For the first time since 2004, the African Union (AU) Assembly did not meet for its mid-year session in July 2019. The decision to have only one ordinary session of the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government is a result of the AU reforms, championed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the reform implementation unit of the AU Commission (AUC).
The aim of this reform is to limit the large meetings of heads of state where few real decisions are made and to have smaller, more efficient meetings such as the Mid-Year Coordination Meeting, which was held for the first time on 8 July. Heads of state also have other occasions to meet within the context of their regional economic communities (RECs), or bilaterally.
However, despite the AU’s reducing the number of annual summits, over 30 heads of state did attend the extraordinary summit on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Niamey, Niger on 7 July. An ordinary session of the AU Executive Council and several side meetings of the Peace and Security Council and other organs also took place, lending the event all the trappings of a normal AU summit.
The aim of limiting AU summits to only one per year was therefore, to an extent, undermined by the decision to launch the AfCFTA, championed by Niger’s President Mahamadou Issouffou, in Niamey. The first Mid-Year Coordination Meeting between the AU and regional economic communities, which was supposed to replace the Assembly, was reduced to a side event and barely lasted a few hours.
From this perspective, and from other decisions at the summit that were either not taken or postponed, the Niamey meeting was only partially a manifestation of the implementation of the AU reforms.
The cost of hosting the Niamey summit was also very high for the host country, which had decided to build a new conference centre and luxury hotels, some of which were not completed by the time the summit took place. One of the aims of the AU reforms is to bring the AU closer to the people and while decentralising the activities of the union is important, civil society organisations are concerned about decisions on spending by cash-strapped African countries.
In the draft decisions of the executive council in Niamey, it is recommended that the AUC ‘take into consideration the principles of cost efficiency, equity and regional rotation’ when holding meetings outside the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Other decisions only partially implemented
Strengthening the AUC and streamlining the activities of the summits was one of the cornerstones of the AU reforms, adopted in January 2017. They also include: focusing the AU on key priorities with a continental scope; realigning AU institutions in order to deliver against those priorities; managing the business of the AU efficiently and effectively at both the political and operational levels; and financing the AU sustainably and with the full ownership of the member states.
Concerning the restructuring of the commission, details of its implementation that were supposed to have been finalised by the executive council in Niamey were pushed to the next ordinary summit in January 2020 in Addis Ababa.
It has already been decided to reduce the number of AU departments and commissioners from eight to six by merging the departments of peace and security and of political affairs. It is therefore crucial that the decisions on the details of the restructuring are made soon, so that the process of selecting the 2021 commission can start in January 2020.
In addition, there were again divisions among member states on the question of partnerships. The original reforms aimed at an agreement where ‘Africa should speak with one voice’. The intention was that the AU troika (or the AU bureau of five heads of state) and the AUC would represent the continent during some of these meetings with outside partners, particularly when Africa was called to meet with only one country.
Consensus has already been reached on allowing all countries to attend meetings with similar large groupings such as the European Union or the League of Arab States. Some also agree that existing partnerships such as those with China (FOCAC) and Japan (TICAD) should be kept intact.
However, there is no consensus on who should represent the continent at summits with single countries such as Russia, Turkey, the United States or even France, which has held France–Africa summits for many years now. Many heads of state believe they should not be sidelined in favour of a smaller structure that does not necessarily represent their interests.
A reduced budget
According to the draft decisions of the executive council, the budget of the AUC was again reduced from the previous year, this time by around US$40 million to US$647 million, from US$681 million last year. This was done by cutting out duplication and through better management of the AUC – a crucial part of the reforms.
The Permanent Representatives’ Committee (ambassadors) also presented a report by external auditors at the summit. The report revealed major weaknesses in the accounting practices of the AUC and its various organs. Clearly, the call for the AU’s self-funding goes hand in hand with greater accountability and transparency.
In his speech to members of the executive council in Niamey, AUC chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said the commission took note of the findings of the external auditors and was putting in place measures to improve the situation and sanction those responsible for wrongdoing.
While the 0.2% levy on imports to fund the AU – one of the initial cornerstones of the reforms – has not been universally implemented, some momentum was created by the reforms to ensure a steady increase in members paying their assessed contributions to the AU. The contributions of member states increased in the 2019 and 2020 budgets to around 40%, from a low of 27% for the 2018 budget.
More money for the Peace Fund
It was also announced in Niamey that the AU Peace Fund had grown substantially to US$120.7 million. In his speech Mahamat said the Peace Fund was ‘an instrument of sovereignty’ and would make it possible for Africa to ensure its active presence in conflict areas, and to work towards preventing conflicts.
While the modalities of accessing and managing the fund have not yet been clarified, this could give mediation and other conflict-prevention efforts by the AU an important boost. For example, thanks to the Peace Fund the AU will be able to mediate in crises such as in Sudan or the Central African Republic without having to ask partners for funding. This is certainly significant.
Focus on silencing the guns
It was also decided at the summit that the theme for 2020 would be ‘Silencing the guns: creating conducive decisions for Africa’s development’. This theme is in line with the aims of Agenda 2063 that involved silencing the guns by 2020. Although this milestone will be impossible to achieve, the aim is to take stock of the progress made by the AU and to devise new strategies to achieve peace on the continent.
Going forward, the challenge for the AU will be to continue with the implementation of the reforms and to sanction those member states that do not comply with continental agreements such as the self-financing of the AU. The outcomes of the Niamey summit show that reaching consensus on key issues remains an obstacle to reforming the AU.