A new champion could drive home African Union reforms

Despite some progress, many reforms have stalled. Can Kenya’s President William Ruto get the process back on track?

In 2016, African leaders recognised the imperative for a swift and substantial reform of the African Union (AU). The initiative led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame aimed to realign AU institutions for better service delivery, ensure operational efficiency and sustainable financing, and connect the organisation with African citizens.

Some milestones have been achieved since implementation began in 2018. A new management team and directors were appointed, the number of AU Commission departments was reduced, gender and regional representation at leadership level was emphasised, a merit-based recruitment system was introduced, and all departments underwent a skills audit and competency assessment.

Good progress has been made in setting up the AU Peace Fund, the principal financing instrument for peace and security activities launched in November 2018. Its governance structures are fully operational, except for the Independent Evaluation Group, which should be set up this year.

The peace fund has raised US$384 million – 96% of the initial target of US$400 million – entirely from AU member states. In 2023-24, US$22 million was allocated through the Crisis Reserve Facility and pilot projects. US$2 million went to the East African Community Regional Force in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, US$2 million to the AU Transition Mission in Somalia, and US$1 million to implementing Ethiopia’s Cessation of Hostilities Agreement.

The AU Commission is accused of illegal appointments and corrupt hiring processes for high-profile positions

Despite these achievements, many reforms are yet to be implemented. This is partly due to member states’ resistance, some not supporting Kagame as champion, and others pushing back against creating a more empowered AU Commission. The high cost of reforms is another limiting factor that was not properly considered beforehand.

Implementation delays and some reforms themselves (like having fewer AU summits) raise questions about whether the process has inadvertently weakened instead of strengthening, the AU.

When the reform process started, member states focused on human resources as a solution to the AU’s ineffectiveness – avoiding the problem of AU Assembly decisions not being implemented. An example of decisions not being followed is the 15 March executive council statement on voting for the 2025 senior leadership, some of which doesn’t align with past assembly decisions. This underscores how weak decision making and compliance with agreed working methods and rules of procedure has become.

The skills audit and competency assessment, aimed at enhancing recruitment, promoting diversity and ensuring all member states are represented in the AU Commission, has fallen short. Progress was hindered by a 2018 moratorium on recruitment, which led to an over-dependence on short-term staff and consultants, high staff turnover and performance problems. Although most commission employees passed the competency assessment, some countries felt the results were manipulated to exclude their citizens.

This complicated working relations between the commission and the Permanent Representatives Committee, which conducts the AU’s day-to-day business on behalf of the AU Assembly and executive council. The commission is accused of illegal appointments and corrupt hiring processes for high-profile positions; competent individuals are often overlooked.

The AU still grapples with pre-reform budget issues, including low budget execution and unapproved expenditure

The 2020 adoption of the commission’s new departmental structure has also been slow. The reduction in the number of departments from eight to six has led to conflicts about who does what.

Creating a merged Political Affairs, Peace and Security Department provides for greater synergies, but weak coordination and competition among directorates, notably on election monitoring, is a problem. And placing the AU’s Continental Early Warning System under ‘conflict management’ has limited the organisation’s ability to anticipate and prevent conflict.

Financing remains another hurdle. Five years into the process, the AU still grapples with chronic pre-reform budget issues, including low budget execution and unapproved expenditure. The overdependence on external funding is even more serious. Member states cover the AU’s entire operational budget, but external partners such as the European Union provide over 85% of its programme budget.

Although the Peace Fund is active, contributions and disbursements are insufficient, given deepening insecurity in parts of Africa. Besides, many member states are reluctant to meet their commitments. As of 31 October 2023, only 31 of 55 had paid 100% of their annual contributions, leaving a gap of US$56.3 million. This diminishes ownership of AU programmes and the body’s financial autonomy. 

At the February AU summit, Kagame expressed frustration about the slow progress of reform, citing member states’ resistance to genuine transformation. Having championed the process since its inception, the handover to Kenya’s President William Ruto presents an opportunity to consolidate gains and renew momentum.

Ruto has emphasised the need for genuine reform so the AU can deliver on its priorities. He has repeatedly called for a stronger and financially autonomous AU and for member states to cede some sovereignty to ensure a strengthened AU Commission. Having been clear that the AU needs ‘fixing’, Ruto can now push for the change he talks about.

Having been clear that the AU needs ‘fixing’, Ruto can now push for the change he talks about

Kenya is well-positioned for the role. The country is a top-six contributor to the AU’s regular budget, paying around US$7.2 million annually. Geopolitically, Ruto is a leading African voice on reforming the global climate agenda and multilateral financial and policy bodies. The new champion will need to lobby and engage states that resist the reform process. He should anticipate that the thorny issue of giving the commission more power will make the job difficult.

An effective AU will largely depend on a strong and well-capacitated commission, and the consistent implementation of AU decisions. Ruto will need to engage in high-level consultations with member states, the commission, and AU partners and strengthen working relations between the Permanent Representatives Committee and the commission.

Achieving financial autonomy is also vital. Rallying leaders in Africa’s private sector could breathe new life into the AU and ensure delivery of reform priorities.

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