Evolution of the African Union

Bojana Radan

The evolution of the African Union (AU) arguably can be seen as one of the great institutional achievements on the African continent. The AU was created on September 9, 1999 through the Sirte Declaration calling for the establishment of a union with the vision of an: “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing dynamic force in the global arena.” The main objectives of the AU consist of: the establishment of unity and solidarity between and among African states; the defence of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its member states; the acceleration of socioeconomic development; and the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent. Four summits between 1999 and the initial launch of the AU in Durban, South Africa, in 2002 were held to create this union, whose bureaucratic structure models the European Union (EU). The post examines the African Union from its inception out of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), to today and evaluates its future strength as an institutional power on the continent.

Inception: the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)

The OAU was established on May 25, 1963 by 32 African governments. The creation of the OAU stemmed from the desire of African states to express more unity among the continent’s member states after their newly fought independence against colonial rule. The main goal of the OAU was to rid the African continent of the remaining vestiges of colonization and apartheid, and give power back to the black African population in regions where there was still a white minority rule like in South Africa. Although the OAU had good intensions to promote African human rights and economic growth, it was largely viewed as a “talk shop” with little power since it lacked any military force to enforce decisions, and had a policy of non-interference within sovereign states.

Furthermore, the OAU was also plagued with internal power struggles between two schools of thought that held different views on how ‘African unity’ could be achieved. The Casablanca Bloc led by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, consisting of Algeria, Guinea, Morocco, Egypt, Mali and Libya promoted the emergence of all African states into a single federation. The other school of thought was the Monrovian Bloc consisting of Nigeria, Ethiopian, and many former French colonies and this Bloc believed that unity should be achieved through gradual economic cooperation. It rejected the notion of a ‘political federation.’ This continuous power struggle between the two blocs contributed to the notion of OAU as a ‘talk shop’.

Although the OAU had its challenges, it paved the way for the creation of AU through institutionalization of major economic, social and political norms. For example, the creation of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in 1981 led to the current African Human Rights Commission located in Banjul, Gambia, that monitors the fulfilment of human rights among member states. Furthermore, in 1991 the OAU’s focus on socioeconomic growth led to the creation of the Treaty establishing the African Economic Community (AEC). This treaty commonly known as the Abuja Treaty, sought to create Regional Economic Communities (RECs) of African states. These RECs were designed to promote the harmonization and better coordination of economic policies in the region, and decrease the costs of trade. RECs are still vital and in use today.

Successes of the African Union

Since its creation, the AU has provided a sense of stability, accountability and cooperation on the continent. As a regional institution, the AU promotes the equal distribution of power and objectivity in political and social matters on the continent. For example, the “Peer Review Mechanism” is a tool that the AU uses to encourage democracy and good governance among states by having all member states agree to be assessed by external teams of experts (drawn from other states) on social or political disputes. This can take the form of AU Observer Missions that now are sent out routinely throughout the continent to cover elections and make sure that the elections are run free and fairly.

AU norms that have created an accountability system across the continent have resolved a number of post-election violent conflicts and helped return power to civilian parties from military coups.
For example, in December 2016 the small West African country of Gambia held elections for a new President. The President at the time, Yahya Jammeh, had ruled for 23 years and had finally lost the election to a surprise new candidate. Although Jammeh had stated that he intended to have a peaceful transfer of power, weeks after the election it looked like Jammeh would continue to rule through military force. This put Gambia on the brink of political crisis and required Adama Barrow, the opposition candidate to be inaugurated in neighbouring Senegal. Jammeh finally relinquished power a month later after threat of military invasion from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), one of the regional blocs of the AU’s economic organization. The coordination among these regional groups and the power they can leverage through their military and economic resources promotes accountability and consequences for African leaders. Although when Jammeh left office, he stole $11.4 million dollars from Gambia’s government, a civil war was avoided.

Furthermore, there has been substantial progress across the continent in regards to poverty alleviation and the promotion of human rights, backed by the AU. Progress has been made in education, gender equality and the empowerment of women, and combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases. For example, Gambia reduced poverty by 32 percent between 1990 and 2010, while Ethiopia decreased poverty by one third through a focus on agriculture livelihood. Although substantial progress has been made on the continent since the early 1990s, the growth has been inequitable with poorer rural regions receiving fewer resources than urban populations.

Challenges to the African Union

The AU highlights two key current development initiatives: Agenda 2063 and the Agenda 2030. These initiatives hinge almost entirely on the ability of the AU to mobilize resources and capital within the continent. For example, to implement the Agenda 2030 in Africa per year, it is an estimated need of $614 billion dollars. These agendas are impossible to fund solely from member states and therefore, the AU relies heavily on multilateral development banks (MDBs). But reliance on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) requires loans to achieve these initiatives, which in turn contributes to increased debt and a prosperity challenge.

The promotion of prosperity, peace and security is just as fundamental to the AU’s mandate as development, and requires a significant amount of resources. The AU’s budget is created from a portfolio of various donors. African member states contribute to the union and are grouped in three tiers based on their GDP index. Sixty percent of the budget is covered by six states with the highest GDP and include Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa. However, due to current and growing continental economic challenges, increased reliance on external financers has grown. For example, the European Commission (EC) increased its contribution to the AU from 91 million euros in 2010 to 330 million in 2015. Almost 90 percent of that EC contribution was for peace and security. Although this increased donor funding is beneficial to the AU, increased reliance on external actors can lead to a loss of political impartiality in international matters, which is against the notion of independence among the AU.

Lastly, a major challenge for the AU will be in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. The AU created a comprehensive counterterrorist strategy in 1999 through the Algiers Convention. However, this convention is not widely used or implemented properly at the country levels. Furthermore, less than one third of African states have ratified this treaty. Terrorism continues to be a significant threat within the continent as seen with the rise of radical groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which has branched into Africa. The AU needs to take effective steps to ensure proper communication and information sharing among states, harmonize immigration policies, and tackle the underlying causes of terrorism and radicalization including extreme poverty and inequality.

Future of the African Union

The future of the AU depends upon how member states respond to emerging challenges and how they continue to distribute power within the institution. First, for the AU to retain institutional power and prestige, it needs to respond effectively to current conflicts on the continent. For example in Burundi, the President, Pierre Nkurunziza, took a third term in office which continues to be disputed across the country. AU peacekeepers were even denied entry into the state which has created a debate in the AU about forced invasion since some believe fully in sovereignty rights, while others say that it is the AU’s political and military responsibility to act in Burundi. Therefore, to combat corruption such as this which is detrimental to economic growth and prosperity, the AU needs to mobilize grassroots support to push institutional reform across the continent.

Second, the AU needs to work harder to facilitate economic integration. Trade amongst African states is still quite low compared to their overall trade levels. This low intra-African trade contributes to slow economic growth in the continent, especially for many small states with limited resources who cannot engage in the economic production process. Therefore moving forward, the AU needs to focus on economic integration through the promotion of RECs. These RECs can align economic policies across the continent to decrease transaction costs, and also support small economies through the creation of regional infrastructure networks such as roads and bridges that can improve regional competition.

Lastly, for the AU to remain a strong governance entity within Africa it must strengthen current and future legal frameworks. For example, the AU must strengthen the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, since the court requires authority to serve as a legal instrument to protect human rights across the continent, including cases referred to it by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Power within this court can create better governance across the continent if leaders believe they will be held accountable for their crimes. Therefore, moving forward the AU needs to promote national good governance strategies, regional economic integration and strengthen legal frameworks to continue to be a major power on the continent.

About the Author

Bojana Radan is a second year Masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs with a strong interest in global health, climate sustainability, gender equality and good governance. Bojana has worked within civil society in South East Asia advocating for youth rights within HIV development, and is the co-editor-in-chief of the Munk School student digital news publication, Global Conversations. She is a Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Recipient and a four-time Academic All-Canadian scholar. Bojana holds an Hon. Bachelor’s in Science in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology from the University of Toronto.


Share this Post