The African Union serves as a platform for African leaders to discuss continental and national issues and coordinate efforts to resolve them. The organization is a highly ambitious project of 55 nations united under a shared vision. This article revisits the organization two decades after its inception. It provides an overview of the organization, its accomplishments, challenges, and its orientation toward the future.
The History of the African Union
The African Union (AU) is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The OAU was founded in 1963 to bring African nations together and resolve common issues through collective action. The organization’s primary missions were to increase political and economic integration among its member states and to eradicate all forms of colonialism from the African continent.
To realize decolonization, the OAU organized diplomatic support and provided logistical aid to liberation movements throughout the African continent. The OAU was successful in its mission, as 50 African countries had gained independence from European colonial powers by 1977.
The Organisation of African Unity was less successful in increasing political and economic integration among its members. In the context of a lack of meaningful results, African leaders became increasingly skeptical about the organization’s effectiveness.
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The African leadership recognized the need for change, and in 1994, plans were drawn up to reform the OAU. These designs involved expanding the organization with new organs, including an African Parliament, an African Monetary Fund, and a Central Bank.
During the years that followed, the plans to reform the OAU failed to materialize. At the time, no political leadership was willing or capable of unifying the institution’s members. This changed in 1999, when during the OAU’s annual meeting, Muammar Qadhafi, the leader of Libya, presented his vision of a United States of Africa.
Qadhafi argued that there was no reason why Africa could not emulate the success of the United States of America. He envisioned the continent being ruled by one government under a single president with a united defense force and one foreign and trade policy.
At its inception in 2002, the African Union consisted of 53 members. Two more members joined in the years that followed, bringing the total to 55 countries. The AU is a multi-issue-focused organization. The tools it uses to achieve its objectives include diplomatic, humanitarian, and security missions.
Whereas the OAU had focused on supporting liberation movements, the AU decided to prioritize spearheading African development and integration to realize “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.”
To achieve its vision, the African Union focuses on promoting unity and solidarity between its member states and increasing socio-economic cooperation. The objectives of the AU also include promoting peace and security on the African continent and supporting democratic principles and institutions.
The organization’s activities include initiating anti-corruption measures and organizing and funding Malaria, AIDS, and COVID health initiatives.
The African Union consists of over a dozen bodies, each with its own mission and mandate. Some are responsible for planning and proposals, while others execute and monitor policy.
The African Union’s decision-making body is the Assembly, comprised of the heads of government or their accredited representatives. Important policy proposed by the other bodies needs to pass a vote in the Assembly before it can be implemented.
Another influential body is the Pan African Parliament, which serves as a platform for discussing problems and challenges facing the continent. The parliament comprises 265 members elected by AU member states and works closely with the Assembly. The parliament proposes subjects of discussion to the Assembly and drafts laws for the Assembly to consider and approve.
When policies are approved by the Assembly, the African Union’s Commission helps AU organs and member states to implement them. The Commission also manages budgets and resources.
The implementation of AU policy is monitored by the Executive council, which is composed of ministers of member states.
Then there are ten specialized committees, each focusing on specific issues. For example, there is The Committee on Monetary and Financial Affairs and the Committee on Cooperation, International Relations, and Conflict Resolution.
Civil society, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations, and cultural organizations, has the opportunity to make recommendations to the AU through the Economic, Social, and Cultural Council.
The Peace and Security Council is the decision-making body on conflict. Through it, AU member states collectively monitor and make decisions on conflict and crisis situations and take collective action to both prevent and resolve conflicts.
The African Union’s Achievements
The African Union has the right to intervene militarily in its member states in circumstances of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. To this end, the organization has carried out peacekeeping operations on multiple occasions. AU peacekeeping operations often work in coordination with United Nations (UN) missions.
African Union efforts helped avert catastrophes and protected people from violence in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Darfur, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Mali.
The AU’s diplomatic efforts have resulted in success on multiple occasions. For example, in October of 2022, the African Union organized negotiations in South Africa that resulted in a peace deal between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front.
The African Union has also acted successfully to protect and promote democracy throughout the continent. For example, when violence broke out in Kenya following the 2007 elections, an African Union-led mediation effort contributed to ending the violence and the creation of a coalition government.
Lastly, African Union health initiatives have netted considerable results. For example, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, established in 2020, secured over 1 billion doses of vaccines to be distributed among member states. Initiatives against AIDS and Malaria have also resulted in fewer people being infected across the continent.
The African Continental Free Trade Area
In 2018, 53 African Union member states signed an agreement to eliminate trade barriers in Africa. This resulted in the realization of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2021, the largest free trade area in population and geographic size, spanning 1.3 billion people. AfCFTA members agreed to take action to facilitate trade in goods and services, simplify customs procedures, and settle trade disputes.
Part of the AfCFTA’s efforts included the creation of the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPPS). The financial infrastructure, launched in January of 2022, allows companies in Africa to transact in their local currency when doing business internationally with other AfCFTA members.
According to Germany’s agency for international cooperation:
“AfCFTA is a huge diplomatic and political success given the short timeline, the ambitious liberalization goals set, and the heterogeneity and large number of 55 member states negotiating the Free Trade Area.”
The World Bank estimates that AfCFTA could raise 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty, increase the incomes of 68 million people, and generate up to $450 billion in revenue by 2035.
Keeping over 50 countries united and agreeing on policy is complicated. Political impasses caused by pushes to reform the organization have impeded the AU’s functioning since its inception.
Between 2002 and 2010, Qadhafi and his allies’ relentless arguing for a union government paralyzed political debate. The vast majority of member states did not want to surrender sovereignty to the extent the Libyan leader envisioned. Despite this reluctance by the majority, Qadhafi’s influence in the organization as its spiritual founder and major funder kept the debate stuck for years.
The African Union’s leadership has also made some questionable decisions to protect heads of state accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of killing civilians and committing genocide. For example, in 2010, the AU declared it would not cooperate with the ICC to arrest the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, whom the ICC holds responsible for a genocide in Darfur.
Similarly, the AU refused to cooperate with the ICC in bringing Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta to court for his alleged involvement in the killing of thousands of civilians.
Funding has also been an issue throughout the African Union’s existence. Contributions by member states constitute only a small part of expenses. Financing by external partners account for approximately 75% of the total budget.
This reliance on external partners for funding undermines the AU’s decision-making capacity. In 2021, for example, the EU adopted new financial tools that allow it to bypass the AU when funding national and sub-regional military initiatives.
The African Union’s Future
In 2013, exactly 50 years after the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity, the African Union started drawing up plans for the next five decades. This resulted in Agenda 2063, an initiative consisting of 15 flagship projects.
The projects include plans for a high-speed train network connecting all African capitals and commercial centers, removing all visa requirements for moving within the union, and ending all wars on the continent.
Agenda 2063 efforts over the next decade will focus on constructing roads and communication infrastructure, increasing agricultural production, and generating more energy.
The African Union has faced many challenges since its formation twenty years ago, and the results of its initiatives have varied greatly.
Large-scale projects like the African Continental Free Trade Area, one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063, have the potential to improve the lives of millions of Africans. The successful implementation of AfCFTA over the last few years is a reason to be hopeful for the future.