The African Union: Can It Go Beyond The Rhetoric?


The African Union was proudly launched in Durban on 9 July 2002. It was meant to build on the progress achieved by its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to consolidate further Africa’s political and economic integration. Alongside the Heads of State and Government, Ministers and other officials who had converged in the South African city to mark the occasion, members of the public (South African in its large majority) were invited into the ABSA stadium to witness the official birth of the African Union. However, few observers, if any at all, believed then and even more so now, that this would be a Union of the people, a Union which, unlike the OAU, would shatter the widely-held view that the Organisation was but an exclusive club of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers and officials.


A major objective of the OAU was the collective struggle for national liberation from colonialism and defence of national sovereignty. The African Union, for its part, ushered in a new era and shifted gear having regard to its prime objectives: that of enabling Africa to meet the challenges of the 21st Century and the strengthening of its position within the global economy and the international community. However, both institutions shared a commonality of purpose. Unity and solidarity were and remain the underlying motivation, at least professed, for much of the rhetoric and undertakings of the OAU and the AU. In sum, though both can trace their foundations on these bedrocks, the African leadership had nonetheless and, in the face of the changing circumstances of the time, come to the conclusion that the moment was ripe to give a fresh fillip to their ambition for the continent.
Momentarily propelled by the forceful nature of a resurgent pan-Africanism at the close of the last century, and precisely because of the dictates of the new world institutional architecture that had emerged with the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade earlier, the collective African leadership worked feverishly.
It rapidly concluded that the time of the African Union had come. Much of the debate, at that time, was centred on the emergence, the awakening or the renaissance of the African continent. Even the leader articles carried by the newspapers and magazines of international repute had substituted their clichés of doom and dejection for the continent from depressive titles like Hopeless Continent, A Continent of Long Snakes and Small Ladders to Africa Rising, African Renaissance and Emerging Africa, to the extent that the 21st Century was described as that of Africa.

Was the AU then going to be the platform for a renascent popular pan-Africanism, based on new encouraging political and socioeconomic fundamentals? Was the transformation from the OAU to the AU sufficiently imbued by a new cross cutting vigour to usher the premier institution of Africa into the 21st Century and assume its rightful place on the international scene? Was the AU sufficiently motivated and appropriately armed to involve the African citizenry in its establishment, its decision-making process, its functioning? How inclusive would it be in contrast to the OAU, which had as single source of authority, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government? Would it be able to address the daunting challenges faced by the continent and its peoples, chart its way onto sustainable development and progress and seize the opportunities that present themselves? Have the principles of Unity and Solidarity guided and informed the actions of Africa on the international front since the advent of the AU?

This Paper will attempt to answer these questions while raising others, review the journey covered so far and propose, to the extent possible, the way forward. It is the result of a desk research, informed by my own reflections and past writings and a host of materials readily available on the subject. Obviously, given the time available for the presentation and interaction, it can hardly be exhaustive. Hopefully, at the end of the exercise we would have attained the objective of titillating our collective reflections on a continent, ourcontinent that continues to fascinate many, albeit differently.


On 25th May 1963, 32 African Heads of State and Government gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and founded the OAU. They were affectionately referred to as the Founding Fathers of contemporary Africa. Its Charter enjoined the fledgling Organisation to address two major challenges: the total liberation of the Continent from colonialism and its socioeconomic development. It should be underscored that the OAU was established as an attempt at putting supra-nationalism as the rallying vision for achieving true political and economic independence of Africa. It was, however, the result of a compromise between two groups of states known as the Casablanca Group and the Monrovia Group. The Casablanca Group favoured the rapid political unification of the continent through the setting up of the United States of Africa with a Central Government, thus in effect, doing away with the artificial borders imposed by colonial powers. The Monrovia Group, on the other hand, preferred a loose Organisation, favouring a gradual approach towards political and economic integration. Though the cornerstone of the OAU was unity and solidarity, it was conceived primarily as an inter-governmental framework of cooperation, based on the strict respect of colonial borders and non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States.
If, at the political level, one could unanimously claim that the OAU had fulfilled its mandate of political liberation of all African countries and the dismantling of the apartheid system in Southern Africa, the notion of unanimity disappears when it comes to evaluating its performance at the socioeconomic level. Of course, issues like Western Sahara and the problem of territorial integrity of Mauritius remain unfinished business.

At the close of the last century, notwithstanding the thirty-seven years of existence of the OAU, Africa remained anchored in the cul-de-sac of abject poverty and misery. It trailed and lagged behind in all global human index reports. The world, on the other hand, was moving on. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had put an end to the Cold War as we had lived it then. Africa was no longer the theatre of the East-West rivalries that had hitherto made it possible for a number of its countries to bargain their way to certain economic and financial advantages, including handouts. Globalisation had set in firmly and, in its wake, more African countries were being left out. They were not adequately equipped to face the changing circumstances punctuated by the new parameters of the emerging world economic architecture and the re-engineering of international relations. Similarly, the implementation of the Abuja Treaty establishing the African Economic Community (AEC), adopted in June 1991 with an entry into force in May 1994, turned out to be painfully slow and registered rather poor tangible results. No doubt, a lack of political will and the absence of awareness within the larger segment of the African population as to the objectives and benefits of the African Economic Community explained and contributed to the scanty progress recorded. A proliferation of Regional Economic Communities, recognised as building blocs of the AEC, their slow or inadequate movement through the various stages laid down in the Abuja Treaty, as well as the inability of the OAU/AEC to harmonise and rationalise them were aggravating factors.

The Birth of the African Union

It was in such a context that the African leadership rose to the challenges once again. In their collective wisdom, they took a first giant step at the 4th Extraordinary Summit of the OAU on 9.9.99, in Sirte, Libya and called for the establishment of the African Union. Heads of State and Government had come to the conclusion that the OAU, having fulfilled a major component of its mandate, was no longer adequately armed to address the new set of political, economic and social challenges that the continent faced in a rapidly globalising world. Moreover, it was felt that the slow pace of continental integration demanded a bolder response. The conclusion was that a re-energised continental organisation, with an expanded mandate and a new institutional framework, capable of addressing the emerging challenges, was imperative and that time was of the essence. It must be recognised that the main advocate of this thrust forward was Muammar Kadhafi, the maverick Libyan Leader. Hence, in July 2000, at its 36th Ordinary Session held in Lomé, Togo, the OAU Summit adopted the Constitutive Act of the AU.

The AU was conceived with a two-pronged mandate, namely, to accelerate the political and the socioeconomic integration of the continent. Principles that had prevailed under the OAU, namely sovereign equality and interdependence of Member States; respect of existing borders; peaceful resolution of conflicts; respect of democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance, among others, would continue to guide the AU. However, it embraced the concept of “non-indifference” by adopting the principle of the right of intervention in a Member State, should it be the theatre of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

On 26 May 2001, (a month after the 36th Instrument of ratification was deposited), the Constitutive Act entered into force. At the OAU Summit in Lusaka, Zambia, in July 2001, the OAU Secretariat was tasked with preparations for the establishment of the African Union, with a mandate to submit appropriate transitional proposals at the ensuing Summit. Thus, in July 2002, in Durban, South Africa, the last chapter of the OAU was finally closed after its 38th Summit. The AU was launched and held its first Summit in the same city. In Maputo, Mozambique, in 2003, following an intensely active transition period, its first college of Commissioners, including the Chairperson and the Deputy, was duly elected.

Vision of the African Union

The Vision of the African Union was defined as that of an Africa integrated, prosperous and peaceful, an Africa driven by its own citizens, a dynamic force in the global arena.

Almost fifteen years later, the excitement and elation triggered by the birth of the AU have evaporated. The fact is that the African Union, much like its predecessor, has been turned, regrettably, into an institution falling within the exclusive ambit of the official establishment. To date, civil society is still struggling to find a more influential voice and be accorded a legitimate say in the deliberations and decision-making process of the AU. Yet, when the AU was being conceptualised, one of the underlying forces was precisely to ensure that it does not inherit the mantle of exclusivity of officialdom that the OAU had seen itself wrapped with. Indeed, much was made of the desire for the AU not to become a Club or Syndicate of Heads of State and Government. It was conceived to be more encompassing and be a people-oriented institution. The time had been considered ripe for the involvement of the African citizenry in the construction and emergence of an institution that would respond to their legitimate aspirations. The wind of democracy had gathered momentum throughout the continent. More and more multi-party elections were being held. This fact alone had started to give the African a hope for his future. He felt that at long last, short of being the master of his destiny, he would have the opportunity to shape it, have a compelling voice in the affairs, not only of the country he lived in but also in those of the continent.

While the AU can be credited to have set up the institutions that, on paper, would cater for such popular aspirations, in practice and in effect, they have so far failed to live up to expectations and deliver as intended. The main reason for this state of affairs is that decision-making has remained the prerogative of officialdom. All too often, even the feeble attempts of the institutions like the African Union ECOSOCC and the Pan-African Parliament to inject into the process have either been paid scanty attention, if any at all, or merely resisted and discarded outright. The urge to control is simply too great.

Collective Wisdom

One factor that goes to the credit of our Heads of State and Government is that they are always keen to project the image of a group willing to go forward and adopt decisions meant to attain the objectives they set for Africa. The institutional history of the continent is replete with examples of the collective wisdom that they often display. It is one thing to be able to take decisions and set up institutions and other structures. It is another ball game altogether to translate those decisions concretely and get the institutions to deliver and the structures to perform as intended, not to mention the resolve to resist pressure from outside forces whose interest would not be served by such determined objectives.

The births of the OAU and later of the AU were far from smooth ones. Resistance came from both within and outside of the continent. Throughout the institutional evolution of Africa, aptly described as defining moments in Africa’s long quest for unity and integration, similar obstacles were encountered. It is appropriate to name a few of those: The adoption in 1980 of the Lagos Plan of Action and the Final Act of Lagos; the signing of the Abuja Treaty in 1991 and its coming into force in 1994; the Sirte Declaration of 1999 and the adoption of the Constitutive Act of the AU in 2000; and the launching of the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001. These can be labelled as Africa’s own bold statement of a readiness to take its destiny into its own hands when faced by the adversities and structural injustices of the world economic order.

But, the greatest challenge of all has been, and remains the implementation of the decisions taken, coupled with the need to honour one’s commitments and obligations to allow the machinery to be reasonably oiled to attain the goals set, with each stakeholder playing its partition.

African leadership cannot be accused of not displaying collective wisdom. In a book I wrote and published in 1997, barely two years after I had assumed the elective post of Assistant Secretary General of the OAU, I said that on major policy issues, while there was consensus, curiously enough, the consensus existed in a strategy vacuum.There was too much concern about keeping the ship of policy reform afloat and too little attention or commitment to its direction and destination. The book, under the title “Policy Consensus, Strategy Vacuum; A Pan-African Vision for the 21st Century” makes the case for regional integration as the way forward for Africa. Today, that mantra still holds good.

Institutional Reform

It is a matter of concern that the AU appears to have gradually slipped into the same comfort of keeping the policy ship afloat without strategic direction. Indeed, that alarming situation of the AU, barely four years after its inception, led some Heads of State and Government under the leadership of then President Kufuor of Ghana to set up an independent High Level Panel of Eminent African Personalities to carry out a broad-based audit of the Union. The Panel started its assignment in September 2007. Three months of intensive work later, including interactive sessions with and interviews of all stakeholders, it submitted its report.

The recommendations that emerged from the audit were intended “to revamp the Organs and institutions of the Union so as to foster African unity and fast-track the political and economic process”. The Panel, alive to the dynamics of the development process and mindful of the need for constant adjustment in the AU’s strategic direction, recommended a regular five-yearly audit. The Panel, while presenting its report averred: “Without doubt, the transformation process needs to be accelerated most urgently, and this will not happen by chance. To join the rich world and do away with the toga of dependency, political, structural and economic transformation must take place.” The Panel further advocated the appropriation of that transformation process based on “ .… the three pillars of the democratisation of the political and development process, national and continental collective self-reliance and the restitution of an African indigenous social democratic order. Without this, the promotion of African solidarity and acceptance of the oneness of the African humanity will be impossible to achieve.” The Panel concluded by stating….“If the African Union we seek is to become a reality, it must be a union of the peoples of Africa and not just a union of African States and Governments.”

The report, which addresses the challenges and opportunities faced by the African Union, as indeed its shortcomings, both structurally and behaviourally, was perhaps too bold and forthcoming in its findings and recommendations. It laid bare its conclusions in as direct and forceful a manner as possible without pulling any punches. The consequence was that because of its forthright approach, some, who felt threatened by the solutions and recommendations proposed, manoeuvred to have the report taken note of with no debate on its findings, let aside the programme and plan of action it proposed for implementation. Over the years since then, certain recommendations have been addressed in a piecemeal manner whereas the report was holistic in perspective.

Much of the Panel’s conclusions remain valid today. The Assembly, as the Supreme Organ of the Union could have done more in providing leadership in the acceleration of the integration process. Similarly, there is a need for the Executive Council to be optimised and focused. The working methods of the Organs and institutions of the Union require streamlining if they are to deliver more efficiently. The Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC) has emerged as the principal interface between the Commission and Member States. However, all too often it acts as an institutional opposition and slows down the movement of the Commission. Its oversight and advisory functions need to be adjusted to make it less concerned with the day to day running of the Commission. The tendency of the superior bodies, that is, the Assembly and the Executive Council, to delegate many of the more complex issues requiring policy direction to the lower bodies has literally undermined the efficacy of the AU.

Already, the diversion of the leadership’s attention from urgent substantive matters of concern to the continent to the question of the form continental integration should take, left the AU to proceed in an unwieldy fashion. More than forty years later, at the birth of the AU, the debate was still crystallised between those who were pushing for immediate integration and those who supported gradual integration. Khadafi led the group that favoured the establishment of a United States of Africa with a continental Government. Much time was devoted to this hardly productive debate. In the process, the Commission of the AU found itself caught in the uncertainties thus released. Its agenda was diluted and its leadership suffered.

Weak Leadership

In fact, there remains today a lack of clarity in the set up of the Commission’s leadership. The procedures for the selection of the Commissioners, save for those laid down for the election of the Chairperson and that of the Deputy, are rather onerous. Despite strong recommendations from the Transition Team and later by the High Level Panel to have all Commissioners elected without specific portfolios thereby enabling the Chairperson to appoint his/her cabinet from among those elected on the basis of their aptitudes, it was decided to elect them to specific portfolios from the very onset. This has led to a non-collegial attitude being instilled at the helm of the Commission. The Chairperson can hardly command control over the Commissioners. In such circumstances, the temptation has been great among Chairpersons to establish their own private cabinet by having recourse to individuals not directly linked to the Commission, with very dire consequences on intra-Commission relationship. Similarly, its wide-ranging unfocused activities are hardly conducive to the emergence of the serious results-oriented institution originally envisaged.

Citizens-based Institutions

The rush for the establishment of the Pan-African Parliament has not had the expected result. It has no legislative power as yet though it has been in existence since 2004. It does not even debate the yearly budget of the AU, let alone debating and pronouncing itself on issues like trade instruments of direct concern to the Continent. It has yet to have a voice in the decision-making process of the AU. So far, its Parliamentarians are a collection of representatives from national parliaments with no institutionalised accountability of their participation.

The same can be said of the ECOSOCC, which still has to prove its mettle. Set up as an advisory organ to the AU, little consideration, if any at all, is accorded to it. Its existence is not yet known beyond certain national civil society organisations, which have held elections to send representatives to that Organ. Since its inception in 2004, ECOSOCC is still at its 2nd General Assembly whereas its statutes call for a General Assembly meeting every two years. These are but two examples of the citizen-based institutions struggling to take off.

Clearly, there remains a deficit in the effective operationalisation of the Organs enumerated in the Constitutive Act of the AU. Simply setting up institutions because they are catered for in the Constitutive Act is not sufficient to make the AU dynamic and responsive to the aspirations of the people. They must be made to perform and, to achieve that objective they must be given the means to function both at human resource and financial levels.

Financial Resources

One of the huge constraints, if not the constraint that has stumped the progress of the AU is undoubtedly its incapacity to raise the funds necessary to meet its ambitious objectives. While, in 2004, the Summit approved a budget of 43 million US$, the provision has since grown exponentially to reach the astronomical sum of more than 782 million US$. But the abhorrent part is that more than 70% of that budget is to be secured from International Partners to fund the various programmes adopted. As long as the AU does not become independent financially, it will be well nigh impossible for it to deliver on its objectives. It will continue to succumb to the diktats of its professed partners.

On that score, it is comforting to note that at long last, after a number of interminable studies and recommendations, the African leadership has taken a decision to fund the AU programmes and activities by introducing a 0.2 % levy, with effect from 2017, on all eligible goods imported into the continent. With a committed engagement to assiduously implement the decision, the AU can effectively rid itself of the burden and stress to raise the funds necessary to implement its 2063 Agenda and all of its programmes. *


The same Summit has yet again exhorted Member States to speak with one voice on all issues related to trade negotiations with third parties. The record of the AU on this scoreboard leaves to be desired, save for a couple of instances during the Seattle and Cancun WTO meetings. Broken ranks have often denied Africa of important positions of leadership in international fora, not least of all, at the helm of the WTO.

In the final analysis, the AU has to, (as recommended by the High Level Panel referred to earlier), constantly review itself to ensure that it is in consonance with the world designs. It is a welcome decision that the President of Rwanda has been given the responsibility of leading the ongoing institutional reform of the Union. However, it is highly desirable that the scope of the assignment is not limited and that this exercise does not end up, yet again, as a well-documented report on the shelves of the AU, with no commitment for implementation.

Africa has no dearth of competencies. A recent proof of that, if at all required, is the manner in which negotiations are being held to concretise the Continental Free Trade Area by 2017. The issue, yet again, is not the well-intentioned Declarations, Decisions and Resolutions we adopt but in the demonstration of political will to honour our undertakings and implement our decisions in a timely and committed way.
The search for the realisation of pan-Africanism is on and must occupy centre stage in our actions at national, regional and continental levels. There is no denying the fact that establishing strong ethical and moral values in the conduct of public affairs in the Member States, continues to prove extremely difficult and elusive. One can well, therefore, imagine the mammoth task of pursuing that objective at the pan-African level.

Union of the peoples

The African Union, for all its shortcomings and the justifiable criticism laid at its doorsteps, is the vector through which that aspiration can be achieved. That is why we need a quality of leadership that is both visionary and action-oriented, in our member states as in our continental institutions. The African citizenry must be allowed and made to participate in the efforts aimed at transforming the continent’s political and socioeconomic landscape and thus, deliver it from the naive belief that somehow Africa’s destiny lies in external hands. The AU must, in effect, be a ‘Union of the peoples of Africa and not limited to being a Union of African States and Governments’!

Then and only then, can one justifiably ascertain that, indeed, the African Union has the capacity to move beyond the rhetoric!

Vijay Makhan
30 September 2016.

Source: Le Militant

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