“African ownership” strikes back

It’s ten days since seven UN troops were killed in Darfur – today, one more has been killed.  In between, there have been a series of events that raise big questions about the UN’s future in Africa.  First, there was the defeat of the US-UK effort to slap arms sanctions on Zimbabwe in the Security Council – notable less for China and Russia’s vetoes than the African Council members’ (pace Burkina Faso) rejection of the resolution.  Then there was the ICC decision to charge Sudan’s President Bashir with genocide in Darfur – again, the most striking part of the international response has been the level of African opposition, with the AU’s “Panel of the Wise” announcing the charges could “lead to a lot of danger”.

The convergence of these events may mark a turning-point in how Africa fits into the international system.  African leaders are setting limits on global governance. 

For most of the last decade, the continent has been a laboratory for international institutions: it has hosted the bulk of UN peacekeepers; been the testing-ground of the Millennium Development Goals (and so the G8’s efforts to hang with Bono); and was the ICC’s focus even before the Bashir indictment.  The AU has emerged as everyone’s favorite new regional institution, not least for taking on Darfur.

For quite a few commentators, myself included, it has been almost axiomatic over the last few years that better international institutions mean a better Africa.  But we mostly missed the politics of institution-building: the interests and ideologies of African governments, and the limits on their desire to be subsumed into supranational organizations (hey there, EU specialists, does this ring a bell with you?).  There’s been lots of talk of “African ownership” over all this institution-building, but it’s all too often hollow.  In May, I was at a seminar in Berlin at which the African participants gave the phrase a kicking (check out the event report).

It was never going to be possible to keep on piling international institution on international institution in Africa.  I wrote a short piece in October 2006 arguing that the UN might find itself “Out of Africa” sooner than expected –  that looked silly as the Security Council went on to mandate blue helmets for Darfur, and mused about sending them to Somalia.  But I may not have been so wrong.  It’s too early to know whether July 2008 is a turning-point or a blip in international engagement (or interference, depending on your perspective) in Africa.  But it should be the moment we start thinking what “African ownership” really means.