Time for AU to hear citizens’ voices

Despite some encouraging progress over the last 20 years, citizens’ participation in the affairs of the African Union (AU) has not been consistent, systematic or well organised. It remains dominated largely by international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and is principally informal, depending sometimes on whom you know and how much your organisation can spend on joint projects.

The AU’s objectives and raison d’être are to ensure its decisions and actions reflect fully the most important needs of the African people. Thus, it is necessary that the following institutions and mechanisms created to make the AU a people-driven institution be reviewed and adjusted to fit their purpose.

Pan-African Parliament

The Pan-African Parliament (PAP), the vision of African heads of state and government, was established in 2004 as an AU advisory and consultative body. Based in Midrand, South Africa, its role is to promote popular participation and representation of African people and their organisations in discussions and decisions on continental challenges.

PAP’s creation reflected a renewed confidence in Africa of parliaments’ ability to uphold good governance. PAP aspires to be an institution with full legislative powers, with members elected by universal suffrage. Certain obstacles, however, hamper the achievement of its mandate. It cannot enforce its decisions or recommendations; its powers are confined to consultation and advice. PAP members are not elected directly but nominated from national parliaments (five per country, two of whom must be women and two opposition party parliamentarians).

Institutions created to make the AU people-driven must be adjusted to fit their purpose

In 2014, the AU adopted the Malabo Protocol to give PAP some legislative powers. At the time of this analysis, only 12 members had ratified the protocol out of the 28 needed to enter it into force. This reflects the low importance member states attach to PAP issues. At this rate, it is likely to take up to 10 more years to reach this goal. African countries do not seem to accept a body that challenges their executive power.

In recent times, issues of electoral rotation, leadership contestation and financial accountability have highlighted the deep-seated challenges of PAP and the need for urgent reform to maintain relevance. If these can be overcome and PAP is able to legislate and supervise member states’ implementation of AU decisions, an opportunity will open for partnerships with African coalitions, alliances and social movements.

PAP is consciously developing new relationships and increasingly bringing civil society actors into discussions. Providing space for an autonomous civil society to connect with policymakers is a precondition for installing and deepening a democratic governance culture in Africa. All stakeholders should then engage further with PAP.

Economic, Social and Cultural Council

The Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) is an advisory structure comprising social and professional groups of AU member states. It was established in 2005 to build partnerships between African governments and civil society. Its general assembly was launched in September 2008. ECOSOCC was born of the idea that continental integration should be people-driven and built on a community-based partnership between governments and all civil society sectors.

The council’s structure, objectives and functions are stipulated in its statutes. Its mandate is to provide high-level technical input into the programmes and policies of the AU. The general assembly is the highest decision- and policymaking body, comprising all members.

The Pan-African Parliament cannot enforce its decisions; its powers are confined to consultation

To be a member of ECOSOCC, the AU demands, among other requirements, that applicants' objectives and principles be consistent with those of the AU. Applicants must be registered in a member state. Thirdly, would-be members should have a minimum of three years’ proof of registration as either an African or an African Diaspora civil society organisation (CSO) before the date of application submission. Evidence of operations is required for those years.

Even though member states and the AU itself receive and function largely on foreign funding, the latter restricts ECOSOCC membership. Only citizen formations that demonstrate that members contribute at least 50% of their budgets are eligible.

If fully functional, ECOSOCC would allow African citizens to take part in AU affairs. It is evident, however, that it has struggled to find CSOs that meet all the stringent requirements of its statutes. Having to prove that 50% of their finances are locally generated has disqualified many CSOs from membership.

If adequately built and managed, ECOSOCC could be an influential forum to inform policies and practices of the AU. It could help consolidate the organisation’s vision to establish a people-centred continental body and close the gap between continental policies and the people’s actual needs. It could be the continental champion and guarantor of civic space at all levels, empowering citizens to claim accountability for implementing AU decisions nationally.

For ECOSOCC to perform better, several factors have to be considered, including the need for regular and systematic consultation of civil society based on capacity. It is not expected to have all the knowledge, but its vocation is to find and coordinate it. This will need a regularly updated continental thematic database.

The Economic, Social and Cultural Council has struggled to find CSOs that meet its stringent requirements

The ECOSOCC policy and advisory environment needs to be clearly defined and awareness created among AU organs. Before policymakers' debates are held, social, economic and cultural issues should be systematically tabled to the council. Capacity and competency should be robust criteria in choosing cluster members and their leadership.

Livingston Formula and Maseru Conclusions

Article 20 of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) Protocol states that CSOs working in conflict-affected areas may be invited to participate in PSC discussions. In 2008, the PSC adopted the Livingston Formula as an operating mechanism for better interaction with CSOs. Unfortunately, this gave a gatekeeping role to ECOSOCC that impeded its implementation.

Many of the qualification criteria in the Livingstone Formula were impossible for CSOs to meet, especially grassroots organisations. For example, CSOs intending to interact with the PSC had to meet the membership criteria of Article 6 of ECOSOCC statutes.

Pushed by NGOs such as Oxfam and its local partners in Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the AU discussed and adopted an improved version of the Livingston Formula named the Maseru Conclusions. This allowed wider interaction with the council on which non-state actors could play a more influential role in peace and security on the continent.

Among the reasons the AU is still failing to ‘silence the guns’ is weak engagement with CSOs with local knowledge and experience from conflict-affected areas. The continental body has not tapped into the vast resources that NGOs, including community-based organisations, could offer, from early warning to contextual and conflict analysis to recovery and rebuilding.

Humanitarian NGOs and other categories of civil society often have first-hand information and solid comparative advantages in dealing with conflicts. Still, they have had limited access to the peace and security organs of the AU. On the other hand, affected populations do not have adequate structures, links and interlocutors to communicate their issues to and inform the decisions of continental and regional organs.

Africa has a proud history of civic activism. Social movements and activists were a vital component of most independence struggles and civil society was a driving force behind state formation and state-building. Greater participation in the AU is key to realising a people-centred AU.


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