12/08/2013 11:27 BST | Updated 11/10/2013 06:12 BST

Why the African Union Needs a Makeover

What did the African Union think of this? Did it call out Mugabe's henchmen for their brazen cheating? Not a bit. It gave a blithe thumbs-up to the election, with the head of the AU observer mission, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, declaring them "free, honest and credible".

When the African Union was founded in 2001 as a more muscular, responsible replacement for the discredited Organization for African Unity (OAU), it was posited as a switch akin to the United Nations following the ill-fated and impotent League of Nations. Hopes were so high that there was even talk of the AU emulating - as the name so obviously suggested - the supranational powers and institutions of the European Union.

Now, however, such ambitions look woefully misplaced, and the AU is already in dire need of an overhaul itself. If there were any doubts, one only had to watch its pitiful performance during the July 31 Zimbabwe elections, when a 60-strong observer mission was sent to monitor the polls.

The Zimbabwe vote has already gone down as a textbook case of sneaky poll fixing. A variety of devious schemes were applied, but the most effective measure was fiddling the electoral rolls with an estimated one million invalid names, including many deceased voters. The result was an implausible 61% vote for Zimbabwe's aging patriarch Robert Mugabe in the presidential poll, and 140 seats in the 210-seat parliament. But the election was lambasted as a fix by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), as well as respected NGOs both domestic and foreign, and elicited fierce statements of concern from the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

But what did the AU think of this? Did it call out Mugabe's henchmen for their brazen cheating?

Not a bit. It gave a blithe thumbs-up to the election, with the head of the AU observer mission, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, declaring them "free, honest and credible". He dismissed concerns about rampant fraud as mere quibbles, saying that flaws in the electoral process had not stopped the will of the people from being expressed.

This is worse than merely sloppy or negligent. It is collaboration. It gives the impression that Zimbabwe's African neighbours are complicit in one of the most appalling election frauds in the continent's history, and co-supporters of one of its most unspeakable despots.

Let us not mince words with Mugabe, who has held Zimbabwe continuously under his brutal authority since independence in 1980. His record as a leader is abysmal. He is one of the worst human rights abusers in Africa, who has overseen massacres of opponents. In 1980, Zimbabwe was sub-Saharan Africa's second richest country, but his stewardship has seen the economy wither, halving in size in the decade leading to 2009 - it is now 31st out of 52 African economies in size, according to the IMF, below the likes of Chad and Gabon. And Zimbabwe remains a pariah state, subject to sanctions by the European Union and the United States, including a travel ban on Mugabe and his cronies.

So why would the AU gobble up the distasteful dish Mugabe was serving? One reason was the fear of violence. Most AU observers were terrified that the poll would descend into an orgy of partisan blood-letting - as the 2008 Zimbabwe elections did, when Mugabe let his thugs loose to bludgeon the opposition. But their dread was so deep that all Mugabe had to do to secure the AU's blessing was ensure a peaceful and orderly poll. So the election day itself passed with nary an incident. The fact every other election rigging tactic was applied was glossed over, as the relieved AU rushed to hail the violence-free vote.

Another reason is simple resources: the AU, with just 60 observers, could not hope to uncover any serious malpractices. On the day itself, the observers - in pairs - would sometimes spend as little as 10 minutes in each polling station they visited. By contrast, the most damning report on the poll fix came from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the country's largest observer group, which deployed more than 7,000 observers to every constituency in Zimbabwe. The AU's provisional report, issued just two days after the election, actually listed many of the suspicious poll rigging practises, but then claimed that there was no evidence it was significant. For example, Obasanjo said he was satisfied with official explanations that complaints about the voters' roll should have been made before votes were cast.

But there is another reason for the AU's calamitous conclusion, which is perhaps the most disheartening since it represents a failure of will. It is their reluctance to call out one of their own, even one as vile as Mugabe. So the AU is prepared to set low democratic standards, so long as it can see the charade of a ballot. Indeed, many AU members have dubious democratic credentials of their own. For example, Obasanjo first came to power in Nigeria the 1970s as a general on the back of an army coup, while his later elections as civilian president were overshadowed by poll rigging allegations. "Do not upset a Big Man," is how Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, characterizes African sentiment. "If he is a Big Man and is president and wants to go on being president, then let him have it. Otherwise he will create problems."

There were, at least, some voices raised against the AU consensus. Botswana has broken ranks, saying it has doubts about the credibility of the poll, and has called for an independent audit of the disputed vote.

And crucially, one of the AU's own monitors has indicated that election missions need a revamp if they are to be taken seriously. Orji Uzor Kalu, a former governor of Nigeria's Abia state, seems to recognize that the AU's own credibility is at stake if it cannot provide robust election monitoring. "From what we were able to witness first-hand, the elections appeared free and fair on the day," he said. "That said, when we left in the evening in our roles as election monitors, that was as far as our official oversight could go."

Kalu is lobbying the Nigerian government to boost its support for the AU's political activities, and has suggested a further $6 million over three years. It's not much, yet it may fail if it is seen as an affront to his fellow countryman Obasanjo. But Kalu rightly insists the AU needs more resources if it is to do its job.

It might not be enough. The AU is so wary of challenging established leaders that it may still defy the will of the people and lap up further fixed elections for many years to come. But if it does continue to roll over, its role and purpose will crumble.