African Heads of State at the summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea 2011.
c Heads of State met at an African Union Summit in 2011. [Embassy of Equatorial Guinea]

The African Union: Challenges of a Pan-African Project

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), a pan-African organisation, replaced in 2002 by the African Union (AU).

As plans emerge for an event this July to mark the occasion, questions remain over the competence, efficiency, and integrity of the AU.

With an African-led international support mission being deployed to Mali to aid the French presence, response from the African Union is once again under the spotlight. To date, its frailties in such predicaments have been glaringly visible.

The AU is made up of 54 African member states with a vision of “an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.”

The inaugural launch of the OAU in 1963 was met with a very different fanfare to that of the AU in 2002. There was a feeling of confident optimism, as many African nations were tasting independence for the first time. In contrast, the launch of the AU was a somewhat muted affair. The consensus was that the OAU had become a mere ‘toothless talking shop’, which failed to deliver on many levels.

Promoting peace
The structure of the African Union is loosely modelled on that of the European Union (EU), with an Assembly of the 54 heads of state; the administrative Commission; and the Pan-African Parliament – made up of 235 representatives. Some have questioned whether adopting the EU model was the correct decision, given that the two continents face very different challenges, but there is still much they can learn from Europe.

For example, the EU’s strict entry requirements, known as conditionality, cover areas of human rights, economics and corruption among others, whilst seemingly the only criterion for AU membership is geography. The AU would likely benefit from adopting tighter conditions, though perhaps some of the EU’s stringent measures would prove far too draconian if applied to African states.

Article 30 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, however, suggests that there are criteria for membership. It states that any “government which shall come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the union” but the rule is only enforced in high-profile coup d’états, such as in Madagascar. It is sometimes difficult to take the political will of a union promoting pan-African democracy seriously, when some AU nations are run by autocrats themselves.

For the promotion of “peace, security, and stability on the continent”, the AU allows for intervention, however, they have had very limited success in doing so. One of their few successes was in the deployment of troops to Somalia in 2007, and some analysts believe the AU, along with Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, to have done a better job of pacifying Mogadishu than any other outside force.

More recently, however, the AU came in for criticism for its failure to intervene earlier in the civil war in Libya, as well as its delay in recognising the new Libyan leaders. It is understandable that the AU would be reluctant to recognise the rebels who overthrew a man who did much to found the union, but it was also a failure to act decisively at a time when intervention of some form was needed.

A major challenge facing the African Union is funding. The union’s 2013 budget was approved at a summit in July 2012 and totalled $278m, of which 44% comes from member nations, while the remainder comes from development partners. Of the amount being contributed by members, a mere $5.3m goes towards programmes of the AU while 96 per cent funds operational costs. This means that programme costs for key institutions such as the Pan African Parliament, the Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Corruption Board are being paid for by donors. Some have even started to ask: ‘Who is driving the true African agenda?’

It also highlights the need for some of the bigger and more developed AU states to take a lead in the continent’s affairs. Currently, only five countries contribute two-thirds of the portion from AU member states. From the so-called ‘Big Five’—South Africa, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt and Algeria—only two were paid up by mid-2012. In 2011, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi withheld his country’s contribution, voicing displeasure at what he believed to be a lack of progress in a move towards a ‘United States of Africa’. Meanwhile, only eleven of the 54 member states had fully paid their contributions by mid-2012. With such shortcomings as these in the area of funding, it is inevitable that the AU will fail to operate effectively.

One important place to start in addressing this problem is to deal with corruption and the illicit flow of money from Africa. The continent possesses great wealth in its resources, but little of this wealth is used in the development of the continent. It has been estimated that Africa is losing close to $50bn annually with a large portion of this from the extractive industries, such as oil and gas exploration. The Centre for Citizens’ Participation on the African Union (CCP-AU) reports that Nigeria alone has been losing $5bn of oil money per year. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki is currently leading a High Level Panel looking at the illicit flow of finances from Africa. More work in this area needs to be carried out.

Looking ahead
The stark realities facing the AU were addressed at the AU Summit at the end of January. The commission’s chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was straightforward when highlighting the AU’s shortcomings to date. She said the AU needs to take a hard look at its activities, accepting fewer tasks but carrying them out more efficiently and economically. Ms Dlamini-Zuma said the organisation and its predecessor had taken a number of decisions over the past 50 years. She told the AU Executive Council: “The challenge that the union and the commission face is the capacity to implement all these decisions. Should we not at this stage consider providing sufficient time, capabilities and tools to implement and assess the impact of the decisions we have taken?”

Ms Dlamini-Zuma’s comments are a positive sign that there is recognition of the need for change with how the African Union operates. She appealed to member states to ratify the treaties they approve at summits, to pay their subscriptions and to stop establishing new pan-African organisations when the existing ones are unaffordable. Time will tell if a new approach is taken, or whether Ms Dlamini-Zuma’s words are merely rhetoric.

It is too early to declare the AU a failure after a mere eleven years in existence. After all, questions remain today over the future of the EU as it attempts to cope with its dilapidating currency and financial crisis long after the pan-European project was created. It could be argued that African countries have been remarkably successful in maintaining Africa’s colonially demarcated borders, which has brought a degree of harmony to inter-continental foreign relations. Perhaps we are asking for too much too soon from a continent still trying to come to terms with its colonial past.

The existence of the AU is crucial. However, a greater effort is needed to show its relevancy and ensure the continent has a stronger voice in the global arena rather than a mere whisper drowned out by other stronger players.

Joseph O'Connor


Joseph O' Connor has been working for a news agency based in Dublin for several years. He holds an MA in International Relations at Dublin City University, where he specialised in African Politics and the Development & Politics of the European Union.

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