In June, the African Union will celebrate two decades as a presence on the global stage. Since 2002, the organization has sought to unlock economic barriers to growth on the continent, but its existence is not without criticism. There is a growing sense of unease that it is veering away from its mission. And so, twenty years in, it is instructive to examine why it is that the African Union matters now more than ever.
What is the African Union and why does it matter? Founded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the African Union involves 1.3 billion people and covers 11 million square miles of territory. In just the Americas alone there are over 200 million people of African descent. To put things more fully into perspective, the African Union is six times the size of the European Union, and the combined states of the African Union constitute the world’s 11th largest economy.
However one of the most interesting aspects of the AU – one that separates it from all other geopolitical organizations in the world — is that it invites and encourages members of the African diaspora to be a part of its political and economic structures. The European Union Global Diaspora Facility, by contrast, also encourages its diaspora engagement, but pretty much stops there. The size and scale of the African diaspora is a unique historical event in that it was largely caused by the trauma of the slave trade. With that in mind, it is no surprise that the AU makes far greater efforts at engaging its diaspora than does Europe. The African Union defines the African diaspora as “consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.” And the African diaspora has been officially recognized by the AU as its sixth region.
This is not to say that the AU is a perfect institution. Paul Nantulya at the Africa Center voices some of the most persistent criticisms of the organization:
Under the 2000 Lomé Declaration, the AU established a protocol for condemning coups and expelling offending member states. This rule has been implemented in Egypt (2013), Burkina Faso (2015, 2022), Guinea (2021), Mali (2020, 2021), and Sudan (2019, 2022). However, it was silent on others, such as Zimbabwe and Chad in 2017 and 2021, respectively. Furthermore, even in the cases where the AU implemented the protocol, the modalities for rehabilitation are unclear, as most offenders eventually wind up back in the AU with little or no consequences.
It should be noted that the standard criticisms of the African Union do not take into account how new the organization actually is. At 20, the AU is only a third as old as the United Nations, and, unlike the UN which was formed by universal consensus after the end of World War II and the failure of the League of Nations, the AU is a second generation regional peace organization. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the African Union, existed from 1963 to 2002, disbanding at the age of 40. The OAU had 32 signatory governments, the African Union, by contrast, has 55. The OAU existed largely to combat colonialism and neocolonialism during the decolonization of the continent in the late 20th century. It was necessary for its time when the continent was underdeveloped and had just come out of a century of western domination. The AU is best construed as OAU 2.0.
What are some other ways that the African Union can leverage the untapped potential of the diaspora? McKinsey estimates that the Black consumer household, chronically underserved, is worth $300 billion a year. One good idea along these lines was Ghana’s “Year of Return, 2019” which made the West African country a key travel destination, with the option of citizenship as an incentive. Diaspora studies are becoming more and more prominent in academia. The African diaspora is connected to the continent in everything from remittances to tourism. Perhaps some of the synergies that the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized in the wake of the death of George Floyd can be used by the African Union. What if the Diaspora Division of the AU made a concerted effort to connect successful black owned business overseas to African products? Further, the Charter for African Cultural Renaissance, which aims to preserve and promote African cultural heritage through conservation, restitution and rehabilitation, could tie African diaspora artists to the AU and a much wider potential audience.
What does the future hold for the AU? Funding for Peace and Security is up this year. Somalia is a problem yet without a solution, but optimistically, Agenda 2063, the African Union’s ambitious plans for the future, provides a glimpse of what the AU could become. Agenda 2063 envisions a 50 year event horizon from 2013 to 2063. The five decade development trajectory is three-pronged: a reduction of conflicts, renewed economic growth and social progress. And, of course, affordable, sustainable internet access across the continent is a must for the future and prosperity of the African Union.
It cannot be stressed enough the importance of a standby force on the continent in reducing military conflict. The African Union-led Regional Task Force, based in central Africa, must become more proactive so as, ironically, to increase peace. Aside from Somalia, instability is affecting West Africa. The European Union has increased security funding for the AU, and the money comes at an important crossroad. Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as Somalia, are matters of instability that ought to give the whole continent pause. The previous sanguinary century conjured autocrats of all variety, from Bokassa to Amin. The 20th century still exerts a hideous pull, even while we are moving deeper into the 21st and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
African economic integration continues apace, but the pace is still too slow, especially in an era of disseminating COVID variants and inflation for as far as the eye can see. Deepening economic integration — the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) — on the continent is essential to the growth that leads to political stability. The present pandemonium of unintegrated African economies only worsens the effects of rising food prices. The AfCTA brings together 54 countries of the African Union and eight regional economic communities into a single market, quickening the continents healing from the global shock of the pandemic. A World Bank report shows that the regional integration that the AfCFTA brings could lift 30 million people from extreme poverty in Africa by 2035. Also, a single Intercontinental currency, like the Euro is to European countries, is another important path to strengthening the African Union.
How do we best promote social progress in the African Union? Protected human rights are the fundament of social stability. The African Court on Human and Peoples Rights needs to be strengthened. The Court, which rules on African Union states’ compliance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, appears sometimes too weak to act. “Hamstrung,” is how the Africa Center’s Paul Nantulya describes it. However, there have been recent significant victories gained by this sometimes hamstrung court. Last month, for example, Madagascar acceded to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. That brings the number up to 33 of African states that have ratified the protocol, including such regional heavyweights as Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria and the Congo.
It is fashionable, though unproductive, to disdain international organizations for not moving as fast as the fast-moving times we live in at present. The AU’s response to COVID 19 was, and still is, superlative. It was supposed to be a continental worst case scenario — until it wasn’t. “Africa, as the region with the greatest number of least developed countries and consequently the weakest public health systems, was expected to struggle in responding to COVID-19,” notes Chris Alden and Charles Dunst on the London School of Economics website. “In fact, the AU has been reasonably proactive, undoubtedly because of its established institutional commitment to regional public health in the form of the Africa Centre for Disease Control.” The African CDC, an AU body, set the bar high for response to public health emergencies, and no doubt that cooperation will continue well into the future. This is one of the success stories that the mainstream media missed.
The AU’s progress seems slow, but very few multilateral international organizations have accomplished so much so fast. In Kenya in 2008, for example, the low-key intervention of the AU helped prevent regional violence from exploding. It has done the same – with even less fanfare – in South Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire. The Peer Review Mechanism, in which AU member states voluntarily agree to peer-level performance reviews of their governance, is an ingenious and particularly African mechanism that could conceivably bear ripe fruit in the future with regards to stability on the continent. All of this is to say that the African Union is not a flashy, ostentatious institution. It will not sweep the observer off her or his feet with its geopolitical accomplishments, but at the young age of twenty, it is a necessary and appreciated organization, and we look forward to what it has still yet to offer.
A Luta Continua.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair