as a government minister or reject the ECOSOCC position, he argues.

Many of us who are optimistic about the African Union do so not because of some naïve utopianism that ignores both the objective and subjective realities of Africa that may militate against the realisation of the renewal of faith in the noble ideals of Pan Africanism. We also do so not just as a defensive impulse against the more fashionable industry of Afro-pessimism. Our optimism is based on the concrete reality of our lived experiences and the brutal reality of the condition of many Africans today, both on the continent and in the Diaspora. These have made Pan-Africanism a precondition for our survival instead of it just being a dream. And some of us will even go further to assert that we need our dreams and we need to accelerate the process of their realisation because those who have no dreams to live for and work towards will suffer nightmares. And Africa has suffered enough nightmares!

The African Union did not emerge from a vacuum. It is the result of a critique and audit of our performance or lack of it in the four decades of the existence of the Organisation of African Union (OAU). The organisation was useful in building African consensus and mobilising our peoples against colonialism all over Africa and also in fighting Apartheid and settler colonialism in Southern Africa. Sometimes our frustrations at the way colonialism metamorphosed into neo-colonialism and dictatorships in many countries make us forget some of the positive contributions of the OAU towards our collective good, including it being the single most important diplomatic and political forum for all of Africa. Only Morocco has ever left it.

The Constitutive Act of the AU sought to correct some of the mistakes of the OAU charter in order to make the new Union more responsive to the needs and challenges of our time. It is different from the OAU in many important respects. It is potentially a more people-friendly Union. The OAU was an organisation of leaders and operated as such for most of its existence even when the leaders no longer represented anybody but themselves and their yes men or women.

The AU now seeks to be people driven and it has institutions to guarantee that. For instance, the Commission of the African Union is unique among all Multi-lateral institutions today in not only guaranteeing full participation of both men and women but in enforcing it. It has gender parity of five women and five men as its members. Of course the battle will not stop there because this practice is yet to percolate the whole of the emerging institutions of the AU. However since the principle is guaranteed and enforced at the highest level, hopefully it will only be a matter of time before this good example spreads downwards.

By far the most potentially democratic and democratising institutions of the Union are the Pan African Parliament and the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC). The Parliament offers an historic opportunity for Pan-Africanism to stop being the exclusive preserve of the Presidents but a matter for all of us with a prospect for popular accountability through elected representatives. Unfortunately for the first five years it will only operate as an advisory body. The hope is that after this interim period the need to have a more permanent and powerful parliament with real overseeing powers and an effective check on the executive will recommend itself. One important area of reform when the protocol comes up for review could be the way in which the MPs are chosen. They should not be elected by indirect elections in national parliaments but should be elected directly by all Africans in all the countries they may be. This may transform all Africans into effective political players and no longer 'aliens', as is the practice at the moment.

The other institution which should be complementary to the Parliament in guaranteeing people power in the AU, with even bigger potential, is the ECOSOCC. In the past it was difficult for civil society organisations, NGOs, private sector groups, professional associations, etc to have access to the OAU. But the ECOSOCC envisages that most organisations and even individuals will have equal access to the AU and contribute their quota to the development of Africa. Like the Parliament it is also advisory for the time being.

The interim General Assembly of the ECOSOCC was launched in Addis Ababa last week. The Nobel Laureate, Wangari Mathai, was elected as the President of the Assembly along with other officials. She is a very popular person with an unflinching commitment to democracy and the ordinary peoples of Africa.

As an admirer of Mama Wangari I should be jubilating at her appointment but I am not because there is a potential for conflict of interest in her appointment that will undermine the credibility of the ECOSOCC. She is a minister in the NARC government of Kenya. It is not correct that a serving minister is put at the head of an institution that is supposed to be a people's forum. I can see the argument of visibility, clout and personal influence that may have weighed heavily on the minds of those who orchestrated her nomination, in absentia. But it is a wrong precedence. It sends wrong signals about the readiness of the AU to embrace civil society as an independent partner. We should not keep quiet because she is a much-loved 'one of us'.

Tomorrow it could be any other minister or government person and what would we say then? When governments manipulate elections, public opinion, and so on, we rightly shout and we should not maintain culpable silences because some of our own friends and colleagues are the direct or indirect perpetrators.

The AU bureaucrats have had an undue influence on the process of establishing the ECOSOCC, which risks making the institution a mere adjunct to the AU.

Another issue that shows the unwillingness of the AU to deal straight has to do with the role of the diaspora. The mission, vision, and strategic plan of the AU recognises the diaspora as the 6th region of Africa in addition to the five regions on the continent itself.

The Chairperson, Alpha Konare, is particularly focused on this yet in the ECOSOCC process the Diaspora has been represented by those chosen by the whim of the AU officials. Even at the launch of the General Assembly the few diaspora persons there were mere observers. This is partly due to the unresolved political intrigues around an acceptable definition of 'diaspora'. Some people want it to mean the historically dispersed Africans across the world especially North America, the Caribbean and Europe. Others focus on the more contemporary dispora of Africans directly from the continent, relative new immigrants in the diaspora. A sensible compromise should not be an either or debate but an inclusive arrangement that recognises the claims of all Africans and people of African origin wherever they may be. The AU should not dictate to Africans whether in Africa or in the diaspora.

Self organisation is the hallmark of civil society. A situation whereby the AU decides who the leaders of ECOSOC will be through manipulation of delegates and representation does not augur well for a union that wants the people to be involved as legitimate stakeholders. The Shenanigans at the launch of the ECOSOCC General Assembly would have made the former Stalinist countries very proudly nostalgic that their methods of 'democracy from above' continues to have appeal even without the need for a political party and cadres!

If the AU and its collaborators, co-conspirators and power worshippers in civil society who have brought about this unnecessary situation cannot see their opportunism one hopes that personal integrity and political consistency would dictate to Mama Wangari to either quit her government post or reject the ECOSOCC position. I have no doubt that she truly wants to help galvanise support for the fledgling ECOSOCC and the AU but all things considered I do not see how She can do both with good conscience.

* Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa

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