AU at 20: "a lot achieved despite many flaws"

APA-Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)

Despite the criticisms levelled against the African Union over the last two decades, it is far from being a docile follower of the orders of its member states, writes Thomas Kwasi Tieku, Associate Professor of Political Science, King’s University College.

There’s a widespread view that the African Union – and its  bureaucracy – are glorified servants of African governments. This view  is supported by scholars and by the media.

But is it accurate? I address this question in a recent article as the organisation marks its 20th anniversary this year.

The African Union was negotiated, and signed by African governments in 1999. Its founding treaty would not have come into existence if at least two-thirds of the 54  African governments had not ratified and deposited it on May 26, 2001.

My paper shows that since its official launch in 2002, the African Union has developed considerable agency. I defined this as its capacity to shape the agenda and decisions in Africa and on global affairs.

There is no question that the African Union has its challenges. It is financially weak and dependent on external donors. It is often seen as a club of old men that is inaccessible to ordinary Africans. And it has implementation deficits, with its work sometimes held back by poorly governed states.

Yet, the organisation is often at the heart of agenda-setting, decision-making, rule creation, policy development and strategic leadership for the African continent.

It is, therefore, an oversimplification of the complex relationship between the African Union and its members to treat the pan-African bureaucracy as a mere servant of the continent’s governments. The African Union and its bureaucracy are neither glorified messengers nor docile followers of the orders of African governments.

It has marshalled its 55 members to take common positions on many critical global issues. These have included building consensus on United Nations reforms, the COVID-19 response, and financing of African development.

Drafting international treaties

The African Union has contributed to the drafting of treaties to promote peace, democracy and good governance.

Many of its treaties contain global firsts. This is true even though  many member states still have loopholes in protecting democracy.

It has been able to contribute to treaties because it’s attracted some of the best policy minds on the continent. This research shows that African Union staff are some of the most highly educated  international civil servants in the world. They also have extensive work  experience.

Enforcing regulations, promises and treaties. The African Union has developed a well-oiled machine promoting peace and security.

Its initiatives have included developing an institutional design for  mediation, political dialogue, early warning systems and peace-support  operations. These have changed the game of peace missions and led to  relative success. One example is the intervention in Somalia.

The Union has also been effective in changing the mindset of African  political elites from their traditional posture of indifference to one  that encourages them to intervene in each other’s affairs. It intervened  swiftly in the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 and rapidly deployed Operation Democracy in the Comoros in 2008.

Collective will, setting the agenda and shaping thinking. The African Union has used the power of recommendations to great effect.

It used it to rally members to support a slate of African candidates  vying for positions in international organisations. Examples include the  election of Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus as Director-General of the World Health Organization
and Rwanda'sLouise Mushikiwabo as Secretary-General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

In addition, studies indicate that the African Union was able to get members to take common positions on more than 20 major issues.

Many of these positions shaped global debate and decisions. These  include influencing the terms of engagement between the UN and regional  organisations.

But the union has also convened and mobilised for bad causes. An  example was the shielding of the former President of Sudan, Omar al  Bashir, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta from calls to appear before  the International Criminal Court to answer charges of crimes against humanity.

Strategic leadership

 The African Union has shown it  is capable of providing leadership and acting as advisor to governments  and intergovernmental agencies.

It successfully developed forward-thinking development frameworks such as Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

 It has also created development agencies, including the African Union Development Agency NEPAD.

The African Union has been good at socialising African governments to  accept development ideas and make them pillars of national growth plans.

It has also mobilised resources to boost the continent’s development initiatives. This has included efforts to make COVID-19 vaccines available to member states.

But there are weaknesses.

The African Union resource mobilisation has been criticised for deepening Africa’s dependence on international partners. Some also argue that the union is good at coming up with lofty ideas but is often unable or unwilling to implement them.


The organisation has been held back by the constant push to reform it.

Between 2002 and 2009, Muammar Gaddafi’s relentless hounding to get it changed to a union government became a serious distraction and major impediment to the implementation of its programmes.

And since 2016, a process to reform the institution led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame has sowed division among the  leaders of the commission. The process paralysed staff for almost five  years and weakened the AU commission, as former South African President  Thabo Mbeki observed.

Old habits – such as the cult of personality, concentration of power  in the office of the chairperson of the commission, and shrinking of  spaces for popular participation in decision-making – have set in over  the past few years.

The rotation of the chairperson of the union largely among leaders  who have questionable democratic credentials also suggests that the  union has moved into the orbit of a particular group of African leaders.  This is made up of authoritarian leaders who have turned the  institution into a conservative and risk-averse body.

An example of a more conservative approach is the softening of its zero-tolerance position on military regimes.

It has been soft on recent coup makers. This is in contrast to its  outspoken stance in previous years and the steps it took to ostracise  military regimes in Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe in 2003,  Togo in 2005, Mauritania in 2005 and 2007, Guinea in 2008, Mali in 2012,  as well as Egypt and Central African Republic in 2013.

The recent resurgence of coups on the continent suggests that the African Union needs to revisit its position on  unconstitutional changes of governments and strengthen its agenda to  promote democracy.

The continent needs a stronger African Union leadership on this issue – and many others – over the next 20 years.

This article was first published by The Conversation

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