The AU, Ethiopia, and the dissonance of symbolism
- Babatunde Fagbayibo *
- 01 Jun 2017 (South Africa)
As we advance the cause of effective regional integration and development in Africa, one salient point that we cannot continue to ignore is the symbolism of the location of regional headquarters. Such symbolism speaks to a number of issues – most important, the vision and purpose of the agenda. Beyond the glitzy venues and well-choreographed atmosphere, it is also necessary to establish how such location reinforces the standards and aspirations of the organisation. The inability to draw a positive link is not only worrying but also essentially defeats and weakens the foundation of the agenda.
It is against this background that one is often critical of the Ethiopian government. Such criticism is not based on an aversion for the country but mainly due to the regime’s negation of all the ideas of freedom and justice the African Union (AU) supposedly upholds. Beyond the chorus of “Ethiopia is rising, Africa is rising”, it is essential that we begin to understand how repressive the Ethiopian government is. Both real and imagined opposition are brutally suppressed by a government that continues to force the theory of “development is better than democracy” down our throats.
In a long line of repressive activities, the Ethiopian government, under the laughable guise of preventing exam leaks, shut down the internet on 30 May 2017. Ethiopia remains one of the pioneers of digital repression on the African continent, and it routinely adopts this strategy to censor opposition activities. The negative impact of internet shutdowns on operations of the AU secretariat has hardly moved the organisation to register any substantial complaint against this action.
Since many of the African leaders that attend the jamboree summits of the AU are equally guilty of suppressing, and in some cases turn the machine guns on their citizens, there is no wonder as to why there has been little or no criticism of the regime in Addis Ababa. These summits and meetings usually amount to nothing more than an organised hypocrisy, a platform for fine-tuning sound and fury.
The regime in Ethiopia is fully aware that only a handful of African countries can really confront it and register displeasure by protesting and/or boycotting AU summits and meetings in Addis. The regime understands the psychology of African “brotherhood”, which has always informed the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to atrocities committed by fellow African states. The regime has mastered the knowledge that the AU, like its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), remains a trade union of autocrats, where the interests of tyrants trump those of citizens.
Furthermore, the regime knows that the weak articulation and implementation of democratic values allows it to flaunt the signs of “development” in Addis as the symbol of the warped theory of “democracy hinders real economic progress”. In addition, the regime flourishes in the bubble of praises and gyrations by intellectuals and western governments that fall over each other to rationalise its bad behaviour (The same unfortunate rationalisation is extended to Rwanda’s Paul Kagame).
While our leaders gather in their Chinese built and donated AU secretariat to “talk” about democratic norms, their host, Ethiopia, continues to refine and perfect state machinery of suppression. The reality, albeit a sad one, is that Addis Ababa remains the political and administrative headquarters of the continent, and the symbol of what it intends to achieve through unity. This reality is the primary reason why we must not relent on calling out and exposing the misdemeanours of the regime. How do we expect to achieve true freedom and justice while the “seat of power” remains the bastion of suppression?
We need to send the right message to the masses of our people. It should be the message that highlights the compatibility of freedom and development. Without diminishing the contextual nature of development, which should rightly inform the rejection of a “one size fits all” discourse, the imperative of freedom must remain the flagship idea. Our postcolonial history is littered with the nonsensical obsession with the erasure of freedom on the altar of phantom development, yet we fail to learn lessons.
Ethiopia’s legitimacy to host the AU can no longer exclusively lie in its historical significance; it must be underwritten by its willingness to reconcile the symbolism of location with the aspirations of freedom and justice in Africa.
*Babatunde Fagbayibo is an associate professor of law at the University of South Africa.