By Spy Uganda
Kampala: On Tuesday yesterday 25 May, African governments commemorated what is known as “Africa Day” and marked 58 years since Africa began celebrating this special day.
The day (formerly known as African Freedom Day and African Liberation Day) is the annual commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 5 May 1963.
The organization was later transformed into the African Union on 9 July 2002 in Durban, South Africa, but the holiday continues to be celebrated on 25 May. It is celebrated in various countries on the African continent as well as around the world however, it is observed as an official national holiday in Ghana, The Gambia, Guinea, Namibia, Zambia, Mali, Mauritania, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
This year’s theme of Africa Day is Arts, Culture And Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want.
Despite the name change to the African Union, both the name and date of Africa Day have been retained and Africa Day provides an opportunity to acknowledge the achievements of the peoples and governments of Africa.
The celebration however comes on a backheel of a number of issues; the Covid-19 pandemic having piled up pressure on the African economy.
What is the significance of Africa Day for Africans?
Africa Day is an opportunity for Africans to remember that on May 25, 1963, 32 African countries signed the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which later evolved into the African Union (AU). Only 30 of them were independent of colonial rule at the time.
The charter called for greater unity among African countries. It supported the independence of African countries from colonialism and apartheid and promoted economic and political cooperation with a vision that all people on the continent would live freely and in prosperity.
But Africa Day is also an opportunity to reflect on the progress made by the African Union in achieving its goals, especially with regard to protecting the human rights and freedoms of Africans.
What is the union’s vision today?
For almost two decades after the creation of the OAU, the focus of the organization remained almost entirely on the decolonization of the continent and the eradication of apartheid. By the time South Africa led by Nelson Mandela joined the AU in 1994 after the end of apartheid and the genocide in Rwanda, there were calls for greater protection of political refugees and abandonment of the principle of state sovereignty which disallowed interference in each country’s internal affairs, eventually, this led to the dissolution of the OAU and the establishment, in 2002, of the AU.
Peace and security and regional integration became central pillars of the new AU. The AU’s Constitutive Act specifically commits the AU to intervene in civil wars within member states including when there are clear indications of grave human rights abuses or war crimes and to impose sanctions. Moreover, it aims to promote democracy and good governance. These were tremendous changes after a period of devastating civil wars and grave human rights violations in the 1990s.
The vision today remains the same as in 1963 for Africa to achieve inclusive and sustainable development and to unite to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of their peoples however, one of the most strategic pillars to get there, the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is to raise millions of people out of poverty, is yet to be realized.
The infrastructure is not there and even if it was the free movement of goods and people is going to be difficult to realize in an environment where many governments don’t respect the rights of their citizens including freedom of movement association and expression.
What have been some of the key achievements?
In 1981 the OAU Heads of States and Government unanimously adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The charter provides for the establishment of an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) to implement the rights guaranteed in the charter. This acceptance of a limitation on sovereign national authority on human rights matters was a significant step by African states.
The African continent is the only region that has a charter on children’s rights. The ACHPR which sits in Banjul the Gambia and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Arusha, Tanzania, which started its work in 2006, has taken on several African governments on human rights issues.
In 2017 for example the court ruled that the Kenyan government had violated the rights of the Ogiek people by repeatedly evicting them from their ancestral lands in the Rift Valley. This was one of the first times that an African court recognized the right of Indigenous people to their land and natural resources.
The continent-wide campaign against child marriage, championed by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, has seen notable results. The stronger commitment towards eradication of harmful practices against women and girls, such as female genital mutilation, is another major achievement. And the right to universal primary education has been adopted by a growing number of countries with some moving ahead to offer universal secondary education.
How much progress has been made in terms of democratization?
Democratization is a process. Some African leaders try to push back against growing calls for greater accountability and political pluralism, claiming that development should come first, freedom and human rights second. Ironically, the same argument was put forward by Africa’s colonizers.
Today there is new momentum on the continent: Many young people feel empowered to protest in the streets from Sudan to Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo to Nigeria. The youth is speaking up and people are refusing to be subjugated. This is a consequence of an investment in education and advances in digital technologies. These young people are well-educated, self-confident, have greater access to critical information and express their frustrations using all tools available including digital activism.
What are some of the reasons why Africa’s socio-economic development still lags behind?
Communal violence, conflict, abusive terrorism, counterterrorism operations, weak rule of law institutions, election-related abuses, mismanagement and corruption that fuel high unemployment rates especially among the youth, poverty and inequality among others.
Failure to recognize basic economic and social rights like the rights to food or health as legal rights is another and the result is conflict-driven migration, underfunded and underperforming education and health systems and underbudgeted social security programs plus the global Covid-19 pandemic which has also exacerbated the situation.
What will it take to create better conditions for development, especially in view of the pandemic?
It’s going to take leadership and the institutionalization of human rights. In the 1960s people protested against colonialism, and in the 1990s against abusive military dictatorships. Today they want an enabling environment in which their leaders respect their rights, including to criticize and peacefully protest bad leadership. To achieve this we need ethical leadership, independent institutions, accountability, and transparency.
The pandemic has exacerbated Africa’s socio-economic inequalities and exposed gaps in its health care and social protection systems but it has also galvanized some leaders into action. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, former chair of the AU, and President Tshisekedi, the current AU chairperson, have conveyed the need for urgency in tackling the pandemic and spearheaded the global call for solidarity around universal and equitable access to vaccines.
And the South African government, together with India, has championed an important proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rules to expand global access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call when it comes to investments in health and welfare infrastructure, too. But of course, the costs of the pandemic and the rising rate of countries’ indebtedness are a major concern for the continent’s future.
Even before the pandemic, sovereign debt across sub-Saharan Africa was high. Now the continent faces a near $300bn deficit by the end of 2023 while trying to recover from a global economic downturn. Many African countries are at risk of debt distress. And up to 40 million people on the continent could fall into extreme poverty this year alone, according to forecasts by the African Development Bank.
What kind of Africa do ordinary Africans want?
It’s important for African leaders to promote a free and prosperous Africa that belongs to all the woman who sells tomatoes by the side of the road, the child that lives in a rural area, or the innovative entrepreneur who has just embarked on a venture-backed start-up company. An Africa that does not just benefit a tiny group of leaders and their entourage.
In Africa where governments do not prevent a girl from finishing her education just because she falls pregnant. An Africa where leaders are not afraid of criticism, where freedom of expression is seen as an asset, not a threat, and where governments can be held to account. In short, an Africa that represents and caters for African aspirations for human rights and human dignity.