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New African Union Plan Draws Mixed Reaction - 2002-07-03

The new African Union (AU) will go into existence next week, replacing the Organization of African Unity. A key project of the new group is likely to be the NEPAD program for African economic development. But not everyone is enthusiastic.

The New Economic Program for African Development, known as NEPAD, is a plan born in Africa, developed by the leaders of South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal and Algeria. It pledges that African nations will hold themselves to principles of good governance and democracy. In return, they ask for trade and investment, not aid, from the industrialized world.

John Stremlau teaches international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He calls NEPAD Africa's best hope for development.

"The NEPAD proposal is a defining moment in post-colonial Africa because it's a made-in-Africa initiative that is pointing in the direction of mutual accountability, thereby having the African states uphold principles of good governance, political and economic, and commit to regional cooperation, while expecting in return the industrial countries to reward that behavior," Mr. Stremlau said.

Some onlookers remain skeptical about whether NEPAD will really work. The U.N. special envoy for HIV and AIDS, for example, complains that the program does little to address the AIDS epidemic, on a continent where more than 25 million people are HIV-positive.

Other critics said they fear some African states are not serious about the task at the center of the program. Under NEPAD, Africans are supposed to hold each other to standards of democracy and good governance. But just a few months ago, African leaders largely accepted a presidential election in Zimbabwe that most of the rest of the world condemned as fatally flawed.

Professor Stremlau said the developed world may not believe that Africans are really willing to police themselves.

"We know, given the record of Africa over the last 30 years and given the current state of several countries, that making that credible, so the donors then back it up, is going to be very difficult. But it's a start to a very important new direction in post-colonial African history," Mr. Stremlau said.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has emerged as the main spokesman for NEPAD in the West. But he still has to sell the idea not only to Western nations, but to skeptics at home. One vocal critic of NEPAD is none other than the president's brother, Moeletsi Mbeki, who is also the deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"I think democracy is good for Africa, it's good for most people as a form of government. And African governments must first perceive themselves as accountable to African populations, and not to the World Bank. You see the concept of NEPAD is that African governments are accountable to the donors and are accountable to foreign Western governments, and not accountable to us, the citizens," Mr. Mbeki said.

Moeletsi Mbeki believes NEPAD reinforces the dependency of African nations on the West, rather than helping them break it.

"If I were NEPAD, I would have, after drawing up NEPAD, I would have said, OK, this is an African project, for five years we are going to implement it ourselves," Mr. Mbeki said.

Mr. Mbeki said a major problem for African development is capital flight. People make money by exploiting the continent's rich natural resources, but then take the proceeds to Europe or America. He said Africans themselves are just as guilty of that as Westerners.

Mr. Mbeki said the solution to capital flight is not going to the West to get more capital. Rather, it is finding a way to keep the capital in Africa in the first place. He challenges his brother and other African leaders to come up with new ideas that focus on Africa, rather than the West.

But NEPAD's proponents believe the program does focus on Africa, and will give the continent its best chance to level the playing field. South African Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin spoke to the South African state radio.

"Firstly, on NEPAD, I think what's important [is] it's not a magic formula. It's a set of very carefully thought through steps that we all have to follow. And if we follow them well and do them correctly, we will bring about development in Africa," Mr. Erwin said.

Mr. Erwin said NEPAD is an African initiative, and if it fails to work, African nations will have only themselves to blame. But, he said, there is plenty of African talent and intelligence to draw upon, and he believes Africans should have confidence in their abilities to overcome their own problems.