Not yet uhuru: the African Union has had some successes but remains weak
The African Union (AU) was born in the South African port city of Durban in 2002. Under its first president, Thabo Mbeki, African leaders seemed determined to abandon the grandiose plans of its predecessor, the Organization of Unity Africa (OAU). The OAU was created in 1963 to promote African unity and liberation. Other goals included: protecting the territorial integrity of its member states, promoting non-alignment, and advancing the peaceful settlement of disputes.
The African Union, for its part, was created to achieve an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa that would be driven by its own citizens and play a dynamic role in world politics. Unlike the OAU Charter, the AU Constitutive Act of 2000 authorized interference in the internal affairs of its members to stem instability, put an end to gross human rights violations and punish military coups.
The military regimes in Togo, Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger, Egypt, Sudan, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso were thus suspended from the AU. The continental body launched commendable military stabilization missions in Burundi (2003), Darfur (2007) and Somalia (2007). However, despite this progress, the autocrats continued to rig election results.
As the AU turns 20 in July 2022, it has achieved some successes. But it remains a weak organization that sporadically embarks on illusory reforms. This is due to financial and capacity constraints. And too much decision-making power rests with its omnipotent heads of state, which has deprived the organization of the ability to make decisions and act more effectively on behalf of its members.
The Addis Ababa-based AU Commission – its implementing body – is headed by an Assembly of Heads of State, with an Executive Council of Foreign Ministers and a Committee of Permanent Representatives of Ambassadors. Ambassadors work with specialized development, governance, parliamentary and judicial bodies. The AU Commission, however, has struggled to establish its independence to take initiatives on behalf of its 55 member states in fulfilling its mandate.
A 2007 audit report led by Nigerian academic technocrat Adebayo Adedeji revealed how the AU Commission headed by Malian Alpha Konaré (2003-2008) misunderstood its mandates and levels of authority and failed to failed to coordinate overlapping tasks. Some of these problems still persist.
Under the French-influenced Gabonese Jean Ping (2008-2012), the commission’s annual budget had reached $260 million in 2011. Only 40% of this sum was actually paid by the members. The European Union, China and the United States mainly financed the rest. This posed the risk that the institutional priorities of the AU could be set by its donors.
The Assembly of AU Heads of State has often failed to respect the principle of subsidiarity: making decisions at the lowest practical level, as the European Union does – the only truly supranational regional organization in the world.
The AU also conducts most of its business by unanimity, which makes it difficult to make quick decisions.
While the AU Commission has an impressive staff, it also has a lot of “deadwood” inherited from the OAU era.
The 2003 AU plan to establish an African Standby Force by 2010 was postponed until 2015. In December 2020, the organization simply declared the force to be fully operational, despite the fantasy involved in such a statement. The deadline for “silencing the guns” (ending armed conflict) by 2020” has been pushed back by a decade.
As chairman of the AU Commission (2012-2016), former South African foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma complained that more than 97% of the continental body’s programs were funded by external donors. In 2013, $155 million of the annual budget of $278 million (56%) was still provided by foreign partners. But Dlamini-Zuma failed to reduce that reliance during his four-year tenure. AU leaders have refused to support efforts to find other sources of funding, such as customs duties and taxes on flights and hotel stays.
Among the more fanciful ideas of Dlamini-Zuma’s 50-year development vision, “Agenda 2063” includes increasing intra-African trade from 12% to 50% by 2045, ending conflict armed by 2020 ](https://au.int/en/flagships/silencing-guns-2020) and the eradication of poverty in two decades.
Under the chairmanship of Chadian Francophile Moussa Faki Mahamat since 2017, the report chaired by Rwandan President Paul Kagame on AU reform seemed rushed and lacking in substance, and its endless list of recommendations on institutional reforms was both meaningless, no real use.
They were doctors offering half-baked remedies for ailments that had not been properly diagnosed. All of the “key findings” of the 2017 report had been described more cohesively in Adedeji’s report a decade earlier, whose recommendations have still not been implemented.
Another disappointment was the 2018 African Continental Free Trade Area which aims to facilitate trade, build infrastructure, establish a common market and ensure the free movement of people. But outside of West and East Africa, the free movement of people remains a pipe dream.
Most African governments are security obsessed and hostile to intra-African migration. There is also a lack of convergence of African economies. Many compete to export raw materials rather than trade miscellaneous goods.
Road, rail and port infrastructure remains poor. Rules of origin – which define where goods are made – are often restrictive and non-tariff barriers are widespread. If integration has not worked at the national and sub-regional levels, shifting all these issues to the continental level will certainly not integrate Africa.
Need for realism
The 15-member AU Peace and Security Council has contributed substantially to peacemaking efforts across Africa and has coordinated closely with the United Nations.
But other AU organs have performed less well.
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development clearly lacks the resources and capacity as a development agency to uplift the continent. The African Peer Review Mechanism, which identifies governance challenges in 41 countries, is powerless.
The Pan-African Parliament remains a “talking room”. The Economic, Social and Cultural Council has failed to ensure meaningful civil society participation in AU institutions. The idea of the African Diaspora in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe as a sixth African sub-region, alongside the five continental regions, is largely devoid of substance.
The AU must therefore adopt more realistic and less illusory mandates. Its approach must be based on an accurate assessment of financial and logistical realities.
More positively, AU members had contributed $295 million to their revised Peace Fund by June 2022, completing a $650 million budget for 2022. African leaders must now strengthen the institutions they have created.
They must also establish an effective economic body in each sub-region that can promote socio-economic development and provide jobs for the continent’s youthful population.
The first two decades of AU largely represented a magical and mystical world of unfulfilled expectations. It’s not uhuru (freedom) yet.
Adekeye Adebajo, Professor and Senior Researcher, Center for Scholarship Advancement, University of Pretoria
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.