Africa: The African Union At 20 Has Achieve Much but More to Do


The AU was launched in Durban 20 years ago to succeed the Organization of African Union (OAU).

African politicians and thinkers flicked off the skeptics and tossed around terms such as African renaissance, solidarity, economic cooperation, prosperity and pan-Africanism.

The new bloc aimed to give the more than one billion Africans a say in decision-making around the world. Important decisions were being made in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US.

Some progress, some criticism

The AU's architects pledged a shift to a more realistic and pragmatic stance on political cooperation and economic integration within Africa.

"Time has come that Africa must take her rightful place in global affairs," Thabo Mbeki, the first AU chair, declared in a speech at the AU's launch on July 9, 2002 in Durban.

Two decades on, the AU's record -- and its reputation -- is mixed.

Some experts see significant progress while Africa's citizens are often quick to dismiss the bloc as too weak and too slow to respond to crises on the continent.

"The AU has helped African countries become more active and assertive in the decision-making process around the world," said international relations expert Thomas Kwasi Tieku.

"This creates an imput legitimacy for international decision-making outcomes," he told DW.

Ghana's Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, Harriet Sena Siaw-Boateng, reflected on the AU at a public webinar hosted this week by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a South African-based think tank.

"It's becoming more difficult for European countries to exploit or engineer divisions among African countries. In some cases it is the natural consequence of a stronger continental body," Ambassador Siaw-Boateng said.

AU influence in Africa

International relations expert Tieku believes the AU has also had a "positive influence" on spreading liberal values of democracy, such as "free elections, transparency and anti-coup norms."

"Prior to the formation of the AU, the word democracy was very controversial, very contested, and a number of African elites associated it with colonialism and the colonial legacy," said Tieku, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.

Tieku thinks the bloc can also be credited for boosting the perception that coups are an illegitimate means of acquiring power in Africa.

The AU has a more interventionist approach that its predecessor organization, the OAU, when it comes to trying to solve the peace and security challenges Africa is facing.

Most recently, it suspended Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan after military coups.

In the past few years, however, the AU has been criticized for being slower, or more unwilling, to respond to conflicts or an undemocratic transition of power.

Alex Vines, the head of the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House, says the AU has recently been "much softer on constitutional changes of government and also democratic reversals such as changing of constitutions to extend term limits or tenure."

AU had been expected to falter

Experts had predicted that the AU would falter in dealing with the complexities of 55 member states, with their diverse economies, people, resources and interests.

One dismal failure of the AU, according to Chatham House expert Alex Vines: "It is still over-influenced by the cult of personality and the politics of subsidiary".

Leadership styles in AU member countries have ranged from the liberal to neglectful to the downright dictatorial whereas its predecessor had leaders who were seen as visionaries in their time -- such as Kenya's Julius Nyerere, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser from Egypt.

The very first AU plenary brought together the likes of Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Mozambique's Joaquim Chissano, Togo's Gnassingbe Eyadema, Zambia's Levy Mwanawasa and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

At the time of the AU launch, South African and Nigerian leaders were mediating in key conflicts in Africa, representing Africa to the world while still picking up the pieces after dictatorships in their own countries.

Alex Vines credits the AU for strong vision in some policy areas.

"Agenda 2063 and also the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are both progressive initiatives," said Vines. "When there is a common position, it has helped Africans take leadership at key multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization."

Finding common positions

The AU has a reputation for battling to find common positions. For example, the bloc has been unable to find a unified stance on Russia's involvement in Africa and its war on Ukraine.

Individual countries frequently break ranks with the AU Commission.

Frederic Gateretse Ngoga, the Focal Person on International Partnerships at the AU Commission, this this week said there had been "golden age of African consensus".

A lack of ideology, policy frameworks and an overall strategy was standing in the way now, he told the ISS webinar.

"It goes a little further than getting the ideology right -- we have to get the action right as well," Ngoga said. "Everything starts with ideology. ... What troubles me the most is the hate speech on social media. We have no business hating each other as Africans."

Speaking at the webinar, Ngoga also pointed out that Russia, China, the European Union and the US had strategues for Africa.

But "where is our strategy?" he asked, adding that the AU is the process of developing such strategies.

AU can still learn from the EU

Africa's diplomatic influence is dependent on common positions, Ghanaian Ambassador Harriet Sena Siaw-Boateng told the ISS webinar.

"This requires the capacity first to identify what Africa's interests are, then to agree collectively and then to articulate them," she said.

"It requires a willingness to prioritize African politics over bilateral affairs with external actors. We need to stop being selfish. Until now, we have spent far too long a time discussing the place of Africa in our continent, without discussing our place in the world and projecting our interests outwards."

The AU was modeled loosely on the European Union, which was launched in 1993.

Growing unity in Africa and capacity to manage its affairs has strengthened the AU's position in partnering with external actors.

But Africa should be willing to study and learn from the EU model and the 27-member bloc's initiatives, Ambassador Siaw-Boateng believes.

"African countries are following Europe's lead at becoming more successful at drafting, negotiating and presenting common positions to advance and defend our own interests."

Siaw-Boateng said she believes that when Africa acts as one, "the world sits up and takes notice".

It's no different to the Afrobeats revolution that had Europeans singing in Yoruba along the corridors of a hotel she recently stayed at in Portugal, she said.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine

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