Crucial months ahead for the AU Commission to implement reforms

Despite restrictions linked to COVID-19, the African Union (AU) has started the process to elect a new AU Commission (AUC) in January 2021. In line with the AU reform process that began in 2016 under the supervision of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the new AUC will have fewer commissioners and will be elected through a new merit-based system.

This process is crucial for the continent, given that it will determine the calibre of people running the AUC for the next four years. At this stage little is known about possible candidates for the position of AUC chairperson, although current chair Moussa Faki Mahamat is expected to run for a second term.

Progress so far

The institutional reform of the AU includes a review of the financing model of its operational and programme budgets, the transformation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) into the AU Development Agency (AUDA), and the integration of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and its budget into existing AU structures.

The bulk of the reforms were approved at an AU extraordinary summit in November 2018, in Addis Ababa. Since then the operational budget of the AU is said to be 100% financed through member state contributions, the peace fund has received around US$150 million (out of the US$400 million target by 2021), and the new financial management rules for the organisation have been drawn up. NEPAD has become the AUDA-NEPAD and the APRM has been integrated into the AU budget with an extended mandate covering conflict prevention.

Although the broad new structure of the AUC was endorsed at the November 2018 summit – moving from eight to six commissions, including the merger of the departments of Political Affairs and Peace and Security – its final structure had been work in progress until it was finally approved at the 33rd AU summit in February 2020.

Having been finalised, despite complaints of insufficient internal consultation at all levels within the commission, the implementation of the new AUC structure coincides with the arrival of newly elected commissioners in 2021. This could be an important development for the African body, as it will prove a rare opportunity to align a new structure with new capacity.

The implementation of the new AU Commission structure coincides with the arrival of newly elected commissioners in 2021

Many outstanding issues

While the AU institutional reform has its merits, such as making the organisation more effective and streamlined, it may have overlooked important considerations. 

One major issue that remains unaddressed is the proposal to have the six new commissioners chosen and appointed by the AUC chairperson. This proposal was shot down by AU member states and commissioners will remain elected officials. In the past this has not been conducive to performance or accountability, and at times caused divergences over the course of action the commission should take in a particular matter.

Many also believe that the reform should have touched on the Peace and Security Council (PSC) in one way or another, in order to give the African body in charge of peace and security matters a much-needed reboot.

Many believe that the reform should have touched on the Peace and Security Council in one way or another

In fact, this idea was already raised in the well-known 2007 Adedeji Audit of the AU. The audit made specific recommendations aimed at enhancing the performance of the council, including its working methods and the early operationalisation of all the components of the AU Peace and Security Architecture (APSA – the Panel of the Wise [PoW], the Continental Early Warning System [CEWS] and the African Standby Force [ASF]).

Although much has been done to establish and improve these structures, the APSA has struggled to reach its expected potential and fully play a role in stemming conflict and instability on the continent. For a long time, the PSC’s working methods were a recurrent issue, impeding its proper functioning, while the PoW, CEWS and the ASF have also had their challenges.

The PSC’s new working methods in the face of COVID-19 restrictions might just bring much-needed change to how the body does its work. 

However, the institutional reform does not resolve the ubiquitous divergences between AU member states and AU institutions and organs, in this case the AUC. For instance, while the CEWS may be fulfilling its role in providing early warning to the PSC in spite of some challenges, its technical input into confidential decision-making rarely translates into early action. This results in a gap between early warning and early action despite the existing continental technical capacity to address such gaps.

In addition, the AU institutional reforms did not reconsider the role of the Pan African Parliament (PAP), which remains largely a symbolic institution without the power to fulfil any of the duties of a classic assembly of representatives, such as controlling the actions of African institutions and organs, vote on and/or control the budget of the AU, or pass any regulation or law. This is despite the fact that the transparency resulting from the AU reforms has further exposed issues of mismanagement and wasteful expenditure within the PAP.

The AU institutional reform in its current form may also have missed the opportunity to address the crux of the problem with African institutions and organs

The AU institutional reform in its current form may also have missed the opportunity to address the crux of the problem with African institutions and organs. For instance, this would ideally have meant taking a critical look at the totality of continental and regional organisations (RECs) and mechanisms, and overhauling them to create more alignment in their purpose and action. The unresolved question of AU–RECs relations is a case in point.

Finally, reforming the AU could have looked into how to systematically resolve challenges around the ratification of critical AU instruments and their implementation. The AU is a norm entrepreneur, but the ratification and implementation of these norms have always been a thorny issue. Two such important instruments are the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) and the Protocol on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In the latter case, of the 10 countries that had made the Article 34 (6) declaration allowing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals to bring  states directly before the court, four (Rwanda, Tanzania, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire) have now withdrawn their declaration. This effectively prevents citizens and NGOs from directly submitting a matter to the court.  

Progress towards the newly revamped commission

With the approval of the new AUC structure during the 33rd AU summit earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has only slightly delayed the process of implementation. This is notwithstanding the fact that it appears the AU border programme, housed in the Peace and Security Department and considered important, was (accidently) left out of the structure.

The high hopes placed in the new Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS) can only be met if the PAPS does not miss its inception phase. Making APSA and the African Governance Architecture (AGA) work in synergy will be absolutely critical for peace and security on the continent.

Ultimately, the power to elect the commission’s senior leadership lies with AU member states, not the African public

Meanwhile, the process of selecting candidates for the senior leadership of the AUC has been ongoing. In March 2020 a panel composed of senior officials from AU member states representing the continent’s regions was constituted to kickstart and oversee the selection process, with the help of human resources experts. No representative for North Africa is participating.

According to new recruitment rules for the AUC’s senior leadership, once the shortlisting is completed candidates must begin campaigning. The chairperson, his deputy and commissioners are expected to make their case to member states in public debates that are meant to be broadcast across the continent. However, ultimately, the power to elect the commission’s senior leadership lies with AU member states, not the African public.

The efficacy and efficiency of the new AUC will depend on the merits of the people chosen to the senior leadership. They will be tasked with implementing the new rules and regulations of the commission and, in this respect, attempt to create a new work culture based on performance and accountability. It is thus important that the ongoing process succeeds in choosing the right people for the available positions.

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