African leaders convened in Addis Ababa for the African Union Summit amid escalating tensions throughout the continent, global division, and optimism about recovery from the COVID-19 epidemic. But there were a lot fewer heads of state are attending than at the summits in Beijing, Brussels, or Washington. In the hopes that a meaningful solution would be suggested and implemented one day, some 35 heads of state, 11 foreign ministers, four prime ministers, 13 first ladies and ambassadors, technocrats, and delegates from 51 member nations poured on the city.
Nonetheless, many of the AU’s visions are still shifting targets even 20 years after its reorganization and 10 years after the launch of Agenda 2063.
As time passes, pan-Africanism, the continent’s perennial credo and the bedrock of unity, gets pushed further down the agenda at AU summits. While some scholars argue that pan-Africanism is moot because political colonialism ended so long ago, others insist it is necessary to eliminate the continent’s subjugation under Western economic and diplomatic sway.
Organizers decided to make the theme of the summit on the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA) this year. Although this is a topic that is relevant right now, it is no assurance that the story will end well. Given the rapidity with which African states approved the AfCFTA in 2018, the pilot program should have been completed by now.
Just six nations have made the attempt to put it into practice thus far. It has been necessary for even these countries to periodically consult the manuals in order to ascertain the norms and rules of the AfCFTA, as neither government officials nor private sector businesses nor those tasked with implementing the agreement are yet familiar with them. Most African countries are not in favor of free trade, particularly the free movement of people.
Although having ratified the agreement, Ethiopia, the host country for the union, has not yet decided which products and services it will offer duty-free to counteract losses in customs income and dumping from Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa.
The proliferation of peace and security challenges throughout the continent means that even if all member states choose to implement the accord, it will not move as quickly as expected.
As well as hurting Africa’s integration, rising insecurity and instability are impeding the free flow of products and people across borders. Because of this, many people think that establishing stable governments is more important than anything else for the AfCFTA to be effective.
A further danger is the West’s attempts to hinder African efforts at economic integration and industrialization.
“Research indicates that Africa loses over USD 700 billion due to unfair global trade. This is happening because industrialized Western powers designed global trade in such a way that Africa remains the raw material supplier for their industries,” Ayele Gelan (PhD), senior research economist with the Economic Public Policy Program of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), said.
“That is why the west made the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) irrelevant from its inception. It is not allowed for Africa to be industrialized or to substitute imports and trade with each other. Instead, the west continues making sure that Africa survives on the west’s aid.”
Ayele says AU’s push for AFCFTA is superficial. “In practice, there are no trade monitoring mechanisms in place in border areas across Africa to operationalize the AfCFTA. Contraband is also rampant.” He claims the west is alarmed by strong African platforms like the AfCFTA and NEPAD, which make western multinational corporations (MNCs) and the World Trade Organization irrelevant.
During this summit, further discussion regarding Africa’s enduring request for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council is also expected. The agenda includes assessing and determining member countries’ financial contributions for 2024–2026; reporting on NEPAD and other AU arms; an annual report on the implementation of last year’s nutrition theme; and the nomination of three judges to the AU’s administrative tribunal. The President of Senegal, Macky Sall, is also expected to hand over the chairmanship baton to Azali Assoumani of Comoros.
In the meantime, the summit has become a perfect storm for Ethiopia. On the sidelines of the summit, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and Demeke Mekonen, the foreign minister of Ethiopia, are busy holding bilateral discussions with other African leaders and delegates aimed at clearing up the confusion over the Tigray war and realigning diplomacy.
“At the sideline meetings, especially with the North African leaders, we are asking them to support the post-conflict rehabilitation efforts in Ethiopia,” Meles Alem, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), said. “We are also briefing them on how the west is trying to arm-twist Ethiopia under the disguise of a human rights mask. But we also thank African leaders for their support during the war.”
But for insiders close to the issue, Ethiopia is lobbying to ditch accountability issues related to human rights violations during the two-year war in northern Ethiopia, which ended just last November. Almost all African states voted in favor when Ethiopia lodged a resolution at the UN to defund the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), which was formed by the UN human rights council to investigate atrocities during the Tigray war.
Of course, backscratching and the Omerta code are the golden rules that have allowed most African leaders to stay in power for decades. From a functionality point of view, the AU is a reflection of African governments, where pressing issues are never solved.
Since the AU operates based on the consents and proceeds of member states, it is nothing but the extension of the interests of African governments. But largely, the failures of the AU are attributable to the inefficiency of the organization itself. Even though the AU is structured in the EU’s image, it is not living up to a single standard. Instead, it exists in a vacuum, disconnected from both the people it represents and true Africanists. There are a number of pressing issues that need to be prioritized.
Stabilizing the Great Lakes conflict escalations, securing sustainable peace in Ethiopia, supporting the formation of a civilian government in Sudan and Libya, resolving the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam deadlock, and fast-tracking the AU institutional reform should be the organization’s top priorities.
Especially as this decade is the last mile before the Sustainable Development Goals expire in 2030, it is time for AU to bridge the gap between the talk and the walk.
Silencing the gun?
Slowing Africa’s progress are wars both within and between nations. The military might and political clout of non-state entities now rival that of governments. When elder politicians revise constitutions to retain power for longer periods of time, young people are increasingly turning to unconstitutional means of changing governments.
Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Sudan are just some of the countries where coups or attempted coups have occurred in the past few years, pulling Africa off its path to democratization and growth.
Following the unconstitutional change of governments in these four member states, the African Union suspended them from membership. However, it has kept mute on issues such as the formation of governments, violations of human rights, and the consolidation of power.
“AU’s principle is not to intervene in the sovereignty of member countries,” a political analyst at AU who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “As a result, it remains silent regardless of the government’s violations of human rights, unconstitutional stays in power, unfair elections, or undemocratic practices.”
The analyst says that the AU refrains from pressing governments to correct such misbehaviors because AU officials fear losing the support of its member states. Real problems in Africa are also not encouraged to be discussed in the AU, according to the analyst, who believes only documents and mottos are found there.
Central African tensions are rising as proxy wars in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo escalate into direct warfare. Kinshasa faults Kigali for backing M23 insurgents, while Kigali accuses Kinshasa of hosting the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), an armed group that also took part in the 1994 genocide. Intercommunal fighting in South Sudan and tensions in Khartoum between protesters and military rule remain ticking time bombs.
The central Sahel region remains a conflict hotspot and a growing global route for drug trafficking. Somalia, Mozambique, the Lake Chad Basin, and other countries continue to be bogged down by al-Shabab and other insurgencies.
Libya is also a security risk because the country is still in chaos and has two governments fighting for power.
All these conflicts were promised to be solved by Moussa Faki. During his bid for reelection and plan for the 2021–2024 period, Faki stated, “The next term could be compromised if we do not significantly silence the guns in countries affected by crises and armed conflicts in Africa.”
He stated that eradicating terrorism in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Region, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Somalia; building peace in the CAR, South Sudan, Libya, and the Sudan; and ensuring Africa’s contribution to the solution of the Western Sahara conflict are priority fields for silencing the guns.
Africa is losing over USD 100 billion annually to war and conflict, according to reports. This is up from just USD 18 billion 15 years ago, according to Oxfam’s 2007 study.
Silencing the gun, which was first introduced as an annual target, is now the target of the decade. Yet, many doubt if it can be achieved even by 2030. As long as the AU overlooks undemocratic acts by the governments of member states, conflict is inevitable. Though the AU states it does not interfere with constitutionally elected governments, it has no standards or mechanisms to ensure those governments are democratic.
Of course, AU’s role in resolving the northern Ethiopian war initiated a new momentum for “African solutions for African problems.” However, AU’s solution to the Tigray war arrived two years after the war broke out and claimed over 600,000 lives.
Given the vast number of security issues across the continent, the AU lacks a capable peace and security department, as well as a peace fund to undertake peacekeeping missions and negotiations.
Pursuing global influence without a clear roadmap
Africa has been requesting a permanent seat on the UNSC since the Organization of the African Union (OAU) evolved into the AU in 2005. This is important, especially to echo Africa’s challenges and find global solutions. The need for Africa’s representation in the UN has become more crucial, particularly since the Ukraine war. However, this bid for securing a permanent seat also remains a hollow gesture due to the lack of charismatic and active leadership in the AU.
“There has never been such a high time and opportunity for AU to push Africa’s agenda on global platforms. Since the Ukraine war, the US, EU, UN, China, and Russia are at the feet of Africa. They are pledging money and new packages to keep Africa’s votes on their side,” the analyst said.
However, the Union is not utilizing this leverage. The current AU commissioner is inactive, to say the least, the analyst says.
While the AU tries to gain bargaining chips shaped by the Ukraine war, superpower pressure on Africa is also increasing. Because the AU’s 54 voting powers are important in UN resolutions, the superpowers are scrambling to ensure the AU is on their side.
In the meantime, superpower scrambles for Africa are also transforming Africa into a ground for global proxy wars. The presence of foreign mercenaries, armed groups, and state captures is also on the rise, partly because member states and the AU are usually not on the same page. The fact that the AU delegated its power to Regional Economic Communities (RECs) has also shrunk its power.
For Ayele, the AU is unable to assert itself in global geopolitics.
“AU’s current leadership is embarrassing. They flock to Beijing, Brussels, Washington, and other places without taking any positions. Without a strong position, they cannot assert Africa’s position in the changing global geopolitics.”
Wobbly institutional reform and budget dependency
Inefficiency and the inability to self-finance remain the Achilles’ heels for the Union. The organization bites off more than it can chew, as experts advise limiting its missions to politics, peace, and security and leaving other areas to independent continental organizations.
One of the main reasons behind AU’s inefficiency is the quota-based, non-merit-based appointment of officials in AU positions. Most of the officials are assigned by member states based on quotas.
Much hope was placed in Monique Nsanzabaganwa (PhD), a former Rwandan finance minister, when she was appointed Deputy Chairperson of the AU Commission. However, change remains far-fetched.
Even though it started in 2016 and is led by Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the AU’s institutional reform is behind. Most of the AU’s task is limited to processing documents from its own summits without taking tangible actions on the ground.
“African leaders do not want the AU to be strong, independent, and efficient. If the AU gets strong, member states fear it will be serious for their governments. Since most African leaders want to stay in power without public approval, they do not want to be accountable to the AU. Africa needs the spirit of the 1960s and unwavering leaders like Lumumba,” the analyst said.
The member states are also reluctant when it comes to funding the organization. Of the AU’s average USD 600 million annual budget, over 60 percent still comes from donors and partners, while member states cover the rest.
Every year, approximately 30 member countries default, either partially or completely. This created a significant funding gap between the planned budget and actual funding, which hindered the effective delivery of AU’s agenda, according to AU’s report. This means that very few member states, who have a better economy, contribute the largest share of the operational budget.
When it comes to the peace and security funds, AU totally relies on donations, mainly from the EU, China, and others.
During the Kigali decision in 2016, AU member states agreed to pool USD 400 million for the AU’s peace fund. The deadline was 2020. The member states agreed to collect 0.2 percent of their import levy on strategic commodities and forward it to the peace fund. The plan was that the peace fund would start disbursements for 21 priority peace projects once it reached USD 400 million from the 0.2 percent import levy. However, most member states are not contributing to the import levy.
Twenty-eight member states had not made any payment to their 2022 Peace Fund assessments, according to an AU report during the 41st ordinary session in Lusaka last July. The rest were partially or fully paid. However, six member states, including Nigeria, Comoros, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Libya, did not even domesticate the Kigali Decision.
“There is no social contract between the AU and its member states now,” Ayele said. “When the voter pays the salaries of its officials, a ‘social contract’ is formed. However, AU officials are paid through western donations. So their loyalty is to western donors.”
Ayele believes that if the AU has to stand up for Africa’s interests, it must be completely free of western aid. “Their primary goal is to obtain per diems. The west is always ready to keep Africa where it is. Any intelligent move from Africa is immediately countered strategically. Essentially, it is a dictators’ club with a lack of leadership. And if AU officials start to work genuinely, the western donors will cut their salaries immediately.”
Experts recommend that the first step in making the AU a relevant and reliable continental organization that lives up to its vision is to make it fully funded by Africans and independent of foreign donors. Otherwise, the AU cannot achieve its targets with its arms twisted. The second step is protecting the AU from the wicked interests of member states.