Is the AU becoming a mirror image of the OAU?

Twenty years after its creation, the AU is demonstrating the same weaknesses and institutional erosion as its predecessor.

During the 10th National Security Symposium 2023, in Kigali, Rwanda, African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat lamented the commission’s inability to live up to expectations. This he attributed to member states using their sovereignty, refusing to relegate any powers to the AUC. He expressed frustrations that the organisation is the sum of all African countries taken individually. Its strengths or weaknesses depend on the power member states proffer to it to implement their vision and decisions.

It is not the first time that Moussa Faki has blamed member states for the AUC’s failure. In his opening remarks at the 16th extraordinary session of the AU Conference on Terrorism and Unconstitutional Changes of Government, in Malabo in May 2022, he spoke of the continent’s deteriorating security. This he blamed on insufficient African solidarity and a failure of member states to honour their commitments to the AU.   

His statements mirrored the historic challenge that belies the continental body in pursuing a prosperous and peaceful Africa driven by a strong pan-African organisation. For AU member states, pan-Africanism or regional integration has often meant a choice between creating a powerful continental body or safeguarding sovereignty, with the pendulum always swinging in favour of the latter.

But as protracted instability and underdevelopment in the face of a powerless continental organisation continue, a policy debate has emerged. This centres on the extent to which the AU displays the inherent and systemic weaknesses of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and how such weaknesses can be mitigated. The question is whether sovereignty is being used wisely and the extent to which it is contributing to prosperity, peace and security in Africa?    

Emerging shadows of the past

One of the biggest problems of the OAU was that the general secretariat intended to oversee day-to-day activities was reduced to clerical functions. Although it was to implement the organisation’s decisions, it lacked the necessary institutional powers and human, financial and material resources, essentially because member states refused to grant it autonomy to function. One good example is the endless procrastination by member states to adopt recommendations on sources of AUC’s autonomous funding, which will reduce the current reliance on states’ contributions and donations from development partners.

The AU’s strengths or weaknesses depend on the power member states proffer to it

The OAU general secretariat relied entirely on states (and external powers) for its funding, budget, recruitment and other basic functions. Many states failed to pay their annual contributions, rendering the organisation increasingly impotent. Until its denouement in 2001, the general secretariat could only organise meetings and produce reports but couldn’t implement major decisions that could have advanced continental integration.

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

The AU’s failure to deal with recent situations of instability, particularly the coups in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, as well as the complex crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict in Sudan and the insurgency in northern Mozambique, has exposed the organisation’s underbelly.

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

Impact of reforms

Recent reforms have not only tightened the AUC budget, but have collapsed or merged some departments ― similar to the OAU’s structure. For instance, the peace and security, and political affairs departments have merged, taking things back to the OAU era.

They were separated under the AU to intensify action on armed conflicts and emerging peace and security challenges, which were seen to be the greatest threats to development. The rationalization of programmes under the two departments posed major problems, which created unhealthy competition between the two departments. For example, humanitarian response to conflicts was placed in the Political Affairs Department.

Endless transformation and reform projects have rendered the commission extremely fatigued and fragile

The merger of the two departments may lead to some issues being overlooked. The current commissioner of the department has made election monitoring a prime focus. But as separate entities, the Political Affairs Department could prioritise elections monitoring and the Peace and Security Department conflict prevention, management and resolution.

The AUC’s weakening is also due to keeping staffing at a bare minimum. The AUC has about 1 720 staff to service 55 African countries. In comparison, the European Union Commission, which services 27 countries, has 32 000 permanent staff, without counting consultants and short-term staff. Some analysts argue that it is not the quantity but the quality of staff. The AUC lacks both.

Of the 1 720 staff, 61% are short-term contracts because recruitment of permanent staff has not been possible. Thus, the AUC has just 1 000 permanent staff. This has led to extremely low morale and a drastic decline in productivity. Member states complain about a perceived huge commission that they cannot finance, even though they contribute less than 40% of the AU budget, with more than 60% financed by development partners.

Endless transformation and reform projects since 2003 have left the AUC more confused. Each reform project has caused consternations, a dip in morale, a freeze in recruitment and diminished staff productivity, which have rendered the commission extremely fatigued and fragile. The result is a commission reduced to a mere secretariat, similar to its predecessor. Yet it is expected to drive the continent to achieve the ambitious goals of Agenda 2063 and service 55 countries of about 1.4 billion people.

Resetting the trend

The crisis around the AUC is a microcosm of the endemic issues underlying pan-Africanism and regional integration. The unfettered pursuit of sovereignty at the detriment of a supranational organisation has created a vacuum or anarchy continentally.

‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’ has resonated in Africa’s efforts to forge continental integration for 60 years

With no overarching continental mechanism to check and complement states’ activities, this means that state actors can act as they please, even when such actions clearly pose a danger to their sovereignty and that of other member states, or even the continental organisation. This has weakened states and fomented fragmentation, lack of state accountability internally and externally, recurrent civilian and military coups, chronic and institutionalised corruption and inability of institutions to enforce norms and decisions.

The phrase ‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’ has resonated in Africa’s efforts to forge continental integration over the past 60 years. Regionalism has been a delicate balance between African states that put their independence and sovereignty first versus those that see integration as strength and a mechanism to safeguard and protect independence.

The sidelining of pan-Africanism in strategic continental decision-making has brought lack of consistency, vision and patronage to the creation and functioning of institutions. Regional economic communities and mechanisms are not different from the AUC as they exhibit similar weaknesses. There are no norms or rules guiding how African states should conduct their foreign policies or relations with foreign partners. For example, what principles are followed for the hosting of foreign military bases, especially where such bases represent a clear threat to the sovereignty of other states? 

Africa positions itself to compete globally and become an alternative force for world peace. Thus, member states, regional and continental policy actors must understand that strong pan-African institutions created through the transfer of some sovereignty to supranational institutions are indispensable for dealing with the myriad issues at play.

Good first steps are to resolve alternative AU funding issues and empower the chairperson to be solely accountable for AUC work. In addition, the AUC should be granted autonomy to make decisions on recruitment of operational staff and senior managers, except the chairperson and deputy. In its current state, the AU cannot achieve Agenda 2063. Neither can member states. Unless these issues are consciously and urgently addressed, the AU is increasingly manifesting OAU symptoms and risks becoming irrelevant.

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS

Related content