African heads of state at the 11th Extraordinary Summit of the African Union (Source: President Paul Kagame/Flicr)

On February 4th, the African Union (AU) held its 34th Annual Summit virtually from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Among the highlights of the Summit was President Joe Biden’s address to the attendees. In his address, President Biden reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to ”rebuilding partnerships across the world and reengaging with international institutions like the African Union.” The Annual Summit was held at a time when the continent is facing a wide range of political and economic challenges. As the institution marks fifty eight years since its inception, we look back on its history, its successes and the challenges that lie ahead.

The Organization for African Unity (OAU)

On May 25 1963, 32 African countries convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to establish the Organization for African Unity (OAU), an organization aimed at promoting unity and solidarity among African states. The OAU set out to support African nations in the defense of their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence. Among its key objectives was the eradication of all forms of colonialism from Africa. Pan-Africanism, a belief that people of African descent have common interests and should be unified, was at the heart of the OAU’s inception. Pan-Africanist ideas had swept across the United States, the Caribbean and the U.K. since the mid-19th century promoted by leaders like Martin Delany and Alexander Crummell, and later through the works of thinkers and organizers such as W.E.B. Du bois, and Marcus Garvey. The Pan-African movement in Africa gained momentum through leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sékou Touré of Guinea, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, among others.

Founding fathers of the OAU, 1963. (Source: This is Africa)

The OAU went on to include 53 African states in its membership, and played a key role in supporting the independence movements that swept across the continent. The organization helped establish regional economic communities for the different sub-regions of the continent, like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the South African Development Coordinating Commission (SADC) to promote economic prosperity. Other Pan-African institutions like the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Economic Commision for Africa (ECA) were also formed to foster sustainable economic development. But despite some of its successes, the OAU has so far failed to achieve peace, security and economic prosperity across the continent. As conflicts and debt ravaged countries and economies, it was soon clear that a much needed reform had to take place within the organization to adequately address the growing political and economic crises. At the 35th OAU summit in Libya, the OAU was dissolved and the African Union (AU) was formed.

The African Union & Agenda 2063

Unlike its predecessor, the AU has taken up a more proactive role in dealing with the affairs of its member states and putting in place organizational structures that allow for a better response to peace and security concerns in the continent. Currently, the AU is headed by Moussa Faki Mahamat, who was re-elected on February 4th as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission. The year-long AU chairmanship has been passed to President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (from President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa). There are currently eight commissioners that work to assist the Chairperson in the day-to-day running the Commission.

In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the formation of the AU, the institution introduced Agenda 2063, a plan to attain “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena,” over 50 years. Among Agenda 2063’s seven goals and priority areas was building a peaceful and secure Africa through the Silencing the Guns initiative, which would see “an end to all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflicts and preventing genocide in the continent by 2020.” While the AU has had notable successes in its peacebuilding efforts — Sudan’s peace deal with rebels, South Sudan’s establishment of a transitional government, Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal — sadly, it has made little progress in addressing some of the larger and more complex security threats the continent faces. Out of the 10 conflicts on the International Crisis Group’s 2020 Conflicts to Watch list, three were in Africa, namely Libya, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso. According to the African Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), over the last decade, there has been a sixfold increase in violent activities by militant Islamist groups since 2011, with the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, and Mozambique seeing the sharpest rise in violence 2020.

Compiled by the African Center for Strategic Studies

From a growing debt crisis, to conflicts (Cameroon, Libya, Ethiopia), to election violence (Guinea, Ivory Coast), and to crackdowns on civil society (Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe), African nations are experiencing complex social, economic and political problems. Why then, has the African Union not been able to effectively address the continent’s issues? Over the years, the African Union has faced numerous criticisms for its failure to address the continent’s compounding threats. Here is a look at a few of those criticisms.

Criticisms of the African Union

One of the main criticisms that the African Union has received is its bureaucratic nature and its lack of proper organizational structure. With its 8 directorates, 31 departments and offices, 11 organs, 31 specialized technical agencies and about 20 high-level committees, the organization has stretched itself too thin attempting to undertake countless projects with no clear plan on how to effectively complete them. Moreover, the organization has also faced allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct. In a leaked internal memo sent to Chairperson Moussa Faki on March 6th 2020, AU staff alleged that the organization had a “manifestation of glaring cronyism and total collapse of leadership.” Two years prior to this incident, the AU found itself in the hot seat when an internal investigation revealed that young women who had joined the organization as short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns were being sexually harassed. The committee in charge of the investigation found 44 cases of alleged sexual harassment by young women who claimed that they had been “exploited for sex in exchange for jobs.”

A major issue that contributes to the organization’s dysfunction is its heavy reliance on external funding for its daily operations. Many of the bold ambitions that the African Union has are not realized due to its lack of financial autonomy. With most of its funding being provided by the European Union, and the other portion coming from member states who are often inconsistent in paying their dues, the organization is impeded in the amount of initiatives and projects it can undertake and successfully complete.

Looking ahead

What really is the purpose of the African Union in 2021? This is the question that the organization must grapple with and reflect on as it kicks off yet another new year with a new theme. If there is one thing that COVID-19 has revealed, it is that the continent cannot afford to continue having poorly governed institutions that lack a clear vision of how they will tackle the most pressing economic and political challenges that lie ahead. If the African Union is to truly reflect the Pan-African ideas it was built upon, then it must acknowledge its shortcomings and undergo a radical reform to become an efficient institution.

There are a number of ways the organization can improve itself. Firstly, as the leading Pan-African institution in the continent working to unite African nations and its people, it must do a better job engaging with everyday Africans seeking to understand the work of the organization better. It is necessary that the organization becomes “more accessible, reliable and relevant” to the average African. Second, it should strengthen its relationships with civil society organizations and groups that can provide recommendations on how to better address various issues. Third, if the African Union is to achieve the goals of Agenda 2063, it must give African youth and women a seat at the decision making table and ensure that its initiatives are inclusive.

Finally, it is necessary for the African Union to end its reliance on external funding. There needs to be a robust framework put in place to find viable solutions to its funding challenges. Putting in place stricter policies that require member states to contribute their dues on time can be a start. The AU cannot claim to be a Pan-African institution that fights for the economic freedom of its members, when it is an organization that has yet to achieve economic independence itself.

Nani Detti,
Communications Intern
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement