Though still to be fully implemented, the AfCFTA negotiation and agreement process, aimed at connecting 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at US$3.4 trillion, can arguably be considered one of the success stories. The AfCFTA signals a commitment to deeper integration of the continent by negotiating goods and services concurrently and has been agreed on with impressive speed.
The Agreement establishing the AfCFTA was opened for signature on 21 March 2018 and legally entered into force in May 2019. The AfCFTA’s Secretariat was established in Accra in May 2020 under the leadership of Wamkele Mene, its first Secretary General. Finally, on 1 January 2021 (six months later than originally planned, due to COVID-19) the formal start of trading under the AfCFTA was launched. Though some aspects of the agreement are still to be fully agreed, and for most countries the conditions are not yet in place to meaningfully trade in practice, to mark the launch the first consignment to be traded under the AfCFTA left Ghana on 5 January 2021.
The AfCFTA is hailed as an economic game-changer for Africa’s development, not only because of its potential to boost intra-African trade, reduce poverty and promote inclusion on the continent, but also because it offers to African countries the opportunity to become more competitive at the global level. It holds promise for not only trade in goods and services but also for deeper integration issues such as on investment, competition, intellectual property and e-commerce. Once fully implemented, the AfCFTA has the potential to lift 100 million Africans out of poverty by 2035.
Despite the promise, its ultimate success will depend not only on what member states agree to in the continuing, but also on whether African countries ratify, domesticate, implement and comply with the provisions of the AfCFTA Agreement. To date, all countries except Eritrea have signed this document and over 30 countries have ratified it, furthering the continent’s move towards regional integration.
Further, the AfCFTA does not operate in a vacuum and will only be successfully implemented if complementary policy measures are put in place to facilitate trade and investment. Importantly, the AfCFTA was opened for signature in March 2018, around ongoing developments of two interconnected and complimentary continental flagship projects: the one on Free Movement of People, with a protocol adopted by the AU Assembly in January 2018 – but signed only later, in March 2018 – and the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), also launched in January 2018.
5. Focus on the African Governance Architecture
Within the AU’s mandate is the promotion of a number of priorities, known as its shared values and instruments, including the promotion of democracy, integrity and human rights. The African Charter of Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) and the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) are examples of these shared instruments. They are all overseen by the African Governance Architecture (AGA), created to uphold good governance on the continent:
The AGA brings together all the relevant AU organs and regional economic communities engaged in political governance. Its secretariat, located within the Union’s political affairs department, is in charge of convening high-level dialogues on governance, democracy and human rights, and overseeing the youth engagement strategy (AGA YES). It should also supervise whether the various African states are complying with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG). But this task is difficult to fulfill, since countries do not provide sufficient reporting. To date, Togo is the only state to have formally submitted its report on the ACDEG, in 2016. There appears to have been no follow up from AGA, despite concerns for instance about the integrity of the country’s elections, which suggests that lack of reporting may be only one aspect of AGA’s lack of authority to tackle governance in member states.
Each member of the AGA platform plays a different role and holds different powers and duties, and the Platform is aimed at increasing synergies, coordination and lessons sharing between these different actors. The Assembly of heads of state and governments and the leadership, for instance, can issue communiqués condemning developments in a region or country – which they do occasionally, sometimes also encouraging action.
However, regional economic communities (RECs) are sometimes better placed to intervene, as in the case of ECOWAS’ intervention in the deteriorating situation in Gambia back in 2016. But in most cases, it only takes a single ‘veto player’, such as a country not willing to take a critical position towards their peer, to derail such diplomatic initiatives. The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights can hear cases involving human rights violations. However, their effectiveness is limited by a lack of jurisdiction, the lack of ability to enforce the Court’s rulings or the Commission's recommendations and, again, limited financial resources.
Many governance problems, such as rigged elections, corruption or violations of human rights, are in fact national issues. So, while states might agree when issues are discussed at the AU level, in practice their governments (and, at times, civil societies) are in the driver’s seat – and may not wish to cede power to the AU to influence what happens within their national boundaries.
As for the AU at large, finding sustainable sources of financing is one of the AGA’s key challenges, hindering the implementation of its measures. This is particularly problematic considering the political nature of the work of the AGA. While external funds to the AGA have allowed the AU Commission to exercise some agency and promote its governance agenda, it did not reassure those member states that continue to either ignore the activities of the AGA or view them with suspicion. The African Governance Facility was therefore set up as a resource mobilisation framework of AGA designed to support initiatives and programs by the members of the AGA to promote good governance and democracy on the continent. However, contribution from member states is lacking.
The AGA Secretariat and the political affairs department where it is located are now being merged with the peace and security portfolio, in a new Directorate. On paper, this could lead to a more coordinated response to political crises that can escalate into conflict, and to addressing issues at the crossroads of governance and security. But it is not yet clear what exactly this merger entails or how exactly it will be implemented at the technical and administrative levels. In particular, the implications for financing governance-related activities remain unclear, given that a large portion of the AU budget is currently earmarked for peace and security. However, this could indeed increase the resources available for some aspects of AGA implementation related to peace and security.
Overall, the AGA is backed by a strong normative framework – important commitments taken jointly by AU member states – but faces financial and implementation challenges since it cannot force the hand of member states that resist ‘interference’ in what they consider domestic affairs. In other words, the AU can set the course towards better governance, but pushing for it in practice is more of a national prerogative. On the bright side, civil society actors have been instrumental in pushing for improved governance systems in their respective states and also at the continental level to bring about better state-society relations.
6. The African Union as a global actor
Beyond its continental agendas, in a fast-changing global order the AU is becoming increasingly important for Africa to become more vocal on the international stage. Hence, the AU has the important mandate to represent its members and position Africa in global fora. This is evidenced in the coordination of its member states’ views in international negotiations, global frameworks and in supporting high-level international appointments such as to the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations (UN).
The Common African Positions (CAPs) are examples of how Africa has been able to take on a common, united position on key issues at the international level.
The AU has also been instrumental in coordinating support for African candidates in the leadership of global forums. With 55 member states, the AU has power in numbers and can potentially hold a strong position in such negotiations. Examples include Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus the Director General of the WHO, Louise Mushikwabo the Secretary General of Organisation internationale de la Francophonie and the nomination of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the position of Director General of the WTO.
The AU is currently rethinking its strategic partnerships, beyond its traditional relations with the EU, to meet the continental needs and priorities. The AU Commission is also paying increasing attention to ensure that external partnerships have de facto added value to its own agendas, be it Agenda 2063 or a flagship programme.
One example is the AU’s cooperation with the UN on peace and security. While coordination between the two has been stepped up considerably over the years, the continued marginalisation of the AU’s PSC in the UN Peace and Security Council (UNSC) is increasingly at odds with the AU’s aim of finding “African solutions for African problems”.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to coordinate the positions of African members of the UNSC (the so-called ‘A3’) and to create alignment between the decisions of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) and that of the UNSC. These are promising developments, but the AU-UN partnership is yet to resolve critical issues such as a more equitable representation of Africa in the UNSC and also securing UN assessed contributions for peace support operations managed by the AU.
With integration gaining traction in Africa, the continent’s collective agency in global governance has also increased. One example is the AU’s leadership and solidarity around the COVID-19 pandemic. The African Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC), together with the AU Bureau and AUC, were quick to assist member states with surveillance, emergency preparedness, and response strategies, mobilise continental assistance and joint funding for member states. African leaders also came out with a clear common narrative on global health governance and issued a coordinated appeal to the international community for global solidarity and external support to fight the pandemic as well as call for debt relief. The Africa CDC and AU continue this solidarity by procuring vaccines on behalf of member states.
International relations is a shared space in which member states are the primary agents. While it remains a work in progress, interests and incentives between and within states will continue to shape what agendas are implemented and how. As the largest intergovernmental organisation in Africa, the AU is increasingly present in the global arena, and AU member states increasingly see an interest in supporting coordinated African positions. With a level of success in the area of peace and security, the AU is continuously working on finding African solutions to both African and global problems and further advancing Africa’s economic, inclusive and sustainable development.
About our work
At ECDPM, the African Institutions and Regional Dynamics Programme analyses the actors and factors at play within different reform processes at the continental, regional and national levels to promote inclusive forms of development. This social shorthand is part of our work on the Political Economy Dynamics of Regional Organisations in the time of COVID-19 (PEDRO II). It builds on earlier works conducted under the Political Economy Dynamics of Regional Organisations (PEDRO), in line with ECDPM's mission to inform and facilitate relations between Europe and Africa, and financed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, BMZ.
This guide was created by Philomena Apiko, Martin Ronceray, Luckystar Miyandazi, Bruce Byiers, Alfonso Medinilla, Lidet Tadesse and Valeria Pintus. For information about this guide please contact Philomena Apiko at firstname.lastname@example.org or Martin Ronceray at email@example.com. To know more about ECDPM’s work on African institutions and regional dynamics, and on the PEDRO II project, contact Bruce Byiers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This guide is inspired by and builds on our previous guide to the African Union.