© Amelia Broodryk/ISS

The African Union’s fight for relevance in 2024

The AU must guard against mirroring the weaknesses of its predecessor – the Organisation of African Unity.

The African Union (AU) isn’t living up to expectations – and member states are partly to blame, according to AU Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. He says they’re using their sovereignty to avoid relegating powers to the commission. As the sum of all individual African countries, the AU’s strength depends on the power member states give it to implement their decisions.

The AU’s weaknesses are evident in its failure to deal with recent crises, including conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, northern Mozambique’s insurgency and coups in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

How can the continental body become more relevant as Africa enters a new year? Can it help citizens experience more stability, or will 2024 be another year of conflict? And how can member states help bring peace to the continent?

This isn’t the first time Faki has chided member states for the AUC’s failure. At the 2022 Conference on Terrorism and Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Malabo, he blamed the continent’s deteriorating security on insufficient African solidarity and member states’ failure to honour their AU commitments.

For African countries, pan-Africanism or regional integration has often meant choosing between creating a powerful continental body or safeguarding sovereignty – with the latter usually winning.

As instability and underdevelopment persist, questions have arisen about whether the AU displays the systemic weaknesses of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

One of the OAU’s biggest problems was that the general secretariat was reduced to clerical functions

One of the OAU’s biggest problems was that the general secretariat, tasked with day-to-day activities, was reduced to clerical functions. It should have implemented the organisation’s decisions, but lacked the required institutional powers and human, financial and material resources – essentially because member states refused to grant it autonomy to function.

A current example is countries’ procrastination on adopting recommendations dealing with autonomous funding sources, which would reduce the AUC’s reliance on states’ contributions and donations from development partners.

The OAU general secretariat relied entirely on states (and external powers) for funding, recruitment and other basic functions. Many states didn’t pay their annual contributions, rendering the organisation increasingly impotent. The secretariat could organise meetings and produce reports but struggled to implement major decisions on advancing continental integration.

The AU, launched in 2002, was meant to correct OAU weaknesses and achieve a more robust, proactive and efficient organisation with its secretariat, the AUC, as the fulcrum of continental integration. But problems that plagued the OAU secretariat seem to be resurfacing with the AU.

African heads of state have apparently abandoned the idea of a powerful AUC, and adopted attitudes that precipitated the OAU’s fall. Member states appoint the chairperson, deputy and commissioners, and influence directors’ appointments, leaving the AUC chairperson powerless and unable to hold incompetent senior managers accountable.

In rejecting a powerful AUC, African leaders are adopting attitudes that precipitated the OAU’s fall

Recent reforms have tightened the AUC budget and collapsed or merged some departments – similar to the OAU’s structure. For instance, the peace and security, and political affairs departments have merged, reverting to the OAU era. They were separated under the AU to intensify action on armed conflicts and emerging security challenges – regarded as the greatest threats to Africa’s development.

Merging the two may lead to some issues being overlooked. The current commissioner of the department has made election monitoring a prime focus. But as separate entities, political affairs could prioritise election monitoring while the peace and security department focused on conflict prevention, management, and resolution.

Keeping staff to a bare minimum has also weakened the AUC. The commission has 1 720 staff to service 55 countries. In comparison, the European Union Commission serves 27 countries with 32 000 permanent employees, excluding consultants and short-term staff. Some analysts argue that the quality of staff matters more than the quantity – but the AUC lacks both.

Sixty-one percent of the AUC’s staff are on short-term contracts because recruiting permanent staff hasn’t been possible. The commission has just 1 000 permanent staff. This has led to low morale and a drastic decline in productivity. Member states complain that they cannot finance a ‘huge’ AUC – even though they contribute less than 40% of the AU budget, leaving development partners to cover the bulk of the costs.

In its current state, neither the AU nor its member states can achieve Agenda 2063

Endless transformation and reform projects since 2003 have left the AUC more confused, less productive and fragile. The result is a commission reduced to a mere secretariat, similar to the OAU. Yet the AUC is expected to drive Africa’s ambitious Agenda 2063 goals and service 55 countries of about 1.4 billion people.

With no overarching continental mechanism to check and complement countries’ activities, states can act as they please, even when such actions threaten their sovereignty, other member states, or even the AU itself. This has weakened governments and fomented fragmentation. It has undercut state accountability and enabled coups and chronic and institutionalised corruption.

The phrase ‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’ has characterised Africa’s efforts to forge continental integration over the past 60 years. Regionalism has been a delicate balance between states that put their sovereignty first versus those seeing integration as a way to safeguard and protect independence. As a result, continental decision making has lacked consistency, vision and patronage – to the detriment of creating functional institutions. Regional economic communities and mechanisms exhibit similar weaknesses to the AUC.

No norms guide how African states should conduct their foreign policies or relations. For example, what principles are followed for hosting foreign military bases, especially where they threaten the sovereignty of other states? 

A good first step would be to resolve AU funding issues and empower the AUC chairperson to be solely accountable for the commission’s work. The AUC should also have autonomy to recruit operational staff and senior managers, except the chairperson and deputy.

In its current state, neither the AU nor its member states can achieve Agenda 2063. Unless these issues are urgently addressed, the AU – like the OAU – risks becoming irrelevant.

This article was first published in the ISS PSC Report.

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