TODAY the chair of the African Union (AU) commission is largely the final professional role for a foreign minister, a place for a career diplomat to have their swan song. An office where there is little punishment if you make a lousy job of it.
But in the Cold War era, the position used to be a dangerous one, both in literal and career-killing terms. By virtue of the fact that the position was an international one that might require the holder to be at odds with the domestic politics of one’s home country, several former secretaries-general of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) met a depressing end. The risks often followed one even after they left the job.
Kifle Wodajo from Ethiopia was the first secretary-general of the Organisation of African States, which is what the OAU was called when it was formed in 1963.
Wodajo would later be his country’s foreign minister, but fled Ethiopia when the Derg military regime took over power in 1977. He remained in exile until 1991, when he returned and served in the country’s House of Representatives, helping to draft the 1995 constitution.
DIALLO TELLI’S ASSASSINATION
Diallo Telli from Guinea was the first secretary-general of the OAU proper, in office from 1964 to 1972. He returned home and was appointed minister of justice, though many felt this was a junior post for someone who had served in such a high-flying continental role.
But he came to the most grisly fate. Telli was starved to death by the regime of Guinea’s president Ahmed Sekou Toure, accused of leading a plot by Fulanis against the state of Guinea; Telli was an ethnic Fulani while the president was Mandinka.
After intense interrogation sessions and torture, he signed a “confession”, which was reportedly so incoherent as to be unintelligible. He was then subjected to a “black diet” – no food or water – until death.
According to Andre Lewin, Toure’s biographer, Telli was the only person who could potentially challenge Toure in his presidency. Therefore, Toure felt he had to keep him close, in order to destroy his ambitions.
The OAU did not comment on the death of the former secretary-general.
Telli was succeeded by Nzo Ekangaki from Cameroon, in office from 1972-1974. Ekangaki was outspoken about the need for Africa to reduce its dependence on its former colonial masters, and work out its own solutions to the problems facing the continent.
But that rattled both the French and British, as well as many African leaders who wanted to distance themselves from this radical rhetoric.
EKANGAKI AND MBOUMOUA’S TROUBLES
Ekangaki resigned from his role in 1974, and returned to Cameroon. But Ahmadou Ajidjo was unhappy with both Ekangaki’s independent style at the OAU and at his resignation.
Ahidjo thus appointed Ekangaki as technical advisor at the ministry of territorial administration, a very minor post for someone so prominent.
Ekangaki’s successor at the OAU was fellow Cameroonian William Eteki Mboumoua, in office from 1974-1978, and later as foreign minister of Cameroon. But he was unceremonially dismissed from his ministerial role in 1987 by President Paul Biya.
It was speculated that Mboumoua was dismissed because he had objected to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cameroon andIsraelin 1986. Given Mboumoua’s exceptional prominence, his sudden dismissal reportedly rattled the political elite.
The OAUs derision as a bureaucratic talking shop that defended African despots, continued through the 1980s and 1990s, through the tenures of Edem Kodjo (Togo), Peter Onu (Nigeria), Ide Oumarou (Niger) and Salim Ahmed Salim (Tanzania).
It struggled to enforce its decisions, and its lack of an armed force it could call up made intervention very difficult. Civil wars from Angola, Rwanda and Burundi raged, and the OAU was powerless to stop them.
GOODBYE OAU, HELLO AU
By the time the OAU was disbanded in 2002, the world and Africa had changed significantly. The Cold War was no longer a factor propping up despotic African leaders.
The horror of the genocide in Rwanda had lowered Africa’s tolerance for standing by in the name of non-interference in a country’s domestic affairs.
And the energy of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade injected much needed hope and optimism in the African story.
Today, with increasing prosperity, urbanisation and connectivity in Africa, the role of the AU commission chair is no longer as polarising and dangerous as it used to be.
Now, the demand is for a more thoughtful, innovative, and technocratic approach of “boring” policy tweaks that will make a big impact on the continent.
The long game is political stability, and structural transformation of African economies for shared prosperity. Otherwise the AU will continue to carry its talk-shop credentials.