The new African Union will go into existence next week, replacing the 38-year-old Organization of African Unity, or O-A-U. Its proponents say the African Union will make serious improvements over the O-A-U, but critics believe the only change will be in the name.
Why does Africa need the African Union? International relations professor John Stremlau of the University of the Witwatersrand says the political landscape in Africa has changed over the course of the 38 years that the O-A-U has been in existence.
He says, "If the last hundred years was about liberation, then the next hundred years will be about integration in Africa. And that's a political process that cannot be very simply engineered."
South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma agrees with that sentiment. In a column published Wednesday in the Sowetan newspaper, he said the O-A-U was born while Africa was still emerging from colonialism and oppression, and its mission was shaped by that struggle. But in his words, "the liberation of the continent did not automatically bring about peace and prosperity for Africa."
And so, he says, the A-U has a different mission, to deal with conflicts and social or economic challenges in a way the O-A-U could not.
In recent years, there has been growing criticism of the O-A-U from inside Africa. Critics say its leadership lacks the political will to criticize member states, and it has little real influence over them anyway. The question many analysts are asking is whether the A-U will be any different.
Sehlare Makgetlaneng is a senior researcher specializing in African unity at the Africa Institute of South Africa: "To be honest, there is no conclusive evidence that the African Union is going to be different from the Organization of African Unity… because it is going to be a union among member states, that is to say the political leaders of Africa in power. And as such, it is going to primarily articulate solidarity and unity among African political leaders."
But proponents of the African Union say it is set up differently than the O-A-U, and will be more effective. South African President Thabo Mbeki, who will be the first A-U chairman, is fond of saying it will be much more than just the O-A-U without the O.
South African Trade and Industry Minister Alec Erwin, speaking on state radio, says the A-U will, for example, be much better equipped to deal with conflicts within and between member states.
"The new peace and security council, and the protocol that covers that is a very big change from what we presently have in the O-A-U and even in some of the regional structures. It's a much clearer mechanism for collectively dealing with security problems," he says.
The peace and security council's job will be deciding when and how to intervene when conflict threatens African stability and development. Another innovation is the Pan-African Parliament, which even a skeptic such as Mr. Makgetlaneng says could make a difference in the way African states relate to each other.
But transition to the new A-U mechanisms will not happen overnight. Officials say the first year of the African Union's existence will be largely dominated by administrative, procedural and legal matters aimed at solidifying the changeover.