The African Union: Which way forward?

The 26th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Executive Council has just concluded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, under the theme, “2016: African Year of Human Rights with a particular focus on the Rights of Women.” Addressing the delegates, who included some of the continent’s most important political leaders and a collection of distinguished foreign dignitaries, the chair of the AU Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, reminded delegates of the organization’s vision as embodied in Agenda 2063. This pledge, a blueprint for the social, political, and economic transformation of the continent, emphasizes a bottom-up, inclusive, participatory, and people-driven approach to development. As envisioned by the agenda’s architects, Africa’s diverse peoples should spearhead the continent’s transformation and direct its development. Dr. Zuma also made note of 2016’s theme, which is the protection of human rights, with particular emphasis on the rights of women.

Since it became operational, the AU has faced many challenges, some of them linked to problems that have plagued the continent for many decades (e.g., chronic poverty; political instability and violent mobilization by various subcultures; corruption and other forms of impunity) and others (e.g., terrorism and violent extremism) that have come to the fore since the turn of the century. At the recent Addis Ababa meeting, the AU leadership spoke specifically of “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want,” which is heralded as a new development strategy that will enhance the ability of Africans to use their resource endowments fully and effectively for their own development. Although this 50-year initiative has many objectives, the overall aim is to encourage Africans to own their problems, take control of their resolution, and build, by themselves, a prosperous continent “based on inclusive growth and sustainable development.”
The AU’s 26th Ordinary Session gives us a chance to reflect on the continental organization’s recent performance and examine how much further it needs to go.

The challenges that the AU faces can be classed into two categories—those that require immediate attention and those whose resolutions can be undertaken through a long-term process. Although cooperation of the international community is critical for the effective resolution of many of the problems and challenges that Africa currently faces, it is important to reiterate the fact that full and effective resolution lies with the African countries themselves. The AU must not be timid but rather act boldly and aggressively, especially in situations of gross violations of human rights and where people are being massacred and others pushed into forced exile (e.g., Burundi, Darfur, Somalia) and provide the leadership needed to prevent genocide and minimize further deterioration in political and economic conditions in many communities throughout the continent.

Issues requiring urgent and immediate attention from the AU and other continental actors

Coordinating the fight against terrorism and violent extremism: Terrorism and rising violent extremism are major obstacles to peace efforts, national integration, nation building, and the effective management of diversity throughout the continent. From the destruction of economic infrastructures and the massacre of university students in Kenya by al-Shabab; the slaughter of villagers and the kidnapping of school girls in northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram; the indiscriminate killing of people at hotels in Mali and Burkina Faso; and the downing of an airliner in Egypt, terrorism and violent extremism continue to constrain the ability of Africans to live together peacefully and create the wealth that they need to fight poverty and improve their living conditions. These affiliated and unaffiliated extremist groups—which also include the Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State, and others—are just a few of the entities that threaten to derail Africa’s transition to good governance and inclusive development, respect for human rights, and peaceful coexistence.

Fighting terrorism in the continent requires a coordinated effort at both the regional and national levels. The AU, through the Algiers Convention of 1999, has created a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy for the continent. Unfortunately, the atrocities listed above show that the AU’s counterterrorism framework does not seem to be working and is not being implemented timely and effectively at the level of individual countries. In fact, in addition to the years-long delay of the Algiers Protocol coming into force, less than a third of the African countries have ratified the convention. In addition, only a few African countries have enacted national legislation and restructured their legal and judicial systems to deal with terrorism. The AU must take bold steps to make sure that the necessary steps are taken at the national level to implement policies that significantly enhance the fighting of terrorism at the continental level (e.g., processes for information sharing and consultation; harmonization of immigration policies, etc.). Of course, the AU must also make certain that national leaders do not use anti-terrorism laws to oppress and exploit innocent citizens.

It is important to note that only inclusive economic growth and development and the establishment, within each African country, of governance systems that guarantee the rule of law, including respect for human rights, can deal fully with terrorism and other types of violent and destructive mobilization.

Analysts argue, however, that fighting terrorism effectively is a long-term effort. It is important to note that only inclusive economic growth and development and the establishment, within each African country, of governance systems that guarantee the rule of law, including respect for human rights, can deal fully with terrorism and other types of violent and destructive mobilization. African countries must fully address those issues (e.g., extreme poverty; severe inequality in access to opportunities for self-actualization, as well as in the distribution of income and wealth; and religious and ethnic persecution) that enhance radicalization and render joining extremist groups an attractive option for many of the continent’s youth.

Pressing South Sudanese leaders for peace: South Sudan gained independence on July 9, 2011 and was immediately faced with a multiplicity of problems. In addition to the fact that the new government lacked the capacity to deliver necessary public goods and services to all citizens, as well as the fact that the country faced significantly high levels of venality in the public sector, it was not able to manage diversity effectively. By the summer of 2013, the country had plunged into a major political crisis, which eventually deteriorated into civil war as President Salva Kiir fought forces loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar, to remain the country’s chief executive. The struggle soon took on ethnic dimensions since Kiir gets significant support from the Dinkas, and Machar gets support from ethnic Nuer. Both parties signed a peace agreement in 2015 but have failed to meet a January 22, 2016 to form a Transitional Government of National Unity. It is important that South Sudan’s leaders place the interests and welfare of the people above their own and form an inclusive government, which can create the conditions necessary for effective state reconstruction. The AU should hold the country’s leaders accountable for meeting the commitments that they made in the peace agreement. Significant pressure must be put on these leaders by the international community, including especially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to act responsibly and form an inclusive government that would move the country forward in a peaceful and productive manner. 

Ending the crisis in Burundi: President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to defy the constitution and seek a third term in office unleashed violent and destructive mobilizations that have killed more than 400 people and created a major humanitarian crisis in the region. The United Nations says that since April 2015, as many as 240,000 people have fled the country into exile. Are we about to see a repeat of the past—that is, the manipulation of ethnicity by political demagogues that eventually produced a brutal civil war that killed as many as 300,000 people? Some analysts believe that without a quick stop to what the locals simply call “La Crise,” the country is on the verge of being visited by the ghosts of its violent past. The AU, which had planned to send 5,000 peacekeepers to secure the peace and help restore stability, has abandoned that initiative in view of fierce opposition from Nkurunziza. Even a visit from the U.N. Security Council was not enough to convince Nkurunziza to either allow the AU force to enter Burundi or for the government to engage in dialogue with opposition parties without preconditions.

After their recent visit to Burundi, members of the U.N. Security Council “stressed the urgency of addressing the situation” in the country “before it deteriorates further and possibly takes on ethnic dimensions, despite the position of the government of Burundi that the situation is not of such concern.” But can the AU deploy peacekeepers without Burundi’s approval? Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union grants the AU the right to intervene in any member country “pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” However, a top diplomat at the AU has been quoted as saying that unilateral deployment would be an “unimaginable” act. In addition, it is ironic that at the same time the AU was opting not to act forcefully to secure the peace in Burundi and avert what could be another genocide, the incoming chairman of the AU (President Deby of Chad) was declaring that “[t]hrough diplomacy or by force…we must put an end to these tragedies of our time. We cannot make progress and talk of development if part of our body is sick. We should be the main actors in the search for solution to Africa’s crises.”

The AU and the Libyan crisis: The events of the Arab Spring represented a new modality of regime change that the AU had never before encountered. When military forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) captured Tripoli on August 22, 2011 and drove away then Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, members of the NATO-led military alliance that had been providing “aerial bombardment support to the NTC” immediately proceeded to pressure the African Union to recognize the NTC as the only legitimate government of Libya. Nevertheless, when the democratic uprising morphed into a de facto civil war, the AU’s response was a roadmap, which was informed by the organization’s long-established approach to dealing with intra-state conflicts, which called for a ceasefire and negotiations for an inclusive interim government.

The NTC, however, rejected the roadmap, arguing that it did not make allowance for Qaddafi’s immediate departure. The position taken by the NTC was significantly enhanced by the support that it was receiving from the NATO countries, the Arab League, the United Nations, and several African countries.

Although it denounced what it believed was an illegal regime change in Libya orchestrated by NATO powers supposedly to protect Libyan civilians, the AU went ahead, although reluctantly, and recognized the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government and granted the NTC the right to represent the country in the AU.

Some analysts have examined the AU’s failed efforts to mediate the peace in Libya’s political crisis and have argued that “the most important reason for this failure was the decision by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States to “undermine and sideline the AU.” Other reasons for the failure of the AU’s roadmap are said to include the inability of the AU to garner coherent support among African countries for its position on Libya and the fact that the AU never really gained the confidence of either the Qaddafi regime or the NTC.

Although Qaddafi’s regime was recognized as both oppressive and repressive towards the country’s citizens, the AU did not approve the decision by the NTC to transform a democratic uprising into a civil war. The AU became even more adamant about its non-violent approach to the Libyan crisis after the NATO countries effectively became agents of forceful regime change in Libya. However, some observers have argued that the AU’s emphasis on the fact that the regime change was unconstitutional must be weighed against the fact that the Qaddafi regime was not only unconcerned about democratic governance but promoted basic laws that were designed to perpetuate and entrench Qaddafi’s hold on power.

To retain its relevance, the AU must provide the leadership to fully and timely resolve various continental problems, such as democratic and popular uprisings, terrorism and violent extremism, armed conflicts, and of course, the necessary political and economic transformations to enhance inclusive growth and development and participatory governance.

It has been argued that the recognition of the NTC by the AU was inconsistent with the organization’s legal positions
regarding the illegal/unconstitutional changes of regime on the continent. But, what can be learned from the AU’s handling of the Libyan crisis? While the AU is quite clear about its opposition to unconstitutional regime changes on the continent, it is important for the organization to put in place clear and specific mechanisms to deal with popular uprisings such as those that occurred in North Africa, including Libya.

As much as resolving armed conflicts is important, the AU needs to actively engage in other transformative activities on the continent, including especially, those activities that fundamentally transform the critical domains (i.e., the political, administrative, and judicial foundations of the state) and provide institutional arrangements that foster inclusive economic growth, peaceful coexistence of each country’s various subcultures, and enhance participatory and inclusive governance. Perhaps, had the AU developed such a specific mechanism for dealing with popular uprisings, it would have been able to more effectively confront the present uprising in Burundi.

To retain its relevance, the AU must provide the leadership to fully and timely resolve various continental problems, such as democratic and popular uprisings, terrorism and  violent extremism, armed conflicts, and of course, the necessary political and economic transformations to enhance inclusive growth and development and participatory governance. African countries must not and should not continue to rely on intervention by external actors (e.g., the EU, the U.N., the ICC, and the United States) to help them resolve domestic problems.

Long-term challenges

Support good governance: While it is quite clear that countries such as Somalia, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan are in urgent need of institutional reforms to guarantee the rule of law, enhance the protection of human rights, and advance inclusive economic growth, it is important to note that even countries that appear peaceful are still suffering from governance systems that are pervaded by corruption, rent seeking, the lack of government accountability, and impunity. One long-term goal for the African Union should be to galvanize grassroots support throughout the continent for institutional reforms to produce (1) constitutions that cannot be easily manipulated by political elites (as occurred in Burundi and Burkina Faso) to prolong their stay in power; and (2) governing processes that are undergirded by some form of separation of powers, with checks and balances—at the minimum, judicial independence must be safeguarded and the legislative branch granted enough independence so that it can effectively check on what have been, in many African countries during the last several decades, imperial presidencies with virtually no check on the exercise of government power.

Create institutions for improving the livelihood of the average citizen: Institutional arrangements that provide citizens with the wherewithal to resolve conflicts peacefully, organize their private lives and engage in those activities (e.g., start and operate a business for profit; practice their chosen religion; get married and raise a family—that is, engage freely in self-actualizing activities) that enhance their ability to maximize their values and protect themselves from abuse by state- and non-state actors, as well as participate fully and effectively in governance, including being able to hold their governors accountable for their actions.

Strengthen the African Court of Justice and Human Rights: The court needs the authority to actually serve as an effective legal instrument for the protection of human rights in all countries in the continent, including dealing with crimes that are currently being referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Facilitate economic integration: Currently, many African countries have economies that are relatively small and not very viable and hence, are not capable of engaging in production processes that can effectively utilize and benefit from technological economies of scale. Integration can significantly increase the size of these economies and enhance their ability to produce goods that are competitive globally in both price and quality. In fact, integration at the regional level, especially if supported by the AU, for example, can help small countries more effectively construct and maintain infrastructures such as roads and bridges, universities and research centers, and other projects that require large initial investments but are characterized by significant scale economies.

Transform the AU from observer to actor: During the last several years, as the continent has been devastated and ravaged by terrorist attacks, the AU has remained essentially an observer. When it comes to the fight against terrorism, the AU should make the plight of the victims of these insidious crimes—not state claims of sovereignty and independence—the main basis for its decisions. The AU, of course, must work with national governments and regional organizations (e.g., ECOWAS in West Africa) but must not allow these local groups to constrain its ability to intervene when doing so would save lives or prevent situations that could deteriorate into mass pogroms. Thus, the AU should act purposefully and forcefully to develop an effective anti-terrorism framework that can deal effectively with terrorism and help member states target and address those issues that enhance extremism. The current one just doesn’t cut it.

Address poverty and inequality: Extreme poverty and unequal access to opportunities for self-actualization remain serious challenges for virtually all African countries. Already, in its Agenda 2063, the AU has promised to address these issues and enhance what it calls “inclusive economic growth and sustainable development.”
[3] These issues, of course, are interrelated and tied to many of the recommendations listed above. For example, without peace, it is not likely that any African country will be able to engage in the types of entrepreneurial activities that enhance inclusive growth and development. Hence, it is important for the AU to promote the rule of law and thus create the enabling environment for the emergence of the entrepreneurial communities that offer all citizens the opportunities for self-actualization.

Respond effectively to pandemics: As evidenced by the response to the Ebola pandemic that devastated Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone beginning in March 2014, few African countries have health care systems that can effectively and fully respond to pandemics. In addition, there is no continent-wide framework that can timely deal with such health threats and effectively prevent them from becoming pandemics. The AU must take the lead in helping develop a continent-wide response framework to future health threats.

Ensure the equitable allocation of and access to water: The continuing struggle between Egypt and Sudan, on the one hand, and Ethiopia and the other upstream riparian states, on the other hand, over access to the waters of the Nile River, has reminded us of the need for African countries to develop effective legal frameworks for the equitable allocation of existing water resources. With increased demand for water for household use and for irrigated farming—due to rapid population increases, urbanization, and the effects of global warming—it has become evident that African countries must develop and adopt effective legal frameworks to govern the allocation of water resources, as well as deal with other water-related issues such as ecosystem degradation, conservation, and water treatment and reclamation. The AU can provide the mechanisms for regional discourses on water management and enhance the ability of member countries to develop and adopt effective systems to manage international watercourses.

The way forward for the AU

The African Union is in a position to provide the leadership for Africa to develop into a much more effective competitor in the global economy and a full participant in global governance. To do so, the AU must move aggressively to deal with some pressing issues in order to secure peace and security in several countries and avert descend into anarchy and genocide. In the long-run, the AU should help its member countries develop and adopt institutional arrangements and governing processes that guarantee the rule of law, enhance the protection of human rights (including especially those of women and other vulnerable groups), and promote inclusive growth and development. The timid and extremely cautious approach that the AU is taking with respect to the crisis in Burundi is almost tantamount to a dereliction of duties. The AU leadership must not allow claims of sovereignty and independence made by the governments of member states to inform, and perhaps, cloud its decisions. Emphasis should be placed on the plight of the people who are being exploited, displaced and forced into homelessness and/or exile, maimed, and killed by the violence in these countries.

[1]Aspiration 1 of the AU’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.

[2] The AU’s guiding principles can be found in the Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes in Government and the Constitutive Act of African Union, which prohibit unconstitutional changes in government. For example, Art. 30 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union states as follows: “Governments which shall come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union.” Also, Art. 4 states that “[t]he Union shall function in accordance with the following principles: “(p) condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of government.” See Constitutive Act of the African Union, available at (last visited on February 6, 2016).

[3] Aspiration 1 of the AU’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.