This year’s Africa Day 25 May is the 50th anniversary of the African Union (AU), former Organisation of African Unity (OAU). NAI researcher Linnéa Gelot comments on the AUs achievements and remaining challenges for the future.
The OAU was best known for its long and finally victorious decolonization struggle and the often problematic defense of African sovereignty and support for liberation struggle leaders. The OAU was also important in achieving consensus around a set of core principles and norms governing a pan-African political order. These were highly supportive of sovereign equality and non-interference, favoring a so-called ‘traditional’ notion of state sovereignty. The OAU also served as a platform for debate around important alternative African visions of economic development and governance, and the OAU initiated work that has since been built on by the AU: to serve as a vehicle for African states to speak with one voice on issues of common interest to the continent in global forums.
The AU came into existence in 2002 because there was a wide-spread feeling that a new regional political order was needed as African polities and peoples were adapting to a post-Cold War globalized environment. In very brief terms, this can be summarised as the felt need among African leaders and senior policymakers that African states had to coordinate and integrate their initiatives to better respond to external and internal pressures for ‘good governance’, stabilisation, economic growth and democratisation. In this context, the AU institutions can be understood as debating forums where state representatives and AU officials negotiate and contest different proposals of how to best meet contemporary multidimensional challenges.
Many observers have been impressed with the AU’s institutional and policy expressions of pan-African politics. Examples abound in areas of economic development, peace and security, democratic governance, human rights and refugee matters, as well as environmental issues. Most visibly in the area of peace and security, the AU’s initiatives in mediation and peacekeeping have contributed to a sense of hope and optimism for the continent’s transformation. The AU has played a proactive role in the search for the peaceful resolution of conflicts in Africa. It has deployed peacekeeping missions to Burundi, Somalia, Darfur and Mali as well as enabling high level mediation such as the African Union High Level Panel (AUHIP) facilitating dialogue between Sudan and South Sudan on outstanding issues of the post-independence period. It has also been noted that the peace and security organs at least in principle privilege human well-being over state sovereignty (‘human security’ over ‘state security’) which is an important departure from the former OAU. Indeed, the AU Constitutive Act empowers the AU with the right ‘to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances’. In many ways, the AU is increasing its authority and has some far-reaching supranational components to it. These are not widely understood or communicated and there is perhaps a good reason for that. Limitation on sovereign power is a sensitive issue and such change will be a long historical process.
In connection with the AU, many speak of a ‘generational shift’ in regional politics. Differently put, a shift has taken place in norms and acceptable bases for political order in Africa over the last twenty or so years. One example is the trend that more and more governments are coming to power through competitive election in Africa. It has also been noted that the AU’s policy language is rich with a ‘progressive’ terminology such as ‘people-centred’ policies, accountable government, responsible sovereignty, and partnerships and engagement with donors and global governance institutions. This terminology and the foundational AU principles offer political space for AU Secretariat officials and non-state actors to check progress in implementation and argue for enhanced levels of member state compliance with norms and rules. Additionally, the shift in policy as well as practice has contributed to raising the profile of Africa on the world stage.
The AU is facing many challenges and top among them are capacity and capability shortcomings. Most AU institutions are to a significant degree dependent for their continued efficiency on donor funding. Member states pay for less than half of the AU’s budget. The remainder comes from organisations such as the World Bank and the European Union. The AU and its membership need to rapidly improve on implementing and popularizing the many policies and blueprints that it has in place. States have a tendency to express their commitment to policies and instruments but to then take very long before they ratify these. In this context, it was a source of relief to finally see in 2012 the coming into force of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
In part implementation challenges are also due to a need for reform and capacity-building of the AU Commission and other AU organs.
Other urgent challenges are: the demands for democracy, economic development and transparency from within African nation-states. Civil society, researchers, journalists as well as ordinary citizens are ever more vocal and well-informed. Press and social media provide critical scrutiny despite limitations on press freedom and have access to and influence on a global media arena. The winds of change are picking up speed, and many African leaders experience that action and results now directly impact their ability to hold on to power. And that in the AU today, violent (public) crackdown of popular dissent and opposition is intolerable. Improving the record on governance and human rights will only become more important, so will policy formation and action on youth unemployment, economic development, food security, etc.
Just out! New Discussion Paper!
African political dynamics are undergoing change in the light of the recent ‘Arab Spring’, and the fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. A NAI-FOI Discussion Paper has examined the political and security objectives of some of the most powerful AU member states in the current post-Arab Spring setting, ‘The African Unionin Light of the Arab Revolts. An Appraisal of the foreign policy and security objectives of South Africa, Ethiopia and Algeria’, edited by Mikael Eriksson and Linnéa Gelot.