Heads of state and ministers who travelled to Nouakchott, Mauritania, for the bi-annual African Union (AU) summit earlier this month are preparing themselves for another such gathering in November – the fourth in only a year.
The aim of the summit is to sign off on key AU reforms before Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s term as AU chairperson expires at the end of 2018. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been nominated to take over from him next year and could have an altogether different agenda for the AU.
Paradoxically, the current reform of the AU seeks to reduce the number of summits – which are costly and time-consuming – to only one ordinary summit a year. So why another meeting this year? Kagame, the champion of these reforms, evidently believes that gathering those at the top is a speedy way to drive major continental initiatives.
Some delegates complain about his approach, saying the correct channels are not always used to take decisions. An example is Kagame’s introduction of heads of state ‘retreats’ ahead of summits in 2016 and 2017 to decide on the reforms.
In March this year Kagame called his peers together in Kigali to sign off on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), something observers thought would still take years to get off the ground. His method worked in this instance. So far 49 countries have signed the AfCFTA and six of the requisite 22 countries have ratified.
While the free trade area could be considered one of the AU’s major achievements in the past few years, it’s harder for the continent to agree on other issues like the AU’s self-financing formula and how the institution should be structured.
Among the AU’s 55 member states there are major differences of opinion about the form and substance of the reforms. Some countries simply don’t want a strong AU Commission in Addis Ababa that can dictate to sovereign states. Others agree that the AU needs a major overhaul but that consultation is important and the top-down approach is not the way to go.
The reform team has made some concessions to broaden the decision-making process, with the committee of foreign ministers in charge of the reforms being increased to 20, four from each of the five AU regions.
The question is whether Kagame will be given the leeway to continue to drive the final decision making around the reforms and their implementation, even if he no longer heads the organisation. A Reform Implementation Unit has been set up in the office of AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Kagame is likely to maintain his position as champion of the reforms, but as time goes by it will be increasingly difficult to keep everyone on board.
One outstanding issue is deciding on the election and recruitment of the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the AU Commission, and the eight commissioners, to make the AU’s senior leadership ‘lean and performance-orientated’. Other issues are the ‘right sizing’ of the AU Commission to focus on priorities (political affairs, peace and security, economic integration and being Africa’s global voice); and clarifying the relationship between the AU Commission and Regional Economic Communities.
A strong decision on any of these issues in November will be considered progress. Strengthening the working methods of the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC), and transforming the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Agency into the AU Development Agency are also outstanding.
Clarification of the 0.2% levy on imports to finance the AU, adopted in July 2016, is also expected at the November summit. While 23 member states are said to be on board, many others feel that the financing mechanism should be flexible, as long as countries pay their dues.
The reform team is expected to shift its focus to making sure member states finance the AU – one of the major thrusts of the current reform process – instead of focusing on the modalities of how to achieve this.
Compared to Kagame, el-Sisi’s focus in 2019 is likely to be more on the continent’s peace and security challenges than the structures of the AU Commission – notably in Libya, where the AU has made little headway. Egypt has certainly stepped up its engagement in the AU since the tumultuous events of 2013-14 when the AU initially sanctioned the el-Sisi regime for having ‘unconstitutionally’ ousted former president Mohamed Morsi.
After elections, the suspension of Egypt from the AU was lifted by the AU High-Level Panel for Egypt. This reflected the AU’s general disarray over the post-Arab Spring scenarios and whether there should be sanctions in terms of the Lomé Agreement against unconstitutional change of government. El-Sisi was re-elected for another four-year term in March.
Egypt is again this year an active PSC member, having served since March 2016, and has offered to host the AU Centre for Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development. It also serves as a link between the AU and the Arab world and has hosted several meetings in this regard. Enhancing dialogue with the League of Arab States was put on the agenda of the PSC by Egypt during January when it chaired the council.
After el-Sisi, the AU should be chaired by a head of state from Southern Africa – yet to be determined by the AU. By that time hopefully the AU reforms will have been finalised and those decisions that are adopted by all member states will be effectively implemented.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
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