The AU navigates the COVID-19 storm

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic the African Union (AU) has been obliged to move all of its meetings and summits in recent months online, with some success. However, it has not been all smooth sailing.

Some tricky negotiations, such as those around the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), have been delayed. The jury is also still out on whether the AU’s all-important extraordinary summit on ‘Silencing the Guns’ and the AfCFTA will be held in South Africa.

Moving to a virtual space owing to the continent-wide lockdowns has arguably created opportunities for some. It has allowed the AU Commission, member states and civil society organisations to convene meetings much faster and cheaper than would have been the case otherwise.

Lobbying in the context of multilateral diplomacy, which  by nature relies on behind-the-scenes interactions, has been more difficult

However, lobbying in the context of multilateral diplomacy, which  by nature relies on behind-the-scenes interactions, has been more difficult, although not impossible in a digital space.

No face-to-face lobbying for commission elections

One of the most important issues to be finalised by the AU this year is the election of a new AU Commission. By early September 2020, 89 candidates had thrown their hat into the ring for the six commissioner positions and there were four candidates for the position of deputy chairperson. So far, indications are that the current chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is unopposed in his bid for a second term.

A panel of eminent persons will now examine the candidates on the basis of skills and competency, together with technical experts. A final list of candidates will be drawn up for voting by the heads of state (for the chairperson and deputy chairperson) and the executive council (for commissioners) at the 34th AU Ordinary Summit in January/February 2021.

One of the most important issues to be finalised by the AU this year is the election of a new AU Commission

According to insiders, COVID-19 lockdowns and restricted travel have made lobbying for positions at the AU Commission more difficult.

While member states and the AU Commission can be congratulated for keeping to the election timetable, the fact that many officials are not in Addis Ababa and that envoys cannot travel around the continent to lobby for positions will complicate the situation for those who are vying for the various positions.

A summit on Silencing the Guns in Johannesburg?

Meanwhile, South Africa had planned on hosting the extraordinary summit on ‘Silencing the Guns’ – the AU theme for 2020 – in Cape Town on 30 May, but this has now been postponed to 5 December.

South Africa’s ambassador to Addis Ababa, Xolisa Makaya, told the PSC Report that the country was doing everything possible to make sure this was a face-to-face meeting and that delegates would be able to travel to Johannesburg.

South Africa has experienced one of the toughest lockdowns and by far the highest number of COVID-19 cases. The country announced the opening of international borders by 1 October, but a final list of countries for which borders will remain closed is yet to be published.

The aim of the summit is to discuss progress made with the 2016 Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns by Year 2020 and to address some of the crisis hotspots on the continent.

The emerging terrorism threat in Mozambique – the first such occurrence in Southern Africa – is also expected to be on the agenda of the Johannesburg summit. Many organisations and observers in Mozambique and the region have urged the AU and the regional Southern African Development Community to step in to address the insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province. 

Other issues, such as the crises in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali, are also expected to be discussed. Of the issues that were on the agenda during South Africa’s chair at the beginning of the year, notably Libya and South Sudan, not much progress has been made. President Cyril Ramaphosa has largely left these crises to other actors such as Morocco, which has been active in trying to resolve the Libyan impasse.

Ramaphosa has, however, been successful in establishing the AU as the main mediator in the crisis around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This was after the United States, the initial mediator, failed to make any headway and the issue was to be tabled for discussion by the United Nations Security Council. South Africa felt the issue should be handled by the AU.  

Ramaphosa convened several online meetings of the AU Bureau of five heads of state, as well as the concerned states. South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor and the expert negotiators on the issue have followed up on these.

Ethiopia has since managed to begin filling the dam, as it had wished to do in July 2020, but several issues remain outstanding. It was hoped a resolution could be found by the end of September.

The upheaval caused by COVID-19, as well as sporadic Internet shutdowns in Addis Ababa – which compromised the option of holding virtual meetings – also forced the postponement of two important mid-year meetings of the AU ministers of foreign affairs (the Executive Council) and the mid-year coordination meetings between the AU and the regional economic communities (RECs). These will now take place on 13–14 October and 22 October respectively.

AfCFTA negotiations delayed

Another AU extraordinary summit – on the AfCFTA – had been planned for 30 May 2020. This has been moved to 5 December, just before the Silencing the Guns summit. These will be the 13th  and 14th extraordinary summits of the AU.

Many AfCFTA issues remain outstanding and trading under the new agreement did not start on 1 July 2020, as was the plan

Many AfCFTA issues remain outstanding and trading under the new agreement did not start on 1 July 2020, as was the plan. The start of trading has now been postponed to 1 January 2021. The new headquarters of the AfCFTA Secretariat in Accra, which is led by former South African trade official Wamkele Mene, was officially inaugurated in the presence of Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo on 17 August 2020.

Experts see the AfCFTA as one of the most important achievements of the AU in recent years. They view it as a mechanism for African countries to achieve greater economic growth, which will be crucial in the post-COVID reconstruction period.

AU–EU meetings to be postponed

Crucial talks between the AU and European Union (EU) were also scheduled for the end of October, but these are likely to be postponed until 2021. The EU–AU summit is of strategic importance to both Europe and the AU, following their first commission-to-commission summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire at the end of 2017.

Outstanding issues include the harmonisation of the EU–AU strategy with the post-Cotonou negotiations being held within the framework of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states. Another tricky issue is the return of cultural goods from Europe to Africa.

A proposal is on the table for 2021 to be dubbed ‘The year of arts, culture and heritage in Africa’. If this happens, the issue of restitution is bound to be at the top of the AU’s agenda. A decision on the theme of the year will be made at the Executive Council meeting in mid-October.

Photo: Virtual Meeting of the African Union Bureau and Chairs of Regional Economic Communities | Kigali, 20 August 2020. Paul Kagame/Flickr

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