The event was greeted with mixed emotions. Some hailed it unreservedly, as a great moment for the continent and its people and, on the global scale, as truly significant.
Elsewhere in certain quarters where those who love placing Africa under a microscope to look for what is not working or what is unlikely to work lurk, it was met with the usual “good, but...”
The event was the eventual accession by Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, to the chairmanship of the African Union, months after he was elected to replace President Alpha Conde of Guinea. Nothing epitomised better the enthusiasm with which many Africans greeted the development than what a Kagame fan club in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, did.
They had t-shirts specially made for the occasion, emblazoned with words proclaiming that with Kagame at the helm, we (Africans) could now look forward to Afrique sans corruption (corruption-free Africa).
Club members are anything but naïve. One has to be extraordinarily naïve to expect one man to move mountains as it were, on such a grand scale, within just a year.
It has, after all, taken him over a generation, against incredible odds, to push Rwanda to where even those who were once committed doubters can now no longer talk down its progress.
Therefore the Cameroonians couldn’t possibly have meant the Afrique sans corruption as a serious statement of what will happen. It was, however, a way of signalling their expectation that for the next 12 months, things at the AU will be anything but business as usual.
It was also evidence, it seems, of the indelible mark Rwanda’s president has already made on the continent as a man of action, as a president with a difference, whatever else anyone may want to say about him.
Those with other things to say, among them commentators, from near and farther afield, who felt it was important to drag his “dictatorship” and “human rights record” into the discussion, also had their say, pointing out how “the AU is not tiny Rwanda” and how he shouldn’t expect to have his way all the time, as they presumably imagine he does in Rwanda.
A good debate could be had about all this and necessary nuance brought in, but this is neither the place nor the time for that.
Suffice it to say, however, that part of what these commentators were trying to do was to point to the enormity of the challenges that arguably Africa’s most managerial or technocratic president will face over the next 12 months.
The more one thinks about them the more one sees why even his most committed fans who must wish him all the good luck there is, must also feel a certain sympathy for him.
Tasks as enormous as chairing the AU must be immense fun for those whose ambitions do not stretch far beyond enjoying the elevated status of being “President of Africa”, even in its very symbolic sense, and the visibility and other perks that may go with it.
For results-focused or obsessed Kagame, it may, who knows, turn out to be immensely frustrating. There are several reasons for imagining this.
The key reason, however, is the poor record African countries have of pulling together and acting in concert on any matter beyond talking about it and, agreeing to co-operate, and often only in principle. Agreeing in principle, as keen observers know well, means there may or may not be follow-up action. Which is why so little of what is agreed is implemented.
The Kagame-led efforts to turn the AU away from dependence on external actors for financing most of its budget to self-reliance is a good example.
Kagame and his advisory team comprising some of Africa’s most illustrious sons and daughters, came up with a formula which, described simply, entails a slight tweaking of the way member countries collect and apportion their tax revenues. Implementing the required measures in any one country is hardly the kind of action that could trigger a revolution.
However, many months down the road since the proposals were put on the table and lauded for the fresh thinking that had gone into them, only about 20 countries have taken the necessary steps towards enabling the AU to free itself from the shackles of aid dependency. Optimists hail this as good progress. May be it is, but good enough, it isn’t.
Just as revealing of the customary sloth that impedes action is the way countries have reacted to efforts to realise the proposed Single African Air Transport Market.
Experts have already told us that its realisation is vital to achieving the vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful continent.
Check the AU’s Agenda 2063. There is hardly any doubt about what that outcome would lead to: Enhanced connectivity, development of the tourism and aviation industries, large numbers of jobs, and ultimately economic growth.
The recent summit saw the adoption of the decision to establish a Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM).
But guess what: Only 23 countries have declared their commitment to doing what is necessary to ensure implementation, of which only two are EAC members. Will the others follow? Maybe. Whatever the case, Kagame has only a year to do what he came for. Good luck Mr Chairman.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]