The slow pace of 'changing mindsets' on AU reform

Heads of state decided to merge the departments of peace and security and political affairs to streamline the AU Commission.

African Union (AU) heads of state met in Addis Ababa on 17 and 18 November for an extraordinary summit on the AU reforms. While some progress was made, the success of the reforms will be in their implementation.

There was more than a hint of frustration in the air when AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat spoke to the media at the end of the 11th extraordinary summit on 18 November 2018. ‘Time is running out. We realise that the world is changing and individually we no longer mean anything,’ Mahamat said after a gruelling day of discussions in which the closing ceremony was delayed by more than three hours. ‘The pace at which we’re doing things is not sufficient,’ he added.

Mahamat said that the commission and Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s reform team had worked extremely hard to finalise the details of the various reforms launched in July 2016. In 2018 more than 10 meetings were held in Kigali to discuss the reforms, including the financing of the AU, and yet, by mid-November, close to the end of the AU’s financial year, only 50% of member states had paid their dues. ‘How do you want the commission to function?’ asked Mahamat. Making the AU financially self-sufficient has been one of the key aims of the reforms, yet so far only around half of AU members are implementing the 0.2% levy on imports to finance the organisation.

By mid-November only 50% of member states had paid their dues

Kagame, who chaired the summit, was slightly more resigned and spoke at the press conference about ‘changing mindsets in Africa’ and accepting that ‘not everyone will move at the same pace’. The decision to call heads of state to Addis Ababa for a fourth AU summit in one year had always been something of a gamble.

In the end, little new momentum was achieved on the main outstanding issues, such as the appointment vs. election of the leadership of the AU Commission. The initial reforms envisaged a merit-based system where commissioners would be appointed by the chairperson according to their competencies. It was finally decided that the chairperson, deputy chairperson and six commissioners would in future still be elected by member states, albeit through a more rigorous process than in the past.

Reducing the size of the AU Commission

The heads of state did sign off on reducing the number of AU commissions from eight to six. At this stage, the proposed commissions are: Political Affairs, Peace and Security; Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and the Environment; Economic Development, Trade and Industry and Mineral Resources; Education, Science, Technology and Innovation; Infrastructure and Energy; and Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development. 

A key change is the merging of the departments of peace and security and political affairs. Some member states believe this will reduce overlap and allow the AU to better tackle structural drivers of conflict rather than narrowly focusing on security and peacekeeping. This also harks back to the structure of the Organization for African Unity.

A key change is the merging of the departments of peace and security and political affairs

Mahamat has been tasked to present the details of the new structure at the mid-2019 summit, but it will only be in place when the new AU Commission takes over in 2021. The vetting process and regional nominations of candidates for these positions should start in early 2020.

Much was also made at the summit about a decision to strengthen sanctions against countries that do not pay their membership fees. This included reducing the number of defaults – from five to two years –  that would lead to a total suspension from the organisation’s activities. While, as Mahamat pointed out, such sanctions already exist, they have seldom been imposed. As with many other aspects of the AU reforms, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Will there be only one summit in 2019?

As a result, 2019 will be an indicative year for the reforms. For example, the decision adopted in January 2017 to hold only one regular AU summit instead of two will again be tested when Niger organises the mid-2019 summit. The mid-year summit is supposed to be a very small summit between the AU chairperson, the commission and the heads of the regional economic communities (RECs) recognised by the AU.  

It was understood that this reform would kick in as soon as 2018, but the recent summit in Mauritania in June/July was no different from the past, with all African heads of state invited. It remains to be seen, then, whether Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou will be happy to host a small summit or whether he will succumb to the temptation and invite all his fellow heads of state as well. Since the host foots a large part of the bill, it will be difficult for the AU to impose the new formula if there is resistance to this change.

It remains to be seen whether Niger’s President Issoufou will be happy to host a small summit

At the next summit, in February 2019, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is taking over the rotating chairpersonship from Kagame. It remains to be seen to what extent Egypt, generally one of the less proactive AU member states, will make sure these reforms are in fact carried out.

One definite sign of progress is the step taken with the AU Peace Fund, which has been in existence for a long time but only now gained momentum thanks to the efforts of former African Development Bank president Donald Kaberuka. It was announced at the summit that the Peace Fund now had US$60 million in the kitty for important AU peace and security efforts such as mediation. It still has a long way to go before the planned US$400 million that Kaberuka spoke of initially, but this is a much better situation than having no funds at all.

It was announced at the summit that the Peace Fund now had US$60 million in the kitty

Pushback on ACP–EU negotiations

The one major shift that Kagame and Mahamat fought for since the beginning of the reforms was an agreement that the AU should speak with one voice and represent the continent on the world stage. This has so far not been achieved.

At the extraordinary summit it was decided to maintain the original African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) team, led by Togo, to negotiate with the European Union (EU) about the post-Cotonou agreement, which should kick in by 2020. This decision brought to an end a long and tough debate within the AU between those, led by Mahamat and Kagame, who wanted to see Africa negotiate this new agreement as a united body and those in favour of the ACP structure (which excludes, notably, all of North Africa). In fact, the pushback on earlier decisions regarding the common African position on negotiations with the EU could be one of the main reasons for Mahamat’s frustration at the closing ceremony.

The pushback on earlier decisions regarding negotiations with the EU could be the reason for Mahamat’s frustration

In a report tabled at the Nouakchott summit in July, Mahamat argued strongly for an AU–EU framework to determine the new ‘continent-to-continent’ relationship and set out a roadmap for the implementation of the common position in this regard. He said Africa’s solidarity with countries in the Pacific and Caribbean should not depend on their joint relationship with Europe and that ‘the successor to the Cotonou Agreement cannot be based on a linear extension of the current arrangements, thematically or geographically’.

Mahamat also argued that the creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area gave added impetus to the need for Africa to negotiate with one voice.

In contrast, those in favour of the ACP negotiations believed time was running out, and that the current structures were already in place. This group was supported by the EU. They also said that the current negotiating team had vast experience in negotiating on these issues. In fact, a mandate for negotiations had already been adopted by the ACP council of ministers at the end of May 2018. This position has now prevailed.

A two-track process would be followed where the AU would remain informed and involved

Insiders who worked closely with Mahamat on the issue said that all was not lost and that a two-track process would be followed where the AU would remain informed and involved in the negotiations with the EU, within the framework of the AU–EU agreement adopted in Abidjan in November last year. Symbolically, however, it does demonstrate the difficulties of getting 55 member states of an inter-governmental organisation, with no real supra-national powers, to agree to work together.

Apart from the implementation of the decisions on sanctions for non-payment of dues, the holding of one summit and the more rigorous election process for top leadership positions, the reforms of the key organs of the AU are also still a work in progress.

An earlier decision to change the NEPAD Secretariat into the African Development Agency was reconfirmed at the summit and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) saw its budget integrated into that of the AU Commission.

The tricky relationship between the AU and the RECs, as well as the status of other organs such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, is still outstanding and will have to be tackled some time in the coming months. The effectiveness of these organs is crucial for the AU to be seen as an organisation committed to serving the continent’s citizens and upholding shared values such as democracy and human rights, enshrined in its Constitutive Act.

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