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Adekeye Adebajo | Alchemy in Addis Ababa: The AU at 20

Published:Sunday | July 24, 2022 | 12:07 AM
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo

In this August 2014 photo, civilians who had left the town of Bulomarer when it was held by al-Shabab militants, return following the town’s capture by African Union and Somali government soldiers, in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia.
In this August 2014 photo, civilians who had left the town of Bulomarer when it was held by al-Shabab militants, return following the town’s capture by African Union and Somali government soldiers, in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia.

In the Middle Ages, European alchemists unsuccessfully tried to turn lead into gold, employing impenetrable, mystical language. As the African Union (AU) turned 20 this month, it has achieved a few successes, but remains a weak organisation embarking on sporadic bouts of illusory reforms.


The AU was born in the South African port city of Durban in 2002. Led by Thabo Mbeki, African leaders seemed determined to abandon the plethora of grandiose plans of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) era since 1963. Unlike the OAU Charter, the AU’s Constitutive Act of 2000 allowed for interference in the internal affairs of its members to stem instability and sanction military coups d’état. Military regimes in Togo, Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger, Egypt, Sudan, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Burkina Faso were thus suspended from the AU, though autocrats have continued to rig electoral outcomes. The continental body, however, launched praiseworthy military stabilisation missions into Burundi, Darfur, and Somalia.


The Addis Ababa-based AU Commission has struggled to establish its independence to take initiatives on behalf of its 55 members. A 2007 audit report led by renowned Nigerian scholar-technocrat Adebayo Adedeji revealed how Malian Alpha Konaré’s AU Commission (2003-2008) misunderstood its mandates and authority levels, and failed to coordinate overlapping tasks. Under the French-influenced Gabonese Jean Ping’s AU Commission (2008-2012), the annual budget had reached $260 million by 2011, but only 40 per cent this was actually paid by members, with the European Union, China, and the United States mostly funding the rest.

The omnipotent AU Assembly of leaders has often failed to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity, in which decisions are taken at the lowest practical level. Their deliberations are sometimes far removed from their citizens, with populations frequently left uninformed about continental integration efforts. The AU still conducts most of its business through unanimity, though its 15-member Peace and Security Council takes decisions on substantive issues by a two-thirds majority. While the AU has some impressive staff, it also has much ‘dead wood’ inherited from the OAU era. By 2011, the organisation had established offices in New York, Washington, and Brussels, but its commission still lacked the capacity and authority to act on behalf of its member states.


As chair of the AU Commission (2012-2016), former South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma complained, in 2012, that over 97 per cent of AU programmes were funded by external donors. In 2013, $155.4 million of the organisation’s $278.2-million annual budget (56 per cent) was still provided by foreign partners. During her five-year tenure, Dlamini-Zuma, however, failed to reduce this dependence, as AU leaders refused to back alternative sources of funding such as customs duties, and taxes on flights and hotel stays. The Dlamini-Zuma-driven 2013 ‘Agenda 2063’ was a quixotic plan that perfectly symbolised the alchemy at the heart of the AU. The problem of a 50-year plan, of course, is that none of its authors will be alive to be held accountable for the failure of its implementation. This was a triumph of hope over experience. Among its more euphoric ideas were: increasing intra-African trade from 12 per cent to 50 per cent by 2045; silencing all the guns by 2020; eradicating poverty in two decades; and ending terrorism, gender-based violence, and human trafficking.

Under the Francophile Chadian chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, since 2017, the Kagame report on reforming the AU represented yet another example of institutional alchemy. This 2017 report was the most disappointing of a blue-ribbon commission in living memory. It seemed rushed without adequate consultation, lacked substance, and its fluffy laundry list of recommendations were on a level of vacuity as to be of no real utility. These were physicians proposing half-baked cures to ills that had not been properly diagnosed.

All the report’s nine ‘key findings’ – chronic failure to implement AU decisions; limited relevance to African citizens; fragmented focus areas; overdependence on external funders; under-performance of organs; limited management capacity; lack of performance accountability; unclear division of labour between the AU and subregional bodies; and inefficient working methods – had been more coherently outlined in Adebayo Adedeji’s report a decade earlier, which did not appear to have been properly consulted. The panel noted that 74 per cent of the AU’s 2017 $439-million budget was to be financed by external donors, before incomprehensibly calling for the implementation of the AU’s ‘Kigali Financing Decision’, in which members fund 100 per cent of the organisation’s operating budget, 75 per cent of the programme budget, and 25 per cent of peacekeeping operations.

A final example of AU alchemy is the 2018 African Continental Free Trade Area, which seeks to facilitate trade; build infrastructure; establish a common market for goods, services, and investment; and ensure the free movement of persons. But, outside of West and Eastern Africa, the free movement of people remains a pipedream, as most security-obsessed African governments remain hostile to intra-African migration.

There is also a lack of convergence of African economies, many of which are competitive exporters of raw materials, rather than complementary exchangers of diverse goods. Road, rail, and port infrastructure remain poor. Rules of origin are often restrictive (and need to promote more ‘Made in Africa’ products), while non-tariff barriers are widespread. If integration has not worked at the national and subregional levels, would transferring all of these problems to the continental level really integrate Africa?


In concluding, it should be noted that the AU Peace and Security Council has contributed substantively to peacemaking efforts across Africa, and coordinated more effectively with the United Nations. Other organs have, however, performed less well. The new partnership for Africa’s development clearly lacks the resources and capacity to develop the continent; the African Peer Review Mechanism has been toothless; the Pan-African Parliament largely remains a talking shop; while the Economic, Social, and Cultural Council has failed to provide genuine civil society participation in the AU’s institutions. The idea of the Diaspora as a sixth AU subregion is largely devoid of substance.

The AU must thus adopt more realistic and less illusory approaches to implementing its mandates, based on an accurate assessment of its financial and logistical realities. The organisation’s 2003 plan to set up an African Standby Force by 2010 was postponed until 2015. In December 2020, the AU simply declared the force to be fully operational, despite the fantasy involved in such a statement. The date for “silencing the guns by 2020” was casually pushed back by a decade, further exposing the alchemy at the heart of a body whose huge ambitions frequently fail to match its achievements.

More positively, the AU has raised over $315 million for its revised Peace Fund, complementing a $650-million 2022 budget. African leaders must now strengthen fledgling institutions that they have created, and establish one effective economic pillar in each subregion that can promote socio-economic development and provide jobs for the continent’s teeming, youthful population. The AU’s first two decades have largely represented a magical, mystical world of diplomatic marabouts, fetishes, and incantations.

- Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to