The African Union’s structures and mechanisms put to the test

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus at the beginning of the year, the African Union (AU) has been active in coordinating responses across Africa and has been praised for its quick reaction to the pandemic.

While the number of confirmed cases was still relatively low in the beginning of March 2020, compared to other parts of the world, African governments were already ordering nationwide lockdowns, restricting travel and preparing for large-scale health emergencies.

This response was largely owing to the examples already visible elsewhere in the world, but the leadership of the AU has certainly been felt to a greater extent than that of other multilateral institutions worldwide.

In some African countries there have been concerns about the role of security forces that have been given a free hand to impose restrictions, as well as haphazard measures and ‘imported solutions’, but most of the measures have been seen as in line with global best practice.

Quick reaction by the AU

Amid uncertainty and despite huge logistical constraints, the AU has reacted quickly. On February 22, when little was yet known about the spread of the disease, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) in Addis Ababa first convened ministers of health for a meeting on how governments could be assisted in responding to COVID-19.

Amid uncertainty and despite huge logistical constraints, the AU has reacted quickly

It has since given regular updates, including online press conferences with the latest figures for Africa, provided training for health workers, distributed test kits and helped to distribute healthcare equipment donated by China.

Meanwhile, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has held several video summits with African leaders to discuss responses and strategies to help Africa cope with the financial losses suffered during the pandemic. He appointed four special envoys to deal with this task, including former South African finance minister Trevor Manuel, the head of the AU Peace Fund Donald Kaberuka, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and prominent Franco-Ivorian banker Tidjane Thiam.

The AU’s visibility and early lessons

Still, not all AU departments and organs have been quick off the mark, notably when it comes to communications. Media – even in Africa – still defer to sources other than the Africa CDC for the continent’s most credible assessments. This is unfortunate, since there has clearly been close cooperation between governments and between the Africa CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions such as the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

As was the case with the Ebola epidemic valuable lessons are likely to emerge from COVID-19

As was the case with the Ebola epidemic in 2014, which led to the upscaling of the Africa CDC, valuable lessons are likely to emerge from COVID-19 for the continental institution.

One of these lessons will certainly be that physical distance is not an excuse not to meet. The various video conferences between heads of state convened by Ramaphosa, as well as ministerial meetings on an AU and regional level, certainly cost a fraction of the price of a regular summit. The UN Security Council only started its virtual meetings in mid-March, amid much controversy.

PSC holds virtual meetings

The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) also saw a pause in its activities last month, but has scheduled at least five virtual meetings for April, under the chairing of Kenya.

For now, even though AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has also supported the call by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, conflicts on the continent have not shown any sign of abating. It is therefore crucial for the PSC to continue its meetings and coordination of peacekeeping.

The COVID-19 pandemic itself is globally recognised as a peace and security issue, leading to much criticism of the UN Security Council for its lack of leadership in this regard. The PSC held a meeting on the pandemic on 14 April when it received briefings from the WHO, the Africa CDC and UNECA. No statement was available yet at the time of going to print.  

Meanwhile, on the equally important socio-economic impact of the pandemic, AU organs and agencies such as the AU Development Agency–Nepad (AUDA-Nepad) have been involved in advising and modelling scenarios for the continent’s governments to help them prepare for the future.

Preparing for known unknowns

The AUDA-Nepad has in the past few weeks helped the AU Commission to draw up a comprehensive strategy for Africa, with a focus on healthcare, food security, education, skills development and training, employment and national planning and data systems. How to prepare for the number of ‘known unknowns’ around the virus is contained in a White Paper published by the agency in the beginning of April.

The AUDA-Nepad has helped the AU Commission to draw up a comprehensive strategy for Africa

In preparation for the April spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank, AUDA-Nepad also worked with African ministers of finance on issues such as the request for a global bailout for Africa and debt relief.

So far, African leaders have lobbied for debt relief from the G20 and others. On 15 April, the G20 announced that it would freeze the debt repayments of the world’s poorest nations, including those of 40 African countries.

An AU coronavirus fund has also been set up by the AU bureau and has received over $20 million.

AUDA-Nepad CEO Ibrahim Mayaki told the PSC Report it is still extremely difficult to know what the exact economic impact of COVID-19 will be on Africa, given that projections for the European Union, the United States and others have changed dramatically in the last two months. Yet it is important for Africa to ensure it has the necessary ‘fiscal space’ to ensure the provision of adequate health services, as well as to compensate for job losses.

Since 60% of employment opportunities in Africa are in the informal sector, there will have to be massive assistance to people in these sectors. Africa also imports $50 billion worth of food every year and will thus suffer greatly owing to the disruption of trade, says Mayaki.

African responses to COVID-19 should be adapted to local conditions and include community leaders

Importantly, African responses to COVID-19 should be adapted to local conditions and include community leaders, who should be empowered to drive responses by governments, he says. This is another reminder of the crucial role of the AU and its institutions in the weeks ahead.

The African Risk Capacity (ARC), a specialised agency of the AU, has developed an insurance policy for countries that focuses on outbreaks and epidemics, with coverage of up to $200 million. The policy was geared at Ebola, meningitis, Lassa fever and Marburgh virus disease. The coverage was supposed to come online later this year, but the agency quickly shifted gear to look at how the work that had already been done on these diseases could be applied to COVID-19. This focuses, in particular, on an assessment of each African government’s readiness to deal with epidemics.

Risk profiling

According to ARC Director General Mohamed Beavogui, the agency is teaming up with the Africa CDC, the UN and others to adapt the modelling and risk profiling that is being done elsewhere in the world to African conditions. This will look not only at the capacity of governments to deliver health services but also at food security during and after the pandemic. In addition, it will help governments to do contingency planning.

Beavogui says funding for his organisation that ordinarily would have been used for travel can now be channelled into assisting with the modelling.

Mistakes are certainly being made, particularly when it comes to adopting responses that are not adapted to the specific contexts of African countries, and the worst may be yet to come. However, this is an ideal opportunity for the AU and its various structures to showcase their convening power on the continent.

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