The African Union: pitfalls and prospects for uniting Africa.

Author:Okumu, Wafula
Position:Organization overview

As the African Union (AU) moves toward its tenth anniversary in 2012, it is drawing a great deal of attention to its handling of mounting crises on the continent. Across the continent, the AU is faced with crises that test its commitment and capability to fulfill the ambitious agenda it adopted at its formation in July 2002. This agenda includes the promotion of peace, stability, human rights, democracy, good governance and sustainable development. Among the motivating factors for the formation of the Union was to provide Africa with a platform and voice to survive and benefit from the wave of globalization. The AU, as stated in its Constitutive Act, was Africa's response to "the multifaceted challenges that confront our continent and peoples in the light of the social, economic and political changes taking place in the world." (1) It was concocted as a vehicle for accelerating "political and socio-economic integration of the continent" and for establishing "the necessary conditions which enable the continent to play its rightful role in the global economy and in international negotiations." (2)

While cushioning Africa from the challenges of globalization, the AU was to filter positive values such as good governance, respect for the culture of human rights and peace to galvanize the continent's development and integration. Yet today the AU still confronts a number of daunting challenges, including the stalemate over the Western Sahara question; seemingly intractable conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Darfur and Somalia; a longstanding unresolved border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea that could erupt into another full-blown war; agile militia and rebel movements in the Niger delta and in the Uganda-DRC-Sudan-Central African Republic-Chad region; piracy off the Somali coast and the Gulf of Guinea; and a complex political emergency in Zimbabwe that threatens to spread throughout the region. Despite the optimism and enthusiasm that greeted the formation of the AU, a number of African countries have been severely weakened by poor governance, escalating food insecurity, brutal clampdowns by fragile regimes and the whims of international forces such as high commodity prices. (3)

Although the six years since its launch are too few to undertake a critical assessment of the organization's record, they nevertheless constitute a formative period that has established a foundation of action and has demonstrated what the future might bring. As a Pan-Africanist organization, the AU should by now be embraced by African people. It should be close to them and responsive to their needs--at least in democratic terms. The AU can also be measured by how well it sets up its institutions, manages itself and establishes continental norms of good governance, transparency and accountability.

This article is a critical assessment of the performance of the AU since inception. Starting with a brief background of the AU, this article analyzes the organization's role in promoting peace and new norms, then highlights some of the challenges it faces as it seeks to achieve an ambitious agenda of developing and integrating one of the most marginalized regions of the world. This article concludes with a set of recommendations that outline the ways in which the AU can effectively achieve its noble and ambitious objectives.


The idea of the African Union can be traced to the Pan-Africanist movement and to the clarion call made in 1961 by one of its fervent promoters, Kwame Nkrumah, for Africa to unite in the interest of its own survival. (4) Although Nkrumah's dream of forming a "United States of Africa" never came to fruition, it nevertheless resulted in the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in May 1963. The idea of an African union, as envisioned by Nkrumah, was revived in the late 1990s, when the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi spearheaded the transformation of the OAU into the AU in July 2002. (5) The AU was established as a functionalist organization, as the preamble of its Constitutive Act acknowledges, noting that "the scourge of conflicts in Africa constitutes a major impediment to the socio-economic development of the continent and of the need to promote peace, security and stability as a prerequisite for the implementation of our development and integration agenda." (6) According to historian David Mitrany, if nations are economically and socially interdependent and their national well-being depends upon the maintenance of peace, then war is less likely. (7)

This functionalist nature of the AU is further reflected in its key objectives (Article 3 of the Constitutive Act), which aim to:

achieve greater unity and solidarity among African countries and the peoples of Africa; defend sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of member states; accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent; promote and defend African common positions on issues of interest to the continent and its people; promote peace, security and stability on the continent; promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance; and promote and protect human and peoples' rights. (8) When the AU was formed, many critics dismissed it as an organization that had merely changed its acronym by dropping one letter. (9) Among the reasons cited for this skepticism were the composition of the organization's founders, many whom lacked Pan-Africanist credentials; the lack of involvement of the African people; and the inheritance of the OAU organizational culture, incompetent staff and huge arrears. (10) Furthermore, the new organization was modeled on the European Union (EU), on which it continues to rely perhaps too heavily for ideas on institutional development and finances for survival. (11)

Although the AU borrowed the OAU's principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of member-states, it also adopted a radical principle of intervention in failed and failing states on request. However, as we shall see later, this "right to intervene" principle has largely been ineffective for a number of reasons, such as lack of political will and trigger mechanisms. Additionally, subscription to the principle of territorial integrity and respect for colonial-era boundaries contradicts the objective of "political and socio-economic integration of the continent." The report of the High Level Panel of the Audit of the African Union (referred to hereafter as the Audit Report) aptly points out that the Constitutive Act "does not specify what steps need to be taken to accelerate the political and economic integration of Africa." (12) The Audit Report further notes that if political integration is to be pursued, then "the ceding of sovereignty (is) inevitable."

The AU was formed at a time of astounding global changes, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, for which Africa was unprepared. The OAU remarked on these changes in 1990 through the "Declaration on the Political and Socio-Economic Situation in Africa and the Fundamental Changes Taking Place in the World." (13) This declaration sought to prepare Africa to face the challenges of globalization and to ensure that it was not marginalized or denied the benefits and opportunities of the new world order. By the end of the 1990s it was clear that the OAU was incapable of promoting the interests of Africa and securing its place in the emerging world order. This explains why its founding fathers gave the AU the objective of establishing "necessary conditions that should enable the continent to play its rightful role in the global economy and in international negotiations." (14) The rising tide of globalization brought to Africa notions of democracy that were sweeping the world. These new ideas forced a number of authoritarian and dictatorial rulers on the continent to adopt political pluralism. Accompanying this trend of political pluralism was an effort to redefine Africa's identity through Thabo Mbeki's "African Renaissance" idea. (15) This movement to reclaim Africa's position in the new world laid the foundation upon which the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the AU were established. (16)

Besides democracy, the AU and NEPAD embraced other norms such as good governance, rule of law and respect for human and peoples' rights. (17) NEPAD was conceptualized as an arrangement that would implement these norms through a monitoring mechanism, which would provide incentives for increased foreign investment and assistance. Other mechanisms such as the Charter on Democracy and the anti-corruption convention were later adopted to complement the Constitutive Act and NEPAD's African Peer Review Mechanisms (APRM).

Unfortunately, the evolution of the AU has mainly been based on its functional institutions rather than on the ideal of Pan-Africanism and norms such as democracy, good governance, rule of law and respect for human rights. Halfway into its first decade of existence, the AU's vision has become blurred and its objectives remain largely unmet. In 2007, the AU embarked on yet another ambitious project of establishing a "union government" even before the organization had been fully set up and run efficiently. (19) This initiative to create a union government is not only being spearheaded primarily at the executive level, but is also presented as a fait accompli to be undertaken either immediately or gradually. Opponents of this approach argue that there is no raison d'etre for a continental government founded on weak and failing states that are badly governed. The proponents of a "union government" have not convinced skeptics that a new continental government would improve the livelihoods of the African people, perform better than the present governments, which have generally failed to deliver basic services to their citizens, and sustain itself...

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