Q & A with Jean Ping, Chairman of the AUC

Britain's American colonies did it. Europe's nations did it. Can Africa's disparate countries form their own political union? Jean Ping, the 67-year-old chairman of the African Union Commission, believes they can, despite the troubled history of African unity. Ping, who left his post as Gabon's foreign minister to take the helm of the pan-African body earlier this year, brings a unique personal history to the job. In the 1930s his Chinese-born father, who sold porcelain along Africa's western coast, missed his boat in Gabon and decided to settle in a small fishing village. He wound up marrying the chief's daughter—who became Ping's mother. Now Ping is charged with bringing unity and order to a continent that has seen little of either in its recent history. He recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason McLure at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa about creating a United States of Africa, bringing peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, and his views of American democracy.

NEWSWEEK: There is a debate in the African Union about how long it will take to create a United States of Africa. Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has pushed for its immediate creation. What's your vision?
Jean Ping: For those who want a quick creation it could be three phases of three years. Gradualists talk about 35 years. I think there is a possibility of compromise. We also have a debate on what type of "United States" we will have: be it a confederation, a federation, or a centralized government.

What is the motivation?
We need bigger markets. Some of our countries are too small and too weak. Africa is a big continent full of raw materials. But this big continent is divided by 165 borders into 53 countries. Even the voice of a larger country like Nigeria or South Africa by itself is inaudible in international negotiations on world trade or climate change. But collectively it's impossible to ignore 53 countries with almost one billion inhabitants.

About eastern Congo, the United Nations has said it will send an additional 3,000 peacekeepers, bringing the total troop force to 20,000. Is that enough to halt the bloodshed?
No I don't think so. The U.N. troops are not generally authorized to use force. They are in very bad shape. It is very difficult for them, not only due to their [small] numbers but due to the nature of their mandate, to do what some Congolese and Africans are expecting. That's why civilians are throwing stones at them.

What about the current ceasefire, signed in Nairobi on Nov. 7?
If the ceasefire is not respected, then we should use force. But those who use force will be Africans, like the countries of the Great Lakes or the African Union. The ex-Interhamwe who are there, the [Hutu] genocidaires who moved from Rwanda to eastern Congo, they are considered by Rwanda to be a threat to their security. This problem, the root cause of the conflict, should be solved. I am confident we can solve it. If this problem is solved there are no more reasons for [renegade Tutsi] Gen. Laurent Nkunda to fight, because he says he is fighting to protect the Tutsi of the Congo.

The African Union has voiced concern about the International Criminal Court's genocide indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, saying it could prevent Sudan from implementing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South. Why?
We in the African Union, we have to fight impunity. But we say that the step taken by the International Criminal Court is not going to help the situation. We have decided to ask the U.N. Security Council to suspend the implementation [of the indictment] for 12 months. The second thing is we have asked the Sudanese government to prosecute those who are responsible for crimes.

How would President Bashir's government be able to prosecute those involved? You can understand why outsiders would be skeptical.
Well I don't want to go into details, but is it a genocide in Darfur? The U.N. Security Council sent a mission there in 2005 and the conclusion of that mission is that there is no genocide. There are crimes against humanity and war crimes. Crimes against humanity and war crimes are very important, but there is no need to use 'genocide' if it is not proven.

Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 18 years. Is it time to discuss partitioning the country into separate parts if there is a chance that will bring peace?
We can't go in that direction, otherwise we'll light the whole continent on fire. We know that Puntland and Somaliland [in northern Somalia] are peaceful. But it doesn't mean you should go and break Somalia into a hundred pieces. Somalia should be a peaceful country with a government like any other. For 18 years there has been disorder in Somalia on land, and it didn't bother many people. Now it's bothering them because of its extension on the sea. Piracy is one of the results of Somalia being 18 years without any government. You also have terrorism and arms and drug trafficking. The root cause of all this is that Somalia has no government.

What about Somalia's transitional federal government? It's going on its fifth year, controls just a small part of the territory, and doesn't have any functioning ministries. Has the international community made a mistake in backing them?
I don't think backing them was a mistake. I just think that this government does not work. The president is fighting with the prime minister. The parliamentarians are outside the country in Nairobi. It's very difficult to understand. You come to help people and they don't help themselves.

Do you think the commitment to democracy in some African countries has been weakened by the rise of China, which has raised the living standards of its people without democracy? Do countries like Ethiopia or Sudan look to that as a model?
The AU charter says that we should promote democracy, good governance, and human rights. Don't forget that before the 1990s the African continent was ruled by single-party states. It was said that democracy was a disease, that to build a nation you should have an authoritarian regime. There is a misconception that some leaders have that democratizing means weakening the state. It's not necessarily true. We are facing some difficulties, but we are 53 countries, and if your image of the continent is that of Zimbabwe or Somalia, it's not fair.

How do you think Africans view Barack Obama's victory?
There are many expectations. First of all, I think democracy in the United States gives hope to everybody. I mean, an African-American being elected? It would never happen in Europe.

Do you think in their hearts many Africans thought Obama would lose?
We were convinced that he would lose. This shows the strength of democracy in America. Most of those who elected Obama are white. The second thing is that there are expectations that Obama will bring a different way of ruling the world. It seems that America is not going to continue to rule the world with a stick.

President Bush was unpopular overseas because of Iraq, Guantánamo, and now the financial crisis. But he's also committed an enormous amount of money—$15 billion in his first five years—for HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Is it fair to say that Bush has been better for Africa than President Clinton because of the amount of money for AIDS initiatives?
No. Before Clinton, the U.S. had no Africa policy. The continent was left to its former colonial rulers. Clinton brought focus to Africa. And Bush maybe increased it.