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What we give up when we speak from both sides of the mouth

First it was Burundi. Now it’s South Africa. Both have decided to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) citing different reasons. One claims that its sovereignty is under attack; the other says that membership to the ICC undermines its role as a leader on the continent and cripples its potential to mediate in conflicts on the continent.

First it was Burundi. Now it’s South Africa. Both have decided to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) citing different reasons.

One claims that its sovereignty is under attack; the other says that membership to the ICC undermines its role as a leader on the continent and cripples its potential to mediate in conflicts on the continent.

 

It’s not good optics that South Africa is following Burundi on anything. But that is a story for another day.

 

Today’s story is about the predicament Africa finds itself in: Africa has two faces but is in search of a single voice. It’s a road littered with landmines that to successfully manoeuvre the terrain dancing shoes are an absolute necessity.

 

Since the independence era in the 1960s Africa has been preoccupied with the desire to speak with a single voice. Over the years, the reasons for it have changed but that desire has remained.

With the Organisation of African Unity as the vehicle, its founders imagined that speaking with a single voice was the most potent weapon for galvanising support needed to deliver independence for states that were still under colonial rule.

With independence in hand, one voice would be needed to consolidate these gains. It would serve a strong basis for mutual solidarity against neo-colonial intrusion and sabotage, they reasoned at the time.

Then the African Union replaced the OAU. It, too, understood the importance of speaking with one voice. However, times have changed, they call for a different historical mandate. Consequently, whereas the Pan African quest remains, its content has changed.

The AU seeks to reconfigure and to consolidate Africa’s place in global affairs. It perceives itself as a crucial vehicle in Africa’s search for respectability, a recognition that it hopes will ultimately lead to a permanent seat or two at the United Nations Security Council, a place where only those who matter speak and where others may occasionally speak only by invitation.

It follows, therefore, that the AU’s quest for a single voice is noble and is a potentially worthwhile endeavour. However, therein lies a conundrum: Africa wants to speak with a single voice; and yet, it keeps speaking from both sides of the mouth.

Consider the AU’s position on two critical issues and you will see that they represent a microcosm of how this paradox is manifest. Let the debates on the ICC and those on presidential term limits illustrate.

On the ICC, the legitimate desire for South Africa to withdraw is undermined by the same desire on the part of Burundi whose actions over the past year or so have done nothing but to reinforce the importance of institutions like the ICC. Its countries like Burundi that make the AU a laughing stock every time it makes the claim that the ICC is a political tool for the ambition of the West to control African leaders.

Consider the discourse on terms limits. The legitimate quest for some leaders to seek more time in office because they have earned the trust of their people who, in turn, legitimise their continued rule is often conflated with the illegitimate and nefarious quest by others to hold on to power by hook or crook; they do so even when they are unwanted by their people, thereby imposing themselves on them.

On both counts, the AU can’t speak up. Even when it speaks it’s not heard. Why? Because it insists on speaking from both sides of the mouth. Sadly, its voice will remain mooted where those who matter speak. It’s like that phone call from the person you owe money where you either ignore it altogether or when you do pick up you claim not to hear what they are saying because the network is poor.

If truth be told, this Janus-faced approach will not deliver the respectability the AU seeks. Africa is calling for reforms to the Security Council; yet, those on it claim not to hear, however much she screams.

Let me say this a little bit more diplomatically: the UN Security Council is a body of hypocrites and no hypocrite will freely give away anything of value like a veto to another hypocrite. You can take that to the bank.

The point is this. Africa cannot seek respectability when it does not respect itself. Respect is the outward expression of an internal-self. Indeed, no one is prepared to respect anyone who speaks from both sides of the mouth.

As long as that remains the case, the two sides of Africa will remain: the good and the ugly. Unfortunately, it’s the ugly side that will continue to dominate how Africa is viewed – the image of war, disease, flies, hunger, and the like.

Moreover, its dominance will remain as ferocious as it has always been such that even our usual defensive posture and now near-instinctive retorts that “Africa is not a country” will prove to be inadequate responses. Indeed, the fact that when they lump Africa together they commit a fallacy of categories will be just a detail, a footnote.

It’s a prejudiced view, alright. However, it’s the image that those who seek to control Africa want, one where our display of incompetence feeds into to give credence and evidence that Africans are not ready for self-government, an argument that justifies their intrusion.

This much is clear. If Africa is to have a shot at respectability, voice must not be for the mute. A path on which South Africa and Burundi walk hand in hand singing kumbaya must lead to a fork in the road.

Which way, AU?

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