At the very time the African Union is most needed to manage crises, many of its operations have been put on hold.
In Africa's struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19, the African Union (AU) has so far played an important role. After the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019, the AU's African Centre for Disease Control (CDC) worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to advise African governments and build their capacity in preparation.
This planning helped many African countries act much earlier and more decisively than those elsewhere, often closing borders and introducing social distancing measures when just a handful of cases had been confirmed. The African CDC has deployed experts and coordinated the distribution of 20,000 test kits, 100,000 medical masks and 1,000 protective suits and face shields donated by Jack Ma's Alibaba Foundation. By pooling expertise, the AU has provided important technical assistance to member-states, facilitated coordination, and helped mobilise international support.
These efforts have given African countries crucial support in combating COVID-19. But the measures they have led to - such as travel restrictions and social distancing measures - have also constrained the AU's capacity going forwards.
On 13 March, the AU suspended all meetings until further notice. High-level initiatives such as the Silencing the Guns campaign and the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) have effectively been put on hold. Trading within the AfCFTA had been slated for July 2020 but will now likely be postponed.
The daily functioning of the AU Commission has also been significantly affected. Its offices across Africa have been locked down and travel suspended. AU officials are trying to work from home on projects that can be done remotely, but frequent power cuts and unreliable internet access in many countries makes that difficult.
The AU's Peace and Security Council (PSC) meanwhile has suspended its work. This pause will last until at least mid-April, but with the spread of coronavirus increasing, it is unlikely the body will be able to resume regular meetings anytime soon. This puts some critically important programmes on hold. Among other things, the PSC had been working to deploy a 3,000-strong force in the Sahel, implement South Sudan's peace agreement, and replace the mission in Darfur.
The AU's specific operations are also facing new challenges under COVID-19. Its mission in Somalia (AMISOM), for example, continues to undertake essential tasks as well as now implementing measures to help contain the virus. All rotations and new deployments have been suspended, while non-critical staff have been moved out of Mogadishu.
Adapt and start working again
The AU and its member states have been relatively quick to take measures to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. These actions will probably save many thousands of lives. But they have also disrupted the AU's other similarly life-saving initiatives that cannot wait until things are back to normal.
No one yet knows when the coronavirus crisis will be over, but it is unlikely to be for at least several months. And in this period of instability, many fragile situations will deteriorate. The disease will push weak health care systems to their limit and economies will suffer. This will expose and compound existing vulnerabilities, especially in conflict-affected areas. In some cases, new social unrest or violent conflicts will emerge.
At the very time when the AU's ability to prevent and manage such challenges is needed, many of the body's operations have been suspended. It is crucial that the AU stops putting its activities on hold and instead finds new ways to continue its work. It must adapt, and start working again.
This will be challenging for an intergovernmental organisation dependent on its dozens of member-states for their inputs, validation, approval and funding. But there are alternatives. For instance, member-states could change the way they achieve oversight, switching from physical meetings to written inputs and remote meetings. The UN Security Council, facing similar limitations, has resorted to such measures, using technical rollovers when mandate renewals are due and voting in writing when needed.
The AU Commission needs to revisit its work plan to determine which programmes are critical to continue over the coming months and which can be suspended, freeing up funds and staff for COVID-19 related programming. The AU will need to take some tough decisions, re-organise itself around a smaller portfolio of critical priorities, and think creatively about how it can continue to operate in this uncertain and unusual time in which it is more important than ever.