Cairo-Cape Town competition?
Countries at each end of the continent are hotly contesting the right to house the African Parliament, reports Eva Dadrian
With Senegal becoming the 24th member-state of the African Union (AU) to ratify the Protocol to the Treaty relating to the establishment of an African Parliament, the simple majority of ratifications required was reached last month. According to Article 22, the Protocol will enter into force 30 days after the deposit of the 24th instrument of ratification. The serious business of finding a home for the pan-African institution has now begun with earnest.
Although in its first five years of existence the AU Parliament will have only consultative and advisory powers, it will be one of the most crucial bodies making up the AU. The institution will be a key governance body of the AU and as such will play a critical role in shaping the future of Africa. Eventually it will make and coordinate laws for the entire continent. Based on the European Parliament, its decisions will override national parliaments and its laws will bind all member-states. Most importantly, the African Parliament will play a central role in the controversial "peer review" system instigated by the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and whereby African leaders hold each other accountable for governance of their countries.
Every single member state is convinced of the critical role that the African Parliament can play in furthering the objectives of the AU and of NEPAD. The AU Parliament will have five representatives from each member country, who must be elected by universal adult suffrage in their respective countries. Given the situation in some African states, in terms of elections, funds made available and systems in place, this exercise in itself could be a problem. But it is one that every African leader is confident can be overcome, as Uganda proved recently. Despite protests from the Pan-Africa Movement, five Ugandan AU parliamentary members have been elected. They will take up their seats when a home for the parliament is found.
So, the battle is underway. Egypt, Libya and South Africa are all vying to house the African Parliament and have been lobbying in earnest. But time is running short as a decision is to be made early 2004. Back in July, South Africa requested to host the parliament's inaugural sitting. Cape Town is a strong and serious contender in the race and will have ready-made parliamentary facilities. If the South African parliament relocates to Pretoria -- the administrative capital of the country -- a move backed by senior South African MPs including President Thabo Mbeki. Libya also for its part has built state-of-the-art facilities in Sirte, the historical birthplace of the AU.
Egypt, in its bid to become the seat of the future African Parliament, is feverously preparing a Conference of African MPs which convened in Cairo on Monday. The highbrow gathering of African MPs is the personal initiative of Dr Fathi Sorour, the speaker of Egypt's National Assembly. Sorour has sent his personal invitations, hand delivered by Egyptian ambassadors, to his African counterparts and is said to be "satisfied" with the response received up to now. Hastily, he has also called for the reactivation of a dormant Arab-Africa cooperation committee that was established years ago for promoting Arab-African integration. Sorour believes that the Cairo conference will succeed in convincing African MPs of Egypt's importance in reactivating "positive developments on the joint Arab-African arena". But more than ever, Sorour is banking on Egypt's role as the link between African and Arab cultures and takes a special pride in reminding his African colleagues that since the dawn of history Egypt has had fruitful relations and cultural exchanges with other African countries. Furthermore, says Sorour, "Egypt is the oldest democracy on the continent and Egyptian parliamentary activity has existed for some 160 years."
Since his much praised speech in Cape Town in July 2003 when MPs from all around Africa converged to discuss the establishment of the African Parliament, Sorour has been promoting the concept of Egypt as the "gateway" between Africa and the Middle East. "Egypt is a bridge between two potentially powerful regions of the developing world," he says, emphasising the old traditional relations with Africa that coincided with the struggle for African independence in the 1950s and 1960s.
Indeed, no one can deny that Egypt has played an undeniable role in the Pan-African movement and stood by all the liberation movements in the 1950s and 1960s. It has stood against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and for decades Cairo was home to many African liberation movements and leaders in exile. Egypt also played an important part in the establishment of the African Union and is part of the NEPAD Quintet (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa). But will this be enough to convince Africa and Africans that Egypt can deliver?
Yes, says Sorour. "With all these qualities and achievements, Egypt has been and is still at the service of Africa," he insists.
It is true that, more recently, the Egyptian Fund For Technical Cooperation With Africa, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry- affiliated organisation, has consolidated and supported Egyptian- African cooperation, taking into consideration the priorities and special needs of the nations of Africa.
The fund is pivotal in the implementation of Egyptian foreign policy towards Africa. In the last couple of years, the fund has widened its scope of activities by establishing joint farms in some African countries, upon their request, and by responding to urgent needs such as dispatching medical convoys for the treatment of some endemic diseases, or providing advanced equipment in the field of information technology. Sorour seems to be satisfied with the outcome of the fund's work on Africa so far, especially in Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali and more recently the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Egyptian hydro-engineers will help reduce the water spillage of the Congo River into the Atlantic. There are no doubts that Cairo expects that all this good work will pay off.
Egypt may have excellent relations with West Africa and the Sahel states, but its relations with its closer neighbours have not been easy, especially of late, the River Nile being the apple of discord in Egypt's relations with Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Apart from the numerous disagreements between Kenya and Egypt over tea imports and other products which bounces back every year, the Kenyan parliament voted on 11 December to abrogate the 1929 Lake Victoria Waters Treaty. The Kenyan parliament has also asked that, in consultation with other East African governments, the River Nile Treaty be renegotiated with all the states who are signatories. Relations between Cairo and Khartoum cooled for several years after a failed assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in 1995 in Addis Ababa. Egypt then accused Sudan of sheltering the assailants and of supporting Islamist insurgents seeking to topple the secular government.
Today the situation has changed and full diplomatic relations were restored in 2000, but the long-standing territorial dispute with Egypt over the Halayib Triangle still remains unresolved. Claiming that the mineral-rich Red Sea region along the border between the two countries belongs to Sudan, despite its being under Egyptian control, Sudan has "never relinquished" the claim to the small town of Halayib and the surrounding areas, President Al-Beshir said in a speech in August 2002. This came as a shock to the Egyptian government as it was believed that the thorny territorial issue was resolved back in 2000, when Sudan withdrew its troops from the area leaving the Egyptian army to take it over. However, President Al-Beshir revealed in August 2002 that his government had written to the UN Security Council to renew its complaint over Egyptian presence there.
Next year, Egypt will celebrate in grand fashion the 10th anniversary of the fall of apartheid and the total liberation of Africa. Big preparations are on the way and many African musicians, artists, and writers are expected to attend a month-long celebrations.
By being located in Egypt, the AU parliament would serve Africa and not Egypt only, Sorour stressed. He believes that it would be easy for African MPs to come to Cairo.
However, many African diplomats in Cairo do not share his opinion and their position reflects that of their compatriots back home when they admit that "Egypt, or as a matter of fact Cape Town, are both too far for West Africans or East Africans to travel." Some suggest that the AU parliament should be located in the centre of the continent. "Why not Kampala?" asks a West African diplomat who believes genuine African unity will materialise only when the "various organisations and institutions of the AU would be dispersed around the continent and not concentrated in one or two countries only".