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August 12 2022 5:53 PM ˚
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Two decades on, the African Union needs to rediscover its founding spirit

African union
(Photo: Freepik)
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Last month, for the first time since 2017, a summit took place in Brussels between leaders from the European Union and the African Union. The EU is increasingly worried about its influence on the African continent amid China’s efforts to entrench its position of dominance. And although the Brussels summit focused on European-African relations, the real question on the minds of many diplomats was the African Union’s effectiveness. اضافة اعلان

An AU meeting with US officials last week was overshadowed by the Ukraine conflict. With the AU about to celebrate its two-decade anniversary in June, many wonder if the continental body has lost its ability to handle crises and chart an equitable path forward for the continent.

The AU came into being in 2002, when it replaced the Organization of African Unity. Based in Ethiopia, it was given a far-reaching mandate to end wars on the continent, increase intra-African trade, and establish Africa’s diplomatic voice in global affairs. These ideas took shape at a time of great optimism in Africa as the tide of democracy was rising and economic patterns were starting to help advance emerging market countries. But the hope was short lived.

From the start, outsiders questioned the location of the AU’s headquarters, given Ethiopia’s questionable record on press freedom. Concerns were put to the side as the AU sent troops to intervene in the genocide taking place in Darfur. Unlike its predecessor, the AU has a mandate to use force to intervene in conflict, and it used that right in the early days. In addition to Darfur, the AU also sent troops to Somalia to counter the threat of militant groups. Nonetheless, those early successes have given way to a crisis of incompetence.

In Mozambique, Daesh-linked fighters have taken over large parts of the country’s oil-rich north; the instability continues as the AU has failed to craft a viable strategy to contain the militants. The same is true in the Sahel region, where French troops have been fighting an increasingly brutal insurgency against militants with little material support from the AU. In the early days of the union, coups in Africa were deterred by the AU’s threat of a unified response. That sense of intimidation is almost entirely gone.

The recent military coup in Burkina Faso is damning evidence that the AU is either unwilling or unable to help member states work through problems to prevent coups. Some analysts have gone so far as to claim that the AU has evolved to give illegitimate political leaders a veneer of legitimacy through their positions in the bloc.
The AU’s track record does not inspire much optimism, but that does not mean such a body should not exist. Every similar multi-national organization from the UN to the EU has faced its own scandals of incompetence and corruption. The AU is not unique in the fact that it has been plagued by misconduct.

Guinea’s former president, Alpha Condé, was elected as chair of the AU in 2017, despite being embroiled in accusations of human rights violations and public demands for economic and security reforms. The late Ibrahim Keita, Mali’s former leader, found himself in a similar position in 2019, when he was appointed to lead the AU’s arts, culture, and heritage initiative. The most blatant example of the AU providing cover for political failings is taking place in its host country, where the AU has been unable to end Ethiopia’s bloody civil war.

The crisis is not contained to intra-African issues. Last July, the AU’s legitimacy woes bled into international politics, when Moussa Faki Mahamat, the former prime minister of Chad and chair of the AU Commission at the time, accepted Israel’s accreditation as an observer to the body. The decision sparked protests and claims of undue influence by Israel, which has been trying to gain access to the AU since its founding. The AU has agreed to suspend the debate on Israel’s status until the next summit in 2023. Still, the mere fact that Israel’s inclusion has created such a visible row demonstrates the depth of disunity at the heart of the organization.

The AU has had some successes. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which began operating in 2021, has helped transform trade flows. At the same time, the AU has worked closely with Beijing to increase trade between the continent and China. However, the results of those agreements might end up benefiting China more than the AU’s member states.

Two decades on, it is easy to wonder what the AU has accomplished and whether a United Nations-style governing body can succeed in Africa. The AU’s track record does not inspire much optimism, but that does not mean such a body should not exist. Every similar multi-national organization from the UN to the EU has faced its own scandals of incompetence and corruption. The AU is not unique in the fact that it has been plagued by misconduct.

The AU’s biggest challenge is that it is only as strong as its member states. Given the level of current and historic interference from China, the United States, and even Israel, the AU is facing a daunting uphill battle. As the AU enters its third decade, the challenges confronting the bloc are clear and easily identifiable. Going forward, the focus should be on reinstituting the body’s founding spirit and ensuring that successes like AfCFTA become fully operational. If Africa can assume control over its economic potential, the myriad diplomatic challenges will be easier to solve.


The writer is based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets. ©Syndication Bureau


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