How to rationalise Africa’s many partnerships?

The scramble to join the long list of Africa’s partners continues. In October this year Russia became the latest partner when President Vladimir Putin hosted over 40 heads of state or government at the first Russia–Africa summit at Sochi, the Black Sea resort.

The African Union (AU) recognises nine partnerships – with the League of Arab States; the European Union (EU); South America; India; South Korea; Turkey; China (through the Forum for China–Africa Cooperation [FOCAC]); the United States (US); and Japan (through the Tokyo International Conference on African Development [TICAD]). Not mentioned officially by AU ministers at a meeting on this issue earlier this year, but clearly difficult to ignore, are France, which has been holding summits with Africa since 1973 and will hold its next one in June next year in Bordeaux, and now Russia.

In 2017 Israel almost joined the club with an inaugural summit in Togo before Togo ‘postponed’ at the last moment because of continental pressure.

Partnerships unfit for purpose

The AU has long felt that the continent’s partnerships have become unfit for purpose; they are unwieldy, too numerous, often redundant and mostly geared more towards the interests of the partners rather than Africa’s.

The AU has long felt that the continent’s partnerships have become unfit for purpose

In addition, many in the AU feel that it is undignified for all 54 or 55 of the continent’s leaders to be ‘summoned’ to Beijing, Tokyo, Istanbul, Seoul or wherever to meet just one foreign leader. Diplomats recall that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi refused to attend TICAD and FOCAC for this reason.

As far back as 2006 in The Gambia, the AU adopted the Banjul formula, whereby the AU itself would choose 15 African leaders, including the heads of the continent’s 5 regions, to attend such summits.

The AU left the door open for all leaders to attend summits such as FOCAC and TICAD

But the AU left the door open for all leaders to attend summits such as FOCAC and TICAD. In part because of this inconsistency – and the fact that the AU cannot impose its directives on sovereign states when it is not the one organising the summits – the Banjul formula has been widely ignored. India, for instance, first respected the formula but then abandoned it in 2015.

Moratorium on further summits

The AU recently placed a moratorium on further summits organised by the AU Commission (AUC), after requests from countries like Vietnam and Australia, until the AU had reviewed the entire nature of its partnerships.

The AU recently placed a moratorium on further summits organised by the AU Commission

However, Russia went ahead and organised the Sochi summit anyway, working with the current AU chair, Egypt – a close ally – rather than the AUC. And it certainly ignored the Banjul formula, inviting all heads of state except, reportedly, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – an exclusion that the AUC would not have allowed.

Meanwhile, efforts to review and rationalise Africa’s partnerships continue. In December 2017 a conference in Harare established the African Union Partnerships Coordination and Interactive Platform (AU-PCIP).

Dr Levi Uche Makuende, who heads the platform, said at the AU-PCIP’s second annual conference in Ghana in November 2018 that ‘the cooperation between Africa and its partners has mainly been a donor-recipient driven relationship that is skewed in favor of the donors’. In future the AU wanted strategic partnerships based on ‘equality, accountability, mutual respect, efficiency, ownership and win–win cooperation’.

The cooperation between Africa and its partners has mainly been a donor-recipient driven relationship

This would help ‘promote economic transformation of the continent through robust industrialization; promote resilient health systems and … promote social stability within the continent’.

He went on to say that, ‘[t]o achieve all these, we need to speak with one voice and mobilize collective thoughts to ensure focus and avoid duplication and overlap’. Africa should streamline its partnerships, engaging with fewer to achieve more. It should engage with its partners based on their ‘core competences’, rather than the present practice of handing them a ‘bucket list of wishes … without any focus on priority areas’.

Principles of dignity and respect

This effort to rationalise partnerships has since become part of the AU reforms. At the 32nd AU summit in Addis Ababa in February this year, the AU Executive Council echoed Makuende’s sentiments and decided to review all ‘strategic partnerships’ and draw up guidelines on how the continent should engage with them. This would ensure ‘Africa spoke with one voice’ and that that voice expressed the real needs of the continent.

AU ministers stressed that the principles of dignity and respect should guide the participation of member states

AU ministers stressed in their draft decision that ‘the principles of dignity and respect should guide the participation of AU member states in partnership meetings’.   

Meanwhile, the AUC proposed, in what appears to have been a revival and reiteration of the Banjul formula, that in future Africa be represented at partnership meetings not by all national leaders but by the AU Troika – the current, past and incoming chairpersons of the AU – the chairpersons of the regional economic communities (RECs) and the chairperson of the NEPAD Agency.

Institutionally, the AU–EU ‘continent-to-continent’ partnership, which held its first summit in Cairo in 2000, is the most substantial of all of Africa’s partnerships, in the AU’s view. At this stage it is also the only partnership where AUC is an integral part of the planning and agenda setting.

Maximum benefit

The AU’s move to reshape Africa’s relations with its partners is motivated essentially by a sense that the continent is not deriving maximum benefit from these relationships. That is, in part, because many of these partnerships and summits are not directed by the AU itself and so, at least in the AUC’s view, do not serve the interests of the continent as a whole.

Even in the case of the AU–EU partnership, despite its being the most structured and most directed from Addis Ababa, it has been said the 2017 summit in Abidjan was dominated by the EU’s concerns about irregular migration from Africa rather than any African interests.

The 2017 summit in Abidjan was dominated by the EU’s concerns about irregular migration from Africa rather than any African interests

More broadly, it is often said that the increasing number of partnerships is driven mostly by competition among external powers for Africa’s natural resources, growing market and votes in international bodies.

It may yet prove overly ambitious for the AUC to try to coordinate and rationalise relations with all these partners. The difficulties in trying to do so were illustrated by the negotiations for a future relationship with the EU after the Cotonou Agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries expires next year.

African countries first agreed, in July 2018, to allow the AUC to negotiate the new post-Cotonou agreement. The AUC proposed that Africa negotiate its own separate agreement with the EU, as the ACP framework had become obsolete and in any case excluded North Africa. This was also the preference of some EU members.

However, divisions then emerged among AU member states. AUC chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat announced at the AU summit in February this year that an agreement had been reached on a two-track approach. The existing ACP–EU framework would remain in place, in parallel with a separate AU–EU framework, building on the existing Africa–EU partnership, including the AU–EU summit of November 2017 in Abidjan.

Far-reaching implications

The AU ministers committee working on the review of Africa’s partnerships has not yet completed its work, though Makuende told the PSC Report that it would do so in time to report to the next AU summit in February next year.

As construed by Makuende, the rationalising of partnerships is mainly about improving these partners’ contribution to Africa’s socio-economic development.

Yet the review will inevitably have far-reaching political implications. If the France–Africa partnership, for example, does not receive the official blessing of the AUC in the review process, that could lead to defiance and embarrassment for the AU. It is difficult to see how such a move would deter either Paris from holding future summits or its many African friends from attending them.

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