AU’s 20th anniversary brings mixed feelings on continental legacy
Experts say inconsistency in the African Union’s responses to conflict on the continent has muted the body’s efficiency.
On July 9, the African Union (AU) turned 20 – and the debate about its effectiveness so far is on the table once again.
Established in 2002 with 53 African nations as members, the AU became the successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which had existed since 1963. While the OAU concentrated its efforts primarily on decolonisation and the establishment of diplomatic relations between members, the AU was founded to advance the continent’s economic development and entrench lasting peace.
In 2017, all 55 member states in Africa became part of the organisation after Morocco officially joined the group after a 33-year absence.
Since its creation, the AU has made undeniable achievements including the body’s progress towards creating the conditions for member states to play significant roles in international policy negotiations, says Emmanuel Balogun, assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College, New York.
“The AU in 2022 is a key actor in the world, evidenced by recent meetings between the AU and EU, the invitation of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to the African Union, and Putin’s invitation to AU chair Macky Sall to Sochi to discuss food security issues related to the Russian invasion,” he told Al Jazeera.
Experts also say the AU’s creation of several instruments such as the African Union Peer Review Mechanism as well as The African Union Peace and Security Council has helped improve accountability and transparency from governments on the continent.
‘A terminal crisis of leadership’
However, some analysts argue that the AU’s role in mediating conflict between member states and fostering unity remains its primary weakness.
The African Standby Force (ASF) was established to intervene in conflicts, for example in the case of war crimes or genocides like that in Rwanda in 1994, which left up to a million people dead in 100 days.
“The era of intervention and integration began with the transformation of the OAU to the AU with an attempt to answer a quest for new causes and redefining pan-Africanism,” Mehari Taddele Maru, professor at the European University Institute, told Al Jazeera. “[So] the AU came up with a new vision and mission for Africa’s renaissance.
“Two decades on, the AU is far from being an interventionist and integrationist pan-African body,” said Maru, who has previously worked as a consultant with the AU Commission. “It appears like a plane flying far lower than its prescribed flying altitude.”
Indeed, the list of current civil wars, armed conflicts and military coups in Africa remains alarmingly long.
For example, on October 25, 2021, the Sudanese military took control of the government in a coup. In Ethiopia, the government has been fighting against regional rebel forces since November 2020, consequently triggering a humanitarian crisis.
Moreover, tensions between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to keep the continent in suspense. Although both sides now appear ready for diplomacy, armed groups, which each country accuses of backing, in an attempt to destabilise the other, continue to wreak havoc in DRC.
Sudan, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali are currently suspended from the AU for military coups, causing many commentators to remark that Africa is stepping back to the ‘70s when such actions were the order of the day.
According to Maru, the many crises have been worsened by pan-African institutions facing “a terminal crisis of leadership” and their credibility being “increasingly undermined by a lack of decisive interventions”.
These challenges have led many to question whether the AU needs strategic overhauling and repositioning.
“In many ways, the AU has incrementally improved its responses to coups and other conflicts by creating instruments in place to respond to unconstitutional changes in government, and other peace and security issues on the continent,” Balogun said.
But the inconsistency of its responses has muted the body’s efficiency, he added.
“For example, the AU has typically taken a stronger stance against unconstitutional government changes in places like Madagascar in 2010, Guinea-Bissau in 2012, as well as quick condemnation of coup attempts in Burkina Faso (2014) and Burundi (2015),” Balogun said. “In recent cases, the AU has been quick to suspend members and condemn these actions yet has been silent on certain unconstitutional transitions (notably Chad).”
Another of the AU’s objectives is free trade and marshalling the economy to take advantage of the continent’s diversity, economic potential and huge demographic as a ready market – one of the biggest in the world.
And it has taken giant steps on the path to achieving this.
The most recent example is the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2020, potentially the largest free trade zone in the world. It is an AU initiative that “creates the prospect of true continental integration,” as Balogun noted.
Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, some African countries were among the fastest-growing economies in the world. There was a rise in investments in multiple African start-ups and the technology sector was generally booming.
Until the pandemic slowed down proceedings, the AU appeared to be on a promising path to achieving its goals of socioeconomic integration and sustainable economic development continentally. Its efforts are now focused on rejuvenating the economies of member states as they battle the effects of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During the pandemic, it played a pivotal role in tackling the virus on the continent. And although that episode has undone some of those gains, there are positive signs that the AU could still achieve a grander status as an umbrella for all.
“The AU was also one of the first regional blocs to adopt a multilateral response to COVID-19, as the Africa CDC was a key partner with WHO in disseminating PPE and developing best practices on contact tracing,” said Balogun. “There are also new challenges that were high on the agenda during the time of [former Nigerian president Olusegun] Obasanjo and [former South African president Thabo] Mbeki, such as food security and climate change. The AU has made progress on collaborating with key global partners on that front.”