28th AU summit: AU reform can’t be fast-tracked


At the African Union (AU) Summit taking place in Addis Ababa this week, heads of state will once again examine a proposal to reform the AU Commission (AUC).

Reform now seems more urgent than ever. There has been much criticism of the structures of the AUC in Addis Ababa, both externally and from within. Many say that these flaws are to blame for the bureaucratic inertia that limits the effectiveness and the impact of the organisation.

These latest calls for reform follow an earlier attempt 10 years ago. The recent proposal was drawn up by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and a team of experts.

There are no guarantees, however, that it would work. As before, there is a risk that heads of state are trying to fast-track a complicated process and are using a top-down approach that could undermine the process from the start.

Obstacles within the organisation, for example, include the fact that the AUC chairperson doesn’t also select his or her commissioners nor allocate the portfolios. Other problem areas include policy coherence and coordination among various actors. Some also say that the eight departments of the AUC should be reduced to avoid overlap with regional economic communities (RECs) and member states.  

AU reform now seems more urgent than ever

The latest attempt at reforming the AU can be traced back to the 27th Summit that took place in July last year, when heads of state mandated Kagame to put together a report on the topic. Kagame appointed a commission composed of eminent personalities and well-known experts like Donald Kaberuka, the former chair of the African Development Bank, and Carlos Lopes, former executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

A previous attempt followed the summit in Accra, Ghana in 2007. At the time, the Assembly of the AU appointed a panel chaired by Professor Adebayo Adedeji, former executive secretary of UNECA, to audit the various organs of the AU and propose recommendations.

The panel then made 172 recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the AUC, among other things.

A key recommendation was to change the way in which the Commission is elected. According to the 2007 panel, the chairperson and his or her deputy should be elected a year before the eight commissioners.

The panel advised heads of state to separate the election of commissioners from the portfolios that would be assigned by the chairperson of the Commission. It recommended that the chairperson streamline the number of departments within the AUC – and that this be done in consultation with the chairperson of the Assembly. (The latter position is a rotating AU chairperson role, filled by a president of one of the AU member states.)

The Adedeji panel, like the Kagame commission, was asked to provide a substantive report in less than six months. The context was also similar to the current one, having also taken place at a time when a new commission was due to be elected.

The outgoing AUC – led by former Malian president, Alpha Omar Konaré – responded to the previous report in a 40-page document. While it agreed with some of the panel’s conclusions, Konaré’s Commission stressed that ‘neither the Commission nor any other AU institution involved in the audit had an opportunity to comment on the recommendations and did not provide details on some of the Information that the panel has received from other sources.’

How can the latest AU reform plans gain greater traction, and be made more likely to succeed?

The audit report and its recommendations were then put on the agenda of the 10th Summit in Addis Ababa in January 2008, but no consensus could be reached on the recommendations, and the issue was again postponed to an extraordinary summit.

Despite the panel’s recommendations, a new AUC was then elected according to the old structure: a chairperson, his or her deputy and eight commissioners, with eight AUC departments in place. It still remains this way.

The extraordinary session of the executive council then took place in Arusha, Tanzania in May 2008. Incoming chairperson Jean Ping again raised reservations ‘based on experience and own contact with facts on the ground’.

At the subsequent ordinary summit in July 2008 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the executive council requested that the AUC implement those recommendations ‘that are purely administrative in nature, [which are] linked to the internal processes of the Commission and do not have financial implications’.

However, this item disappeared from the list of decisions taken at the January 2009 summit. Nor did it feature at the July 2009 summit. As member states wrangled over the proposal of former Libyan strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, to create a ‘United States of Africa’ with a strong union government, the recommendations made by the Adedeji panel were set aside.

Almost 10 years after the creation of the panel, some of the recommendations of the audit, were ultimately implemented – if only partially. The panel recommended, for example, that summits be reduced to only one per year. While there are still two, the summits have largely been streamlined.

On the whole, however, the 2007 audit did not have the expected impact. How can the latest reform plans gain greater traction, and be made more likely to succeed?

The AU is an organisation of heads of state who jealously guard their sovereignty

It is important to note that reform cannot be fast-tracked. Reforming a public organisation – and more importantly, an international one, takes time. Such a process should be done over a longer period and involve various stakeholders. Time should be given to assess the far-reaching implications of the proposals.

Secondly, a top-down approach has limits. Like the Adedeji panel, the Kagame commission could suffer from the limited involvement of AUC stakeholders and permanent delegations in Addis Ababa. This hampers perceived ownership, and subsequently also prospects for effective implementation.

That Kagame’s panel also comprises eminent personalities creates the impression that the main issue is institutional, and all about management. Yet the heart of the matter for the AU is, and remains, political.

A critical question will be the division of labour between the AUC and the regional economic communities (RECs). Should the AU limit its priorities, and leave other areas to the RECs and member states?

In many ways, AU structures are ambiguous and contradictory. As it stands, the organisation seems to want to deal with all aspects of African politics, economic development, and peace and security – hence the top-heavy structure. Yet in practice, the AU remains an organisation of heads of state who jealously guard their sovereignty in these various areas.

A reform process should prioritise clarifying the positioning of the AU in aspects where such contradictions exist. This would lead to clarity over the scope of the organisation, which will define its institutional structure.

This institutional structure will be the result of a clear political blueprint. Heads of state should keep in mind that a new structure would not necessarily lead to good policies if there is no clear vision of what the AU is meant to be and where it is going. Achieving this means notably prioritising areas where the AU expects to add value.

The implementation of Agenda 2063, for example, requires political choices that an institutional overhaul alone cannot resolve.

Consequently, any institutional reform can only be the beginning of a long-term process aimed at transforming the ideals of pan-Africanism into a vehicle that truly serves member states and African citizens.

Yann Bedzigui, Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa

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