There was an event and a resolution at the just-concluded AU Heads of State and Government Summit in Addis Ababa that caught my attention.
The resolution was on the migrant crisis. Although it failed to address the root cause of the crisis, and was buried among other decisions, it nevertheless showed that the AU was beginning to give it attention.
The event was the unveiling of a statue of the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. These two are seemingly unrelated, but they are in fact intrinsically linked.
The AU’s newfound determination to address the migrant crisis comes after years of tepidity on the matter.
European countries, human-rights organisations, and the UN have held emergency meetings on the crisis.
That an organisation created to champion and protect African people’s welfare should be the last to respond in a systematic way to the monumental moral problem seems to show that it is fatally out of touch with the reality of Africa.
The plight of the migrants escaping poverty and persecution in Africa has been told on many platforms including this column.
They trek across the Sahara desert to reach the Mediterranean Sea, where they board rickety boats to Italy.
Alternatively, they hide in ships going to Latin America and run a gauntlet of drug cartels and wild animals as they walk through the jungles of Central America, hoping to get to the US and Canada.
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella, No One Writes to the Colonel, the diabetic Sabas explains to the Colonel his dietary routine, and then shows him the medicine he has to take with him everywhere he goes.
“It’s like carrying death in the pocket,” he says to the Colonel. Like Sabas, the migrants carry death in their tiny bags. Many die in the Sahara, in the Mediterranean or in the jungles of Central America. All these deaths are heartbreaking, but those of small children are too much to bear. Why has the AU treated this as a peripheral matter?
The answer is as simple as it is tragic. But to answer it, let’s first look at another crisis to whose discussion the AU once again arrived late – mega-corruption.
After years of warning that Africa was poor, not because of colonialism as we were told by politicians and intellectuals, but because of theft on an epic scale, it was only last year that the AU held a summit on corruption.
At that summit, the AU finally accepted that corruption posed a major threat to growth and stability. A number of resolutions aimed at tackling the phenomenon were adopted.
The reason the AU took so long to tackle corruption was because stealing of public resources was, and still is in many places, hatched and facilitated by governments.
Unlike anywhere else in the world, African politicians, particularly its presidents, are some of the richest people in the world.
In other regions, the richest people are industrialists, inventors and business people. In those regions, people take huge pay cuts when they leave the private sector to go into politics.
In Africa, people leave the private sector to go into the phenomenally lucrative public one. And thus the AU, an organisation whose institutional and cultural inclination is to protect African presidents, was incapable of seriously addressing the looting perpetrated by African governments.
In similar fashion, the AU was unable to address a migration crisis caused by poverty, in turn caused by theft perpetrated by African governments.
In Kenya, a third of the state budget is stolen every year. That amount could build thousands of low-cost houses for the poor and eliminate slums in Kenya’s cities in a few years.
In places like the DRC, Nigeria or Equatorial Guinea, plunder of state resources is on such a scale it should be declared a crime against humanity.
So, to the AU, I say stop worrying about Haile Selassie. He was a pioneering head of state who lived like an emperor while millions of his people starved. Worry more about those dying in the Sahara, the Mediterranean Sea or Central America.
If these heads of governments, past and present, that you dedicate so much of your energy and resources to protect or commemorate had lived modest lives, and had worked beyond the call of duty to improve the welfare of their citizens, and had refused to preside over plunder of national resources, thousands of Africans would not be dying in the Mediterranean Sea trying to become indentured servants in Europe.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.