Skip to main content
AU yet to find its footing

AU yet to find its footing

The African Union (AU) represents over one billion people. The continental block is a big organization with big dreams. Perhaps the ambitious of all dreams is the 2023 target to establish an economic union with a common currency area encompassing the whole continent. But, the real question remains what has the union achieved so far and where it is heading, explores Neamin Ashenafi.

All eyes are on the ongoing African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government Summit to be held tomorrow in Addis Ababa. At the Summit, leaders are expected to deliberate on the various challenges that beseech the continent including its much-publicized AU reform agenda, aimed at improving the organization’s impact to address Africa’s critical issues.

A commission led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been tasked with the reform assignment a year ago. Kagame and his team composed of notable African professionals like Doland Kaberuka — the erstwhile president African Development Bank — had already come up with list of proposals to reform the structure and the working procedure of the AU.

The so called “reform agenda” has been on the table since the transformation of the OAU to the AU in 2002. Among other things, one of the major issues that prompted reform back then was the disappointment in the fact that this big continent of over one billion people was unable to cover the budgetary requirement of its 50-year old continental block, there by lacking strong mechanisms and tools to implement its decisions. However, after two decades of mulling over this issue, to the dismay of many Africans, the AU still remains dependent on external sources for its budget depriving it of much needed independence to set its own course.

Nonetheless, AU member states remain severely crippled to implement their decision and take preventive and interventionist measures to control some crisis situations consuming the continent at large.

AU yet to find its footing


Consequently, the continental block and its bi-annual summit are severely criticized by fellow Africans for it doesn’t address the major and some of the most critical challenges the continent is facing. In fact, most critics argue that these ceremonial summits are rather spent on discussing simpler and softer issues which doesn’t require political commitment or the will of top statesmen.   

The AU, as its predecessor OAU, has been blamed for being disconnected from the African people and the real issues in the continent which is ensuring peace and security, human rights and fighting corruption. As it is increasingly shying away from critical matters and some of the leaders even accused of fostering the challenges, the continental block and its bi-annual summit is sometimes belittled as “The Dictator’s Club”.

In this regard, many commentators on African matters have argued that the organization itself and its bi-annual Heads of States and Governments Summit is a place where politicians go to meet and greet before going back to their problem riddled corners of the continent. For one, despite its aim of promoting democracy and good governance, the AU has shown to be lacking force when observing elections; stayed silent when there are clear signs of rigged elections, commenters say.

According to many scholars the major hurdle that hinders the African leaders to address the critical issues in the continent is that it does not have a room to incorporate the voices of the people. But, it has been reduced mainly to a place where political elites of the continent gather to decide on behalf of a billion people, as they see fit.

This is clearly manifested in the preamble of the charter of the AU, according commentators; compared with the charter of the United Nations (UN), the basic problem is already found in the first sentence of AU charter. The UN charter starts by saying “We the people of the United Nations,” while the first sentence of the preamble of the AU charter states “We the heads of the state and government of”. This statement, commentators say, is a clear indication of how detached the decision of heads of state and governments in the continent is from the people the continent.

That is why, they continue to argue, the organization and its bi-annual summit is something that mainly focus on the interests of the leaders and but not the public. In this regard, many commentators note that with the current structure and the choice of agenda topics that are on the table, there is low expectation of summit and if it could bring any tangible change in addressing the problems of the continent.

Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, shares this evaluation. “AU doesn’t bring any tangible change to the problems of the continent. For example, the major theme of this year’s AU summit is fighting corruption; however, to fight corruption first of all the top leadership of the continent should have a clean hand from corruption. But, how are these African leaders assuming power? In many countries constitutions are violated to stay in power, conflicts are intensified clearly proving how corruption is rampant in the continent. Therefore, without having so many countries freed from corruption, I don’t hope that whether human and other democratic rights will be respected in the continent,” Leulseged opined.

Leulseged insists that there has to be a commitment from the top leadership to really address the critical issues of the continent. Seventeen years after the creation of the AU, a protocol on the free movement of people has still not been adopted, he argues.

True to form, the same protocol is yet among the list of agenda topic on the ongoing AU summit in Addis Ababa. This year’s summit, according to Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD), are reforming the AU, enhancing inter Africa trade, agricultural development, single African air transport and of course the issue of peace and security with focus on the situation in the South Sudan and Somalia.

Regarding the reforms, the summit is expected discuss AU’s reputation of being ineffectual with many decisions passed, but very few implemented by the member states.

It is hoped that at this summit, a mechanism will be adopted ‘to ensure the implementation of legally binding decisions’. The AU is an intergovernmental organization, and member states often use their own sovereignty as an excuse not to implement continental decisions, experts allege.

Apart from the issue of sovereignty the issue of lack of finance is another headache to implement the decisions made by the AU in this regard, Leulseged argued, “Failure to generate your own finance is very dangerous, AU’s failure to generate its own finance has always crippled the decisions it makes. You don’t expect a malnourished human to stretch its hands to help others, do you? That’s how AU is for me,” he explains.

This and other reasons crippled the organization to implement its decisions; however, there are also critics on the over all decisions made by the organization, some even argue that the organization from the outset does not make decisions that really matters to the African population and the leaders rather engages themselves in discussion and meetings that does not contribute anything to the problems of the continent.  

Chairman of Blue Party, major opposition in Ethiopia, Yeshiwas Assefa is among those individuals who is very critical the decisions made by African leaders at the bi-annual summits. He argues that African leaders are not willing and committed in addressing the critical issues of the continent such as democracy, human rights and free and fair election.

He further states: “since most of African leaders are dictators and violates the constitutions of their country they are not in a position to discuss and made a vital decisions which will address the problems of the continent and the request of the public. Therefore, he argues, they prefer to raise some soft issues which don’t require any political commitment and determination but simply talk.

Among the recommendations forwarded by the Rwandan president and the reforms panel ‘strengthening the enforcement of a sanctions mechanism’ that would test the ability of AU member states to the limit of their sovereignty, for the sake of the institutional impact of pan-African bodies is one of them.

Other measures in the reform plan also aim at making the AU Commission (AUC) in Addis Ababa more effective. These include an audit to identify bureaucratic inefficiencies, the adoption of quotas for women and youth among AUC staff, and measures to ensure the participation of the private sector.

However, it is yet unclear on how to implement some of the recommendations which appear extremely complex.

Despite some positive achievements, commentators widely argued that the AU still has a long way to go if it is really to become the progressive organization that many Africans dream of. To break free from it bad repetition like being called “the dictator’s club” it needs to show the people of Africa that it can achieve hands-on progress for the continent.

Even though much criticism has been aimed at the union one should not underestimate the potential power that the African Union wields. For optimist experts, if the AU managed to lay down a common strategy for Africa economically, and help to strengthen the democracy in African states, it could help the development of Africa and also become a huge global player in the future. They point to some positives signs seen in recent times, but much more work is needed if the union succeeds in its goal of promoting good governance, democracy and economic progress in Africa, they maintain.

However, Leulseged argues that if the continental bock really wants to achieve its goals to bring tangible change and wants to be a key player in the global affairs, its needs to reinvent its leadership.

“The current leadership is the result of the 1960s and 70s freedom fighters or their protégés. They are not free from the mindset of colonialism; though they freed the continent from the yoke of colonization their mind set is still in the era of colonization hence necessitating reinvention of leadership in form of changes to their attitude and sentiment. The leaders should critically consider the question of fellow Africans.” Leulseged concludes.