July 3, 2002

AFRICAN UNION: Cautious nod of approval by African NGOs and unions

After sharp exchanges with the South African government, African civil society organisations and trade unions have given a cautious nod of approval to the formation of the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

NEPAD is a programme to kicks-tart social and economic development in Africa.

Last week, South African president Thabo Mbeki -- one of the driving forces behind NEPAD -- sharply criticised African non-governmental organisations as being ''uninformed'' about the programme. He said that while complaints from African civil society about not being consulted about NEPAD made good headlines, they did not address the fundamental issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

Mbeki called on civil society organisations to ''come forward and ask what they could do'' rather than simply complain about consultation. His spokesperson Bheki Khumalo dealt with accusations that NEPAD was simply conservative economics dressed up as an African development initiative, by pointing out that: ''ideology does not feed people''.

But, on Tuesday, July 2, African civil society organisations on the continent broadly welcomed the launch of the African Union and NEPAD. ''We believe their time has come - but we have a number of concerns,'' said the general secretary of the Uganda-based Pan African Movement, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. He was speaking after a two-day meeting of African civil society in the South African port city of Durban. The civil society meeting was held ahead of next week's formal launch of the African Union in the city.

Abdul-Raheem called on AU leaders to ensure the establishment of structures that would give civil society a voice in the new Union. ''Their establishment should be speeded up as a means of addressing criticism that things are too much centred around leaders.'' Abdul-Raheem said the peer review mechanism -- to be set up under NEPAD - should also have representatives from civil society. ''This accountability should not be for foreigners, the G8 or the rest of the international community; it should be for the people of this continent.'' He also called for Africans to be better informed about the African Union and NEPAD. ''There is not enough information coming down from the AU and NEPAD about what they are committing themselves to. One cannot have democracy amid ignorance,'' Abdul-Raheem said.

The organisations proposed that all NEPAD papers be translated into as many African languages as possible, and that translation services be provided at AU meetings. They also have demanded that women comprise at least 30 percent of representatives in NEPAD and AU structures. They called the role of African women economists in the management of fiscal policy to be strengthened.

In their draft submission to the AU inaugural Summit, civil society underlined that they should have a role in efforts to limit conflict on the continent. The document points out that the AU Peace and Security Council provides for participation of non-governmental organisations. The organisations called on African governments to reduce military expenditure and boost spending on education and health - especially for fighting the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other infectious diseases.

Also in Durban on Tuesday, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and African Section of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU/AFRO) gave their support to the African Union and NEPAD. The general secretary of ICFTU/AFRO, Andrew Kailembo said: ''We reiterate our support for the objectives and principles of NEPAD. We make ourselves available to form a partnership with our democratically elected governments, the new structure of the AU and the rest of progressive civil society.'' However, they also called for greater consultation by AU leaders and indicated their concern that NEPAD would enforce conservative economic policies and bring about cuts in social spending in African countries.

Mbeki, who addressed the union meeting, committed himself to ensuring that the labour federations concerns over NEPAD are raised at the highest level.

At the AU Business Summit, also being held in Durban, the South African minister for Trade and Industry, Alec Erwin, called on African countries to increase their trade with each other. ''Prosperity in our economies will be through our ability to trade between ourselves,'' said Erwin, pointing out that most of Africa's trade was with Europe and Asia. The aim of the summit is to give African business a chance to raise their concerns about NEPAD and comment on the proposed programme. (IPS / Anthony Stoppard)

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