AU is Failing Ubuntu


In Robert Zoellick’s “Beyond Aid;” it was assumed that the world had moved on from an old order where some countries dictate the rules; while others live by the formulated rules. The African Union is still under the tight grip of foreign aid with an estimated 97 percent of its programme and strategic agenda budget supported by donor countries.

Urged on by aid initiatives, the otherwise wealthy continent still lives by the rules “dictated” by the international community because it surrendered its own ethic narrative – the “ubuntu,” to donors. “Ubuntu”, a Nguni word for “humanness” or human kindness, can be termed as an ethic that guides relations in Africa.

The root word “ntu” cuts across several Bantu ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. In “ubuntu”, human life and the value of the person is elevated. If we assume that the African Union (AU) represents the interests of the African people, one would expect the continental body to be the citadel of “ubuntu”.

The AU action and activities over the years raise doubts over its readiness to be the custodian of African “ubuntu”. The AU is yet to call high-level summits to discuss crucial predicaments that befall ordinary citizens on the continent such as travel and migration challenges, mineral wealth induced conflicts, famine, poverty and disease among others.

In early October, an estimated 60 African migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea supposedly “fleeing poverty” from the continent. One would have expected the AU to be at the forefront to discuss and offer a way forward in incidents such as the one where a ship carrying over 250 African migrants capsized near the Lampesuda Island off the Italian coast.

The alleged statement by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Amina Mohamed, that the AU only pays attention to Heads of States and senior government officials – but not ordinary citizens like Joshua Arap Sang who is also accused at the ICC – confirms everyone’s fears. 

This erroneously implies that to attain the essence of being African – the “ntu” – one must be a Head of State or senior government official. The AU’s quest to selectively assist Kenyan individuals faced with crimes against humanity at the ICC exposed its Achilles’ heel.

Both the AU and the Kenya state functionaries operate oblivious of the fact that they exist in office because of the people. AU leaders in Addis Ababa were at pains to reconcile the quest to fight impunity and foster it at the same time.

The leaders’ sense of “ubuntu” appeared more informed by the memory of bloodied images of the late Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi by the road culvert and Laurent Koudou Gbagbo who was captured in a bunker. The AU should go back to its spirit of 2005 which attempted to connect ordinary Africans with their leaders and the continental body.

The outbursts against the ICC would have made sense to ordinary Africans and the world if the AU demonstrated real and speedy action to safeguard human life. The absence of demonstrated evidence to uphold justice on the continent compromises the AU’s role in Africa.

Africa is held back by the poverty of strategy as demonstrated by its lack of enthusiasm to uphold its peoples’ humanness. The AU’s self-financing of the Extraordinary Summit on ICC that met on October 11–12, 2013 is indicative of possibilities for the regional body to marshal efforts to confront threats against Africans.

Africans can draw inspiration from an African-American, Jackie Robinson, a baseball player whose story is encapsulated in the movie “The True Story of an American Legend”.

The key message in Jackie’s story is the importance of investing to control one’s emotions while working to achieve superior goals.

Emotional confrontations will neither help the region to change rules and systems nor to resurrect and create its own narratives on humanness in order to gain domestic and international respect. – The African Executive

• James Shikwati is the director of the Inter Region Economic Network and publisher of the African Executive magazine. He can be contacted at


November 2013
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