African unity after 50 years: building solid foundations for the future

Photo © Albany Associates
As the AU turns 50, one of the successes of the organisation has been various peacekeeping missions to promote stability, such as that in Somalia.

One of the highlights of the upcoming 21st Summit of the African Union (AU) is the 50th anniversary of the founding in 1963 of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 2013.

This occasion will be celebrated under the theme of ‘Pan Africanism and the African Rennaissance’, providing a fitting moment to reflect on Africa’s achievements and shortcomings under the aegis of the OAU since 1963, and the AU since 2002.

International organisations are the sum of the collective will of their membership, and thus their performance cannot be judged in the same way as states. As complex, deliberative and largely consensual entities, international institutions tend to act late and inadequately. Notwithstanding institutional and organisational challenges besetting it since inception, the OAU played a crucial role in the decolonisation of the continent through its lobbying efforts at the UN and other fora. More importantly, it also championed Africa’s cause in international affairs by putting issues of conflict, poverty, underdevelopment and global governance reform on the agenda of multilateral organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation. While African economic integration remains to be achieved, the body set the blue-print for continent-wide mobilisation towards economic integration through the adoption in 1980 of the Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty in 1991.

If decolonisation and collective self-reliance where key objectives of the OAU, the body’s record in matters of peace and security was dismal. When the OAU first convened in 1963, one of its key decisions was to uphold the borders created in Africa by the former colonial powers at the Berlin conference of 1884-1885. This decision was taken to avoid internecine conflict between members states. However, because of the adherence to sovereignty norms and principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the OAU failed in many respects to contribute to peace and stability and people-centred development. It was often accused of being an “old boys club”, whose leaders were unwilling to criticise each other.

The transformation of the OAU into the AU in 2002 began to change these perceptions, albeit not completely. The AU has since inception demonstrated an encouraging proactiveness in terms of tackling the continent’s challenges, thereby seeking to end Africa’s marginalisation and underdevelopment. The creation of innovative security instruments and policies, including the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of 2004 has provided the AU with a progressive peace architecture. Through the Constitutive Act of 2002, the AU has also developed and built on several norms as safeguards in the promotion of a culture of peace and security. These include among others: sovereign equality of member states; condemnation of unconstitutional changes in government; and the AU’s right to intervene in member states in cases of grave circumstances.

Combining these norms with new institutions on the premise of ‘African solutions to African problems’ has infused the AU and member states with more vibrancy in dealing with Africa’s security challenges. The continental body has not only created linkages with Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as important building blocks in promoting an ambitious security agenda, but cooperation with the United Nations Security Council has also deepened. Various AU peacekeeping missions backed by comprehensive regional peace dialogues have notched successes by turning around or stabilising failed states such as Burundi and Somalia. The AU-UN partnership has also yielded positive results with the first African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur rolled out in 2007.

If there were over 70 successful coup d’états during the OAU’s tenure, only a paltry 12 occurred since the establishment of the AU. This suggests that AU instruments, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), including norms that have been adopted relating to governance, human rights and democracy have gained traction and started to bear fruit. The relative successes in dealing with security and governance challenges have also provided scope for the continent to address the twin problems of poverty and underdevelopment. It explains in part why Africa’s economic outlook has been transformed from a bleak and hopeless future in the 1990s to a promising frontier of growth and investment during the past decade.

Accompanied by significant economic reforms since the mid-1990s and the introduction of prudent fiscal and monetary policies, Africa now has better macro-economic fundamentals, lower inflation and better foreign reserves supporting a more favourable investment climate. Recent forecasts by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank advise that economic growth in Africa is likely to surge above 5% in 2013-2014, well above the global average of 2.4% in 2013 and 3% in 2014. Also, foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa is expected to reach record levels, USD 54 billion by 2015. Sound fiscal management has also translated into better investments in social sectors as borne out by the 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, which notes that no African country for which data are available has a lower Human Development Index value in 2012 than in 2000.

However, challenges remain, especially related to the critical shortage in hard infrastructure to sustain Africa’s economic growth. The ambitious Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) is a step in the right direction. Executed by the African Development Bank, but under the leadership of the AU Commission and Nepad, the programme seeks to mobilise resources for continent-wide infrastructure investment in energy, trans-boundary water resources, transport, and information and communication technology (ICT).

In spite of these positive developments, which could be imputed to several continental initiatives under the rubric of the AU, the body is still a tower of Babel, and has not shown sufficient political will to deal decisively with some of the political challenges facing the continent. It has been largely ineffectual during the political crisis in Ivory Coast in 2010 and hapless in Libya in early 2011. More recently in Mali, its role was usurped by the former colonial power, France. Institutional and operational weaknesses have provided justification for the continued involvement of Western powers as first-tier security providers, with the AU being a second-tier provider. With the initial 2010 deadline being moved several times, the African Standby Force (ASF), a planned AU continental military force designed to be employed in times of crisis, is expected to become operational only in 2015. However, it remains doubtful that member states will commit the financial resources required to fully develop force capabilities and its operations.

Notwithstanding impressive levels of economic growth, poverty remains a key challenge with natural resource-driven growth being largely non-inclusive, thereby perpetuating inequality and socio-political tensions. The policy interface and coordination between national governments, regional economic communities and the AU remain underdeveloped and pose a challenge for continental policy coordination and implementation. There is also the overall incapacity to implement decisions at the national, regional and continental level. Moreover, implementation is hampered by the inability of the AU to mobilise resources from member states, with 90% of the AU’s programmes and peace operations funded by international cooperating partners.

Building a solid continental institution for the next fifty years will require the AU to develop strong policy oversight and consistency at the political level, while embracing an ambitious bureaucratic reform agenda under the leadership of the chairperson of the Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. More importantly, the state of neglect of certain regional economic communities as building blocks for continent-wide integration should be addressed as a matter of urgency. At this milestone of 50, thinking about a more forward-looking, people-centred developmental agenda might just be what the continent needs to sustainably transform African communities.