As the AU turns 20, it must speak with one voice

The February African Union summit should tackle vaccines and travel bans, climate change misperceptions and AU financing.

The African Union (AU) will mark its 20th anniversary in 2022, and as pressure to perform better increases, the upcoming heads of state summit from 5-6 February will be crucial. Following the election of two commissioners in October 2021, the new AU Commission is now fully operational and must show progress on implementing long-running reforms.

The AU’s leadership in addressing COVID-19 came into focus again at the end of 2021. After the Omicron variant’s discovery, travel restrictions inflicted on several Southern African countries saw African governments, activists and citizens looking to the AU for a response. The continent was being punished for transparency, while Omicron rapidly spread worldwide.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC), the AU vaccine acquisition task team led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the AU’s vaccine delivery task team have been applauded for their work. Yet the continent still isn’t sufficiently vocal and united to speak with one voice against unfair treatment.

Apart from in a select few countries, far too few vaccines are available for Africa. By 5 January only 9.5% of Africans had been vaccinated, according to the Africa CDC. This is expected to be a major theme of the February summit.

The new AU Commission is fully operational and must show progress on implementing long-running reforms

A common African position is also needed on the climate debate. The continent’s foreign affairs ministers stressed the importance of this at the executive council meeting in October 2021. While some progress was made at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow a month later, African states should present a united front at this year’s November COP in Egypt.

There, the AU needs to change the perception of Africa as a climate change victim. Instead, the focus must be on the continent’s contribution to cleaner energy by, for example, producing key minerals to spearhead new technology. The rainforests of the Congo Basin and other parts of the continent are also crucial absorbers of CO2 emissions needed to reach the global goal of net-zero emissions.

Several conflict flashpoints are also expected to be on the February summit agenda – if not formally then in the corridors, if the meeting doesn’t take place virtually. Among the most pressing is the conflict in Ethiopia, which has plunged the host of the AU into crisis and political uncertainty. Mediation by AU envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, has been unsuccessful. Finding a peaceful solution will be a crucial test for the AU.

The rise in unconstitutional changes of government and the threat of terrorism will also probably be discussed. The AU’s newly constituted Political Affairs, Peace and Security department needs to show member states what it has achieved and how the AU reform process ultimately serves citizens’ interests. The controversial decision by AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat to grant observer status to Israel will also be on the agenda.

Africa still isn’t sufficiently vocal and united to speak with one voice against unfair treatment

During the summit, the 15 new members of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) will be elected – five positions for the three-year seats and 10 for the two-year seats. Each of Africa’s five regions chooses candidates using its preferred methods. Nigeria – the only country that’s been a council member uninterruptedly since the PSC’s creation – is expected to remain. This complete renewal of members could see the emergence of new dynamics in the continent’s premier peace and security body. 

A final decision is also needed on the AU Peace Fund, which has more than US$230 million thanks to contributions by member states. Despite the urgency of achieving peace and security on the continent, there have been delays in establishing modalities and criteria for disbursements. The management of the fund must be resolved.

At the October 2021 executive council meeting, ministers approved an overall AU Commission budget for 2022 of just over US$650 million. This comprises US$176 million for operations, US$195 million for programmes and US$279 million for peace support. International partners are expected to fund 66% of the budget and member states 31%. The remaining 3% will come from the administrative and maintenance reserve funds.

Ministers commended member states for contributing 72% of 2021’s regular budget (operations and programmes). This is, however, far from the AU’s goal of self-financing its total regular budget and at least 75% of its programme budget, which is still fully funded by partners.

Despite some improvements, the AU is still far from its goal of self-financing its regular budget

For years, states have been reluctant to name and shame those who don’t pay their dues. Now the AU has decided to accept submissions for delays and payment plans to clear arrears. Fourteen countries received ‘cautionary sanctions’ for not paying at least 50% of their 2021 fees.

As part of the effort to ensure full member state payments, ministers and ambassadors in Addis Ababa are insisting that the AU Commission and AU organs eradicate corruption and irregular expenditure. For example, before receiving new funds, AU organs will have to show that recommendations of previous audit reports have been taken on board.

The AU theme for 2022 is ‘Building resilience in nutrition on the African continent: Accelerate the human capital, social and economic development.’ This expands on previous AU decisions such as those establishing an African task force on food and nutritional development and an Africa regional nutrition strategy (2016 to 2025).

Across the continent, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded an already dire situation of food insecurity and malnutrition. While child mortality rates in Africa dropped dramatically from 106 per 1 000 births in 1990 to 51.7 in 2019, undernutrition is still a major cause of child death.

The AU, chaired by Senegal this year, can use its 2022 theme to emphasise the importance of linking agricultural production and food security to health and nutrition. In doing so, it’s crucial that efforts by other continental bodies are not duplicated and that this statement of intent goes beyond mere meetings and events.

PSC Report team, Institute for Security Studies

This article was first published by the ISS’ PSC Report project.

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Photo: African Union

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