Ellen Knickmeyer’s confused article on Robert Mugabe’s reflects the problems with American coverage of international events well. It is inconsistent, stating at once that “Though not on the summit’s official agenda, the crisis in Zimbabwe dominates the meeting,” while offering no proof of this (and naming no African leaders, outside of Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan (civil society, in essence), who have demanded he step down, though they surely have) and that
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the summit’s host, did not include Zimbabwe in the ranks of nations whose problems he said the African bloc must address. The African leaders made no immediate public statements on the validity of the Zimbabwe elections.
While Knickmeyer admits recognizes the AU’s long-standing commitment state sovereignty and dealing with disputes between African states, and that many African leaders are in no position to criticize Mugabe’s anti-democratic policies (the summit is being held in Egypt, of all places!!), she seems to be at a loss as to why African leaders would want to address the Eritrea-Djibouti conflict ahead of what is predominantly a domestic affair in Zimbabwe. This “obscure series of clashes between Dijbouti and Eritrea” that the Africans mentioned “several times more often than they mentioned problems in Zimbabwe” is one that could escalate into a wider regional conflict that could bring in Somali, Ethiopian, and Western interests into confrontation, destabilizing a major world trade route on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. This is precisely the kind of conflict that the AU was formed to mediate. (These clashes are “obscure” because American news reports have ignored it, almost entirely (the NYT ran a piece on it little while ago), like they do many African conflicts that do not appeal to high school students or Bono.)
While Knickmeyer may expect the AU to give a higher priority to those issues that Western leaders find most interesting — there are several Zimbabwe’s in Africa and Egypt is one of them — this is not how the AU works, nor is it the mission of most regional fora in the Third World to work in such a manner. The last time I recall an African state being punished for an illegal assumption of power was in 2005, when a military coup deposed a long time dictator in Mauritania. The military government promised elections and legal reforms, which it did and a new government was soon reelected democratically (though it is doubtful that this government will have real staying power at this point). This was in response to the overthrow of a dictator, not the obstruction of any democratic process, such as any could have existed in Mauritania at the time. It was in defense of the pre-existing, authoritarian, order. The AU is not a revolutionary body. Sharm el-Sheikh is not the place to look for democratic criticism. This is, again, Egypt, Zimbabwe’s Arab cousin.
The Africans will wait until the troubles really spill over into South Africa, or other southern African states (but when it hits South Africa is when it will hit the continent and they begin to care) to the point that it is no longer easy to say that it is manageable. This is how the Darfur crisis has been dealt with; it simmered as a Sudanese issue, defended as such by Arab and African leaders, until it became undeniable that it had become an inter-state issue between Sudan and Chad. Even now that problem is inadequately dealt with as a result of the AU’s mission and structure. Zimbabwe and Darfur are very good examples in any case in favor of reforming the AU and strengthening its human rights institutions.