Civil society claims its place at AU summits

Addis Ababa- Ethiopia (PANA) -- Could African leaders have blundered in setting a twice-yearly timetable for their ordinary summits without consideration of the time-consuming preparations and the heavy costs involved? A new study on the African Union (AU) summits suggests that the decision should be given another thought in view of the resources dedicated to the gatherings of Africa's powerful persons while their outcomes have shown a minimal impact on the rest of society.
The report, titled 'Towards a People-Driven African Union -- Current Obstacles and New Opportunities', recommends to Member States to consider reducing the number of meetings of the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government.
Claiming to put forward opinions of some civil society organizations in the continent, the report asserts that the proliferation of AU ministerial meetings, ordinary and extraordinary summits has taken a heavy toll on both the AU Commission and governments.
"The practice of holding two summits a year places great stress on the administrative capacity of the AU Commission to prepare for and implement the decisions of the heads of state," says the report released in Addis Ababa on the margins of the Eighth Ordinary Summit set for 29-30 January 2007 in the Ethiopian capital.
Researchers who undertook the study describe it as a humble contribution toward improvement of the workings of the AU.
Their report points out that many decisions made by the AU summits require other meetings to be organized in order to develop policies and implementation strategies, consuming a lot of time of the Commission to organize consultations.
Questioning the role of regional economic communities at summits, the report asserts that it is difficult to understand how African regions form common positions and can be held publicly accountable at the AU level.
Since the creation of the AU in 2002, one would conclude without exaggeration that African civil societies seem to be anxious to take the continent's policy-making processes by storm.
There has been a vast agglomeration of interest groups seeking to influence state policies and continental decisions but rules of the game tend to sideline them.
According to this report, procedures around preparations for AU summits need to be revised.
Civil society leaders interviewed during the research have recounted their recurrent difficulties, for instance, in obtaining visas to enter the country hosting the summit, accreditation to attend meetings, or even meeting space to hold civil society discussions alongside the summits.
Hurdles however abound on the way of civil societies from home countries to summit venues, according to participants of the research.
"Basically, what we found was that, predominantly, foreign affairs ministries and the presidencies were responsible for preparations for the summits.
There is not much liaison between the ministry or presidency and civil society," said Nobuntu Mbelle of South Africa at the launch of the report.
The report reflects on the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), the civil society organ of the AU, observing that election processes to the Council's interim structures have been problematic and undemocratic.
"If ECOSOCC is to play the role intended for it, it must become a much more genuinely representative and autonomous body, self- organised rather than supervised by governments," said Irungu Houghton from Kenya.
One of the report's 16 recommendations to Member States requires a country hosting a summit to commit in advance to facilitate civil society access, including freedom from harassment for civil society observers.
As the AU examines the criteria for observer status, Irungu said: "One of the primary conditions that should be embedded in the review is to ensure that we have more organisations coming to the summits, coming to the ministerial meetings and engaging in those policy processes.
"And, let they not be only those organizations that can afford the eloquence .
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[but] organisations that represent people who are directly affected by all these things we are concerned about -- disease, injustice, exclusion.
" Stressing one of the 11 recommendations the report puts forward for action by the AU Commission to prepare a policy on information disclosure, Irungu said it would be a gigantic and yet easy step to make before the expiry of the current term of office of the elected top officials of the Commission in September 2007.
"This policy should provide for automatic publication of most documents, as well as the right for African citizens to request and obtain access to all official documents, except where explicitly categorised as confidential according to published, restrictive criteria," says the recommendation, adding that denial of access should be subject to an appeal procedure.
One of the researchers for the report, Ibrahima Kane of Senegal said their recommendations have been made in the spirit of assisting the AU and Member States to improve the function of the AU Commission, particularly where it has to deal with the civil society.
According to Kane, only the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) provide an emulative way of working with civil society in the continent.
"Both give us examples to draw from in order to strengthen the workings of the AU itself," he said.
On civil society interaction with the AU so far, Kane added: "Firstly, what we see at the level of the AU is that there has been a real change.
There is a new legal framework that gives an official voice to civil society within the AU.
"At the same time there are problems with that legal framework and the civil society is not always completely familiar with issues at hand.
"Secondly, state preparations for AU meetings still largely exclude civil society.
This is something that needs to be addressed.
" Meanwhile, the AU Commission's Chief of Staff, Ambassador John K.
Shinkaiye, conceded that preparations for summits were inadequate at the level of the Commission as well as at national and at regional levels.
"Documents do not reach Member States in good time and Member States do not consult widely to the extent that civil society organisations are able to make an input.
"Indeed, not enough is known in our countries about the AU, what it is doing, how their lives could be improved by its activities and how they could contribute to its success," he said in appreciation of the report.
On the reverse, however, Shinkaiye criticized the study for its failure to involve appraisal of the civil society organisations, their weaknesses and strengths, models of collaboration, and reflection on their patterns of engagement with other actors within the AU.
Though focused on summit procedures, the 72-page report is the first independent public assessment of the progress of the AU towards the goal of accountability and accessibility.
The African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), the African Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP) and Oxfam GB commissioned the research.

26 january 2007 15:22:00




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