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What can be expected from the 29th AU Summit?
9 June 2017

The 29th summit of the African Union (AU) will take place in Addis Ababa from 27 June to 4 July 2017. It will be the first summit under the new commission elected in January and led by Moussa Faki Mahamat. Heads of state and government are expected to take critical decisions that will shape the future of the AU as the main driver for integration on the continent. The reform of the organisation, the modalities of its funding and the free movement of people on the continent are the main areas where decisions are expected.

In January 2017 the AU Assembly adopted the report proposed by the special commission chaired by Rwandan President Paul Kagame on reforming the pan-African body.

The AU Assembly took note of the following recommendations: 

  • Focus on key priorities with a continental scope, such as political, peace and security issues, economic integration and Africa’s global representation and voice
  • Realign AU institutions in order to deliver on these priorities
  • Connect the AU to its citizens
  • Manage the business of the AU efficiently and effectively at both political and operational levels
  • Finance the AU sustainably and with the full ownership of member states

After the summit, members of the Kagame commission continued consultations with the AU Commission (AUC), AU Chair Alpha Condé and former AU chair Idriss Déby. A meeting on the proposed reforms took place in early May in Kigali.

The new AUC chair has presented a progress report on the implementation of the reforms.

  • The AUC has launched the process to select an international auditing company to assess the institution and identify bottlenecks
  • The AUC has held a retreat to assess the state of affairs within the organisation
  • The implementation unit located in the office of the AUC chair is supposed to be set up before the July summit
  • In line with the decision taken in January, at the upcoming summit there will only be three issues on the assembly’s agenda: the report on the implementation of the reforms, the AU budget and peace and security issues

In addition, it will be necessary to decide on the bureaucratic implications of focusing the AU on fewer key priorities. For example, does this imply that the number of departments and commissioners will be reduced?

The establishment of the reform implementation unit, its full operationalisation, and its effectiveness will depend on the mandate it receives from the heads of state and government regarding the scope of the changes to be put in place. So far, the reform process has been driven by Kagame, Condé and Déby. The meeting of foreign ministers in Kigali to promote exchanges among member states on the proposed reforms has contributed to this engagement.

This methodical and sustained approach has prevented the process from being rushed, which could have undermined the quality and uptake of the reforms. Looking at the steps presented by the AUC chair, it is more than likely that this will be a long-term process spanning most of his four-year term.

New funding mechanism linked to the establishment of Continental Free Trade Area

Almost one year on, the modalities of implementing the new AU financing model (a levy of 0.2% on non-African imports) are yet to be fully decided. This year was supposed to be a transition year before full implementation in 2018. So far, however, few member states have put in place a levy in order to fund their AU contributions.

The issue of the new levy’s compliance with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) regulations has often been raised as well. In Kigali, Donald Kaberuka – the AU High Representative for the Peace Fund – has hinted that the fate of the 0.2% import levy is linked to the speedy establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), which could deflect the challenge of WTO compliance. It is still not known if AU member states will be able to reach agreement on the CFTA in order to allow the full implementation of the levy by 2018.

In search of consensus on free movement

At its 27th summit in Kigali, the AU asked the AU Commission to put in place an implementation roadmap for the development of a protocol on the free movement of persons in Africa by January 2018.

Since February, African experts have been negotiating the protocol on ‘free movement, the right of residence, [and] the right of establishment’ – first in Accra in March, then in Kigali in May – to be presented for consideration at the AU Assembly. However, it is not yet certain that the issue will indeed be on the agenda.

The various negotiation rounds have attempted to find a balance between the enthusiasm and experience of regions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC) in establishing the free movement of people, and the concerns related to security, social and economic issues that have been raised by many other member states.

So far, progress has been made towards consensus on three principles: phasing-in the protocol on free movement; recognising the sovereignty of member states; and allowing flexibility.

Firstly, the protocol on free movement will have three phases: first the right of entry; then the right of residence; and finally the right of establishment. This phasing-in is similar to the method used by ECOWAS.

Secondly, while the rights of entry, residence and establishment without discrimination are recognised, recognition depends on the laws and regulations of the host state. This means that member states can still invoke their internal regulations to deny entry, residence and establishment to Africans from other countries. Therefore African citizens travelling to more reluctant states would still have to meet the requirements of the host’s immigration services.

Thirdly, the negotiated protocol is recognised only as a stepping stone in continental efforts towards free movement in Africa. Regions or member states can decide to go further than the provisions of the protocol in removing barriers to free movement. This flexibility would allow more willing regions or member states to remain unaffected by the reservations of reluctant parties.

The main challenge, besides the adoption and ratification of the protocol, is the establishment of a mechanism to verify that member states meet their obligations under this protocol. The latitude given to member states to continue to apply their own immigration laws and policies could lead to its selective application.

Moreover, the fact that provisions related to free movement might differ from one region to another, coupled with the adoption of the AU protocol, could present a challenge for member states at the legal and administrative level. In this regard, heads of state and government would have to clarify the hierarchy among various norms.

Lastly, a major question is the ability of member states to agree on an implementation roadmap with benchmarks and a comprehensive and binding timeline on the harmonisation of travel documents and immigration processes. The risk is that the AU adopts a symbolic protocol on free movement that is undermined by member states’ uneven commitment. Even, if the AU Assembly were to adopt the protocol, every state would need to sign and ratify it if they wanted it to enter in force in their territory. As the protocol would be binding only for signatories, a low number of signatures and ratifications – especially by regional powers – could hamper the dynamic towards the continental free movement of people.

Besides the commitment of member states, the question is if the security context on the continent is conducive to the free movement of people. Various conflict situations have arisen because of the inability of some states to effectively control their borders. Member states will have to simultaneously strengthen their border control while ensuring the rights of African citizens to enter and reside in the country of their choice.

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