The African Union turns ten: time for a reality check*

An image of the 17th African Union Summit held last year in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (Photo: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea)

The 19th African Union Summit starts today, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the pan-continental body. Despite this symbolism, African leaders will most likely close the summit next Monday with an anti-climatic message that will be met with a collective yawn across Africa. They may even fail – for the second time – to elect a new head the African Union Commission. An underwhelming performance that contrasts with events across the continent: South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, also turns one today amidst important development and security challenges. Egypt and Senegal have overcome domestic turmoil and peacefully elected new Presidents, and Libya just held its first elections in over 60 years. Less positive developments are also visible in Nigeria, increasingly threatened by terrorism; eastern DRC, where conflict has flared up; and Mali, where a coup d’état back in Marchled to the country’s partition.

The AU certainly lacks capabilities but also, more worryingly, appears out of sync with most Africans’ preoccupations. Its focus on continental economic growth is welcome, but it needs an accompanying political narrative. The “United States of Africa” discourse that gave birth to the AU in 2002 belonged to a generation of leaders such as Thabo Mbeki and Olesegun Obasanjo that have now exited the scene. Continental unity has been reduced to a motto of “African solutions to African problems”, which struggles to translate into real actions. The EU supported this new impetus through the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) but progress remains limited. Even where greater progress has been recorded, in the peace and security domain, challenges persist with an AU dependent on sub-regional and extra-regional actors. Mali is a case in point: ECOWAS is leading the political dialogue and putting forward a 3,000 strong military contingent. And the recent UN resolution on Mali was drafted by France – a country which supported intervention in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire against the AU’s criteria.

These and other challenges have put the AU on a defensive position that converts the demand for “African solutions” into a flat rejection of external interference. This makes the AU defend regimes that not only are undemocratic, but also face domestic opposition. Sudan is a good example: whilst protesters are taking the streets against al-Bashir’s government, the AU provided him with an inestimable backing in choosing to move the location of the AU summit from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa after the Malawian President refused to host the ICC-indicted Sudanese president. This reflects the inability (or unwillingness) of the AU to recognise the magnitude of the changes taking place across the continent.

External partners also need to clarify their approach vis-à-vis the continent. The EU supports continental integration through the JAES, but carries out substantial negotiations with Africa (e.g. Economic Partnership Agreements ) on a sub-regional basis. And its vocal support for democracy and human rights is often contradicted by moves to strengthen EU ties with African regimes of questionable democratic legitimacy. Global reordering and domestic transformations will make Africa a very different continent ten years from now. The AU, the African leaders that form part of it, and its external partners should all recognise this and act accordingly or risk sinking the institution into irrelevance.

* This post was originally written for The FRIDE blog

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