The African Union is, once again, pursuing reform in an attempt to address its effectiveness, capacity and relevance for Africans. Despite the previous attempts for reform in 2007 and 2016, stakeholders never bought into the process and little was achieved. Yet, this time there is hope. The AU Assembly’s decision tasked Rwandan President Paul Kagame with overseeing the process, and following his 2017 reform report, an Extraordinary Summit was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November 2018. During the Summit numerous decisions were taken to advance the recommendations Kagame proposed.
The reform tackles the AU’s challenges to make it ‘fit for purpose’ by shifting focus to five key areas:
Currently the AU is overwhelmed by its workload and lacks a coherent focus, made worse by a lack of inadequate finances. By concentrating on ‘political affairs, peace and security, economic integration (including the Continental Free Trade Area), and Africa’s global representation and voice’, the scope of work will be narrowed, which is desperately needed.
However, even with a narrow focus, the AU will face challenges. There are multifaceted peace and security challenges, regardless of whether working independently or with partners. Furthermore, addressing Africa’s representation and voice globally requires a shift in approach from African States and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), not to mention the international community. All 55 African States are AU Members which makes gaining consensus tough, especially when including the interests of the RECs, which are not automatically aligned to the AU’s.
Realignment of the Institution
Part of the reform involves streamlining the institution to facilitate better decision making and addressing the ongoing personnel problems. For example, in 2021, when the current Commission’s tenure ends, the composition will change to a Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and 6 Commissioners (down from 8), with each Commissioner focusing on a broad portfolio:
- Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment
- Economic Development, Trade and Industry, and Natural Mineral Resources
- Education, Science, Technology and Innovation
- Infrastructure and Energy
- Political Affairs, Peace and Security
- Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development
A non-elected post of Director-General will lead in the operational coordination of the departments and the non-elected staff members. While efforts have been made to address the calibre of personnel, which is a positive step, efforts also need to be put into recruiting adequate staff as shortages are common.
Another approach to streamlining is through clarification on the division of labour between the AU, the RECs and other Continental Organs. The Commission’s proposal for the division is to be submitted during the first Mid-Year Coordination Meeting in June/July 2019. This presents a chance to reduce the overlap between the organisations, helping curb a wasting of resources and improve relations. How well this is managed remains to be seen as it requires the political will of all parties involved. Additionally, if the coordination problems with the RECs are addressed, speaking with a unified African voice may become easier.
Operational Effectiveness and Efficiency
Traditionally, the AU holds two Ordinary Summits a year. However, the working methods are considered ineffective with too many decisions adopted giving little chance for implementation. Part of the problem stems from the overloading of the Agendas, the absence of an enforcement mechanism, and inadequate consultation with RECs. Already the Assembly Summit Agendas have been reduced and from this year, there will be an annual Summit in Jan/Feb with the second Summit in June/July refocused on AU/RECs coordination. To support this shift, the AU urges the RECs to hold annual meetings prior to the June/July Summit. Improvements in the relationship between the AU and RECs is paramount, especially given some RECs’ concern over how the AU reform decisions were taken in the first place.
What remains to be properly tackled is the failure to implement AU decisions. An ongoing problem which, in the absence of any enforcement mechanism, is unlikely to change unless African States change their attitude and approach to the decisions. This implementation failure undermines the AU, reduces its credibility and makes it hard for external parties to defer to the organisation when its own Members dismiss the decisions.
The AU is underfunded with over 70% of the budget coming from its partners. The reoccurring problem of certain Member States not fulfilling their contribution obligations is compounded by the decline in donor financial support. Without a predictable and sustainable means of finance no amount of reform will change the problems. Part of the self-financing drive includes a decision to impose a 0.2% levy on imports. But there are concerns for some African States over the levy’s potential conflict with WTO obligations.
In seeking to improve the payment of Member contributions, the sanctions regime for non-payment has been strengthened. It now includes measures to restrict the Member’s in various ways including the:
- ability to speak or participate in meetings
- participate in organ Bureaus, host Organs, Institutions and Offices
- have nationals included in human rights and electoral observer missions, or
- hold staff, consultancy, intern or volunteer positions in the AU.
Such measures may prove a deterrent but do little to address the fiscal reality of its Members, particularly, where states hold multiple REC memberships and contribution obligations, in addition to the AU.
The AU battles to connect with African populations because it is still perceived by many as an organisation for African Heads of State and Government instead of the citizenry. Reform offers the opportunity for those very Heads of State and Government to demonstrate a change in their attitude towards the relationship between the organisation and its people. This may be hard, but not impossible to achieve. It will, however, require a lot more than initiatives like the AU’s Youth Corps, and the proposed sports exchanges.
If the AU were to demonstrate its relevance through its actions and not only words, its credibility continentally and internationally would increase. In turn, when citizens can see value in AU membership, it may increase pressure on States to uphold AU decisions and encourage active engagement.
Overall, there is genuine potential for a more relevant and engaged AU through its repositioning and restructuring. However, this relies on Members providing the finances, upholding their obligations and implementing decisions. Hopefully, African leaders step up otherwise all that is offered is false hope and another missed opportunity for real reform and positive change.