SEATTLE — Twenty years after African leaders issued a Declaration calling for the establishment of an African Union (AU) intended to accelerate the process of integration in the continent and to enable it to play its rightful role in the global economy, these goals remain unachieved as a change of leadership raises new questions over the future of the organization.
Origins of the African Union
The African Union originated as the Organization of African Unity in 1963, a loose confederation of 32 African states seeking to rebuild the continent from the fading ashes of imperialism. By 1999, almost the entire African continent was represented in the organization, and the decision to evolve into a full political union marked a visionary shift away from focusing on liberation movements toward creating a politically and economically unified African bloc. In a vision spearhead by Libyan leader at the time, Muammar al-Gaddafi, the African Union was formed to imitate the European Union, establishing its own central bank, legislative assembly and the court of justice.
The Progress of the Organization
Twenty years later and progress toward establishing the union’s vital institutional structures has been slow. Its faltering headway is neither due to lack of ambition or lack of clarity, at least in official statements. By 2063, the African Union hopes to realize eight core aspirations that include attaining a peaceful, secure and prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development and an integrated continent, politically united. Concrete steps in this plan include establishing a common currency and a pan-African military force. Beyond politics and economics, the African Union also aims to cultivate and propagate a distinctly African culture and identity.
Progress for the African Union has repeatedly been held up by warfare and political infighting, both within and across member states. Established in 2004, the AU Peace and Security Council was created for the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts in Africa, and was intended to help lay the groundwork for the union’s political and economic ambitions.
The Council has the authority to deploy military forces in situations involving genocide and crimes against humanity and can authorize peace-keeping missions. But in its current form, the council has insufficient influence to serve as a major peace-making force in the African Continent. Plans for establishing an African Standby Force (ASF) of rapid-response troops would improve the council’s position if actualized, but projected deadlines for the force’s assembly have repeatedly failed to be met, and its current status remains unclear.
The Future of the African Union
On 10 February 2019, AU summit was held in Ethiopia. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt assumed the chair from President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. In his one year term, Kagame pushed for greater African economic independence, and for structural reforms to streamline and economize the Union’s convening agenda. Kagame also worked to get members to comply with a 0.2 percent import levy on selected foreign goods earmarked as revenue for the African Union and to boost African production. But a key weakness of the AU legislative apparatus is that its enactments are legally non-binding for member countries. Those who champion Kagame’s reform efforts are worried Al-Sisi will neglect to continue them and instead focus on developing the AU’s economic union and a common currency.
Some observers suggest the biggest question over the future of the African Union is not political direction or even institutional evolution, but a matter of the political will of the continent’s elites. African historian Dr. Jean-Jacques Sène attributes the AU’s recent inertia to ceremonial grandstanding among a bourgeoisie deeply attached to its privileges. No amount of restructuring will be able to resolve the obstacle of poor leadership, but in a more optimistic note, Liesl Louw-Vaudran of the Institute of Security Studies told Quartz Africa that there are good people working within in the commission who can effect change in spite of leadership.
While the future of the African Union remains uncertain, as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently pointed out, a truce between Ethiopia and Eritrea, peaceful elections in Mali, DR Congo and Madagascar; and peace deals in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, all suggest a wind of hope breezing across the continent.
– Jamie Wiggan