As the African Union (AU) prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2022 and pressure increases for it to perform better, the February heads of state summit will be crucial. Following the election of two commissioners in October 2021, the new AU Commission is now fully operational. It has to show progress in implementing reforms discussed over several years.
Senegal will chair the AU in 2022. The political situation in Ethiopia, host of the AU headquarters, and the continued threat of COVID-19, however, will make the organisation of the 2022 summit extremely challenging. The AU could consider moving the event to a location other than Addis Ababa for safety, but a virtual summit is the likely alternative.
Can the AU speak for the continent?
The AU’s leadership in addressing COVID-19 again came into focus at the end of November and early-December 2021. Then, a host of governments placed travel restrictions on at least eight southern African countries following the discovery of the Omicron variant of the virus. State representatives, activists and citizens on the continent looked to the AU to respond to this seemingly unfair treatment. Africa was being punished for transparency, while Omicron rapidly spread to international countries.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control, the AU vaccine acquisition task team, led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the AU’s vaccine delivery task team have been applauded for their work. Yet the continent is still not sufficiently vocal and united to speak with one voice against unfair treatment. Apart from a select few countries, there are still far too few vaccines available for Africa.
The World Health Organisation estimated that only 10% of African countries would reach their goal of 40% of vaccinated citizens by end-2021. By October 2021, only 6% to 7% of Africans had been vaccinated. This is expected to be a major theme of the February summit.
There is also a need for a united voice in the climate debate. The importance of this was stressed by ministers of foreign affairs at the executive council meeting in October 2021. While some progress was made at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP) 26, in Glasgow in November 2021, African states should speak as one at the next COP in Egypt.
There, the AU needs to change the perception of Africa as a climate change victim to a continent contributing to cleaner energy by, for example, producing key minerals to spearhead new technology. The rainforests of the Congo Basin and other parts of the continent are also crucial in providing CO²emissions to reach the global goal of net-zero emissions.
Stepping up responses to crises
Several continental crises are also expected to be on the February summit agenda – if not formally, then in the corridors. That is if the summit doesn’t take place virtually as it did in 2021.
Among the most pressing issues for member states will be the crisis in Ethiopia, which had shown no signs of abating by December 2021. Mediation efforts by the AU envoy for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo have been unsuccessful. Finding a peaceful solution will be a crucial test for the AU with its two decades of experience.
Issues such as the increasing number of unconstitutional changes of government and the threat of terrorism on the continent are also likely to be discussed. The AU’s newly constituted Political Affairs, Peace and Security department will have to show member states what it has achieved and demonstrate that the AU reform process ultimately serves the interests of citizens.
During the summit, the 15 new members of the Peace and Security Council will be elected – five positions for the three-year seats and 10 for the two-year seats. Each of the continent’s five regions chooses candidates using its preferred methods. Nigeria, the only country that has been a member of the council uninterruptedly since its creation, is expected to remain.
This complete renewal of council members could see the emergence of new dynamics within the premier AU organ on peace and security on the continent. As this publication went to print, some regions had yet to finalise their list of candidates. A final decision will also have to be made on the AU Peace Fund, which has more than US$230 million thanks to contributions by member states. However, how the fund should be managed has important implications.
Pressure on the AU budget
At the October executive council meeting, ministers approved a budget for 2022 of just over US$650 million. This comprises a US$176 million operating budget, US$195 million programme budget and US$279 million peace support budget. International partners are expected to fund 66% and member states 31%. The other 3% will come from the administrative and maintenance reserve funds.
Ministers also commended member states for contributing 72% of the US$147 million regular budget (operations and programmes) for 2021. This is, however, far from the AU’s goal of self-financing its total regular budget and at least 75% of its programme budget, which is still fully funded by partners. For years, states have been reluctant to name and shame those who don’t pay their dues. Now, it has decided to accept submissions for delays and payment plans to clear arrears.
Those who have applied include Libya, Somalia, Burundi, Seychelles and Sudan. However, 14 countries received ‘cautionary sanctions’ for not paying at least 50% of their 2021 fees, according to the draft decisions of the executive council.
These include large countries with reasonable resources such as Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Next year’s AU chair, Senegal, is also on the list, as are the Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Benin and Lesotho, and Guinea and Chad, which have experienced recent political turmoil. The small island states of Cape Verde and São Tomé are listed last.
With efforts to ensure full member state payment, ministers and ambassadors in Addis Ababa (permanent representatives’ committee) insist that the AU Commission and AU organs eradicate corruption and irregular expenditure. Before receiving new funds, AU organs will have to show, for example, that recommendations of previous audit reports have been taken on board. Following the October meeting, new assessment scales will be tabled for consideration and adoption at the summit.
Focus on food security
The AU theme for 2022 is ‘Building resilience in nutrition on the African continent: Accelerate the human capital, social and economic development’. This builds on previous AU decisions such as those establishing an African task force on food and nutritional development and the drawing up of an Africa regional nutrition strategy (2016 to 2025).
Across the continent, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded an already dire situation of food insecurity and malnutrition. While child mortality rates in Africa dropped dramatically from 106 per 1 000 births in 1990 to 51.7 in 2019, undernutrition is still a major cause of child death in Africa.
The AU can use its 2022 theme to emphasise the importance of linking agricultural production and food security to health and nutrition. However, it is crucial not to duplicate efforts by other continental bodies and to ensure that this statement of intent goes beyond mere meetings and events.
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