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The African Union (AU) represents different things to different people. For some, it is a core part of the development landscape in Africa – a symbol of pan-Africanism, continental collective action and aspirations for ‘The Africa We Want’. Others know of its existence but are less sure of its relevance, or how its programmes and policies could or should affect what they experience day to day in their own countries. For others who seek to support African development and international partnerships, the AU is a natural counterpart to the European Union – two continental unions, seeking similar goals. Though all of these partially reflect reality, both in Africa and Europe we see a need to better explain and understand what the African Union does and how it works. This guide aims to do just that.

1. The basics: What is the African Union?

The African Union (AU) is a continental body officially launched in 2002. It succeeded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the first continental organisation to promote African integration and the African continent ‘as one’ on the international stage, and defend Africa’s interests, including against colonialism and apartheid. Today, after Morocco was the last African state to join in 2017, the AU comprises all 55 African nations. It is headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Its Constitutive Act, adopted in 2000 at the Lome Summit in Togo, entered into force in 2001. As that lays out, the Union stands for pan-Africanism, integration, human rights, peace and democracy in the whole of Africa.

Through initiatives such as its ambitious Agenda 2063, a fifty-year strategy to mark the 50th anniversary of the OAU, the African Union committed to working to build ‘the Africa we want’ through inclusive and sustainable development on the continent, rooted in the economic, political and social integration of all African countries.

Since its launch, the AU has been one of the driving forces behind the acceleration of continental integration, epitomised by the recently launched African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). No free trade agreement covers so many countries as the AfCFTA.

The AU’s theme in 2020 was dedicated to 'Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development', reinforcing the AU’s stance on securing peace and security across the continent. However, several factors including the advent of COVID-19 affected the AU’s efforts to realise this Flagship Programme by 2020 and the timeline has been extended to 2030. But beyond the effects of COVID-19, just like in all other continents, integration and cooperation among nation states is a complex process that mixes formal and informal procedures, and political and economic interests, both between and within countries.

The theme of 2021 is dedicated to 'Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want', in line with Aspiration 5 of Agenda 2063, envisioning an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics. Arts, culture and heritage can play a role as catalysts for the socio-economic development and integration of the African continent through investments in creative industries. This theme will enable the increased advocacy for the ratification of the Charter for African Cultural Renaissance (which to date has only been ratified by 14 of the 55 member states) and the implementation of the Plan of Action on Cultural and Creative Industries in Africa.

2. How does the African Union work?

As an inter-governmental organisation, the African Union derives its mandate, resources – and ultimately its power and agency – from its member states, which are also responsible for implementing its plans and policies.

But its member states can, at times, also choose to pursue agendas through regional organisations such as the eight AU-recognised regional economic communities (RECs) as well as a range of other regional organisations (see our interactive tool for a complete overview). This is often the case with conflict prevention and resource management, where a range of regional mechanisms exist, while market integration has thus far been pursued through a combination of RECs like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), that overlap and co-exist with regional groupings such as the pre-existing Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (UEMOA). The AU thus operates in a context of multiple, overlapping regional organisations and policies. Different countries are driven and constrained by different domestic and regional agendas, affecting what is agreed on and implemented, and how.

In recent years, there has been a push for reforming the AU so it can deliver more, while the pressing need for joint COVID-19 responses has also provided some impetus for different forms of regional and continental cooperation. All this, discussed below, helps explain why some parts of the AU agenda advance faster than others and highlight some of the challenges the AU faces in advancing a common African agenda.

The AU structures and reforms

To understand the Union, we need to begin with its formal structures, its different organs and how they interact. The two top-leadership positions are that of the Chairperson of the African Union and the Chairperson of the AU Commission. More precisely:

  • Each year, a different head of state or government is selected as the Chairperson of the African Union. In 2021, the Chairperson will be Félix Tshisekedi, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • The Chairperson of the AU Commission is elected every four years. The current Chairperson is Moussa Faki Mahamat from Chad. He is due for re-election in February 2021.

What about the organs that constitute the African Union?

The Assembly is the AU’s highest policy and decision-making body. It gathers all African heads of states and governments and meets at least once a year. It agrees on the AU's policies and priorities, and is meant to monitor the implementation of its policies and decisions. As part of the ongoing reform process, discussed below, a ‘Troika’ of the outgoing, incumbent and incoming AU Chairs was established to ensure the continuity and the effective implementation of the Assembly’s decisions. The Chairperson is assisted by a Bureau of four vice chairpersons and a rapporteur, who together represent the five regions of the AU.

The Executive Council comprises the ministers (usually of foreign affairs, but in some cases also from other ministries) of all member states who meet at least twice a year in ordinary session. The same member state that chairs the Assembly chairs the Executive Council, and serves for one year. They Council is tasked with preparing agendas and drafting decisions for the Assembly to consider. It also promotes cooperation and coordination with the RECs, other African institutions and Africa’s partners.

The AU Commission (AUC) has executive functions and plays a central role in the day-to-day management of the African Union, including tasks delegated by the Assembly and the Executive Council. The role of the AUC is of paramount importance to assist member states in implementing the AU’s programmes and policies. Its Commissioners are elected every four years, and their position is renewable once. Elections for the top leadership positions of the AUC are scheduled for 6-7 February 2021.

What’s new? A glance through recent institutional reforms

To deliver on an increasingly ambitious AU agenda, in 2016 African leaders initiated several institutional reforms. A pan-African advisory committee of nine experts assisted Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame with overseeing these reforms. In essence, the reforms answered the AU’s need to:

In 2017, the team produced a report with recommendations on the AU’s institutional reform. These suggestions became known as the Kagame Report’, which by means of a series of proposed reforms, sought to address the AU’s need for institutional change, including the need to strengthen the AU’s funding model. At the heart of the reforms is a desire to reinforce the ownership by African member states of the AU: when member states contribute more to the AU budget, they may take a stronger interest in the performance of their continental organisations, improving feedback loops to decision makers on what works and what doesn’t in terms of continental added value. The reforms are therefore about money but also about mindsets, reflected in new rules governing this year’s elections of the AU Commission.

Towards a more effective AU Commission

One of the key objectives of the AU reform process is to ensure the continental administration is fit for purpose, focussing the AU’s agenda on continental priorities and introducing changes to the administration to improve planning, budgeting and management. The Administrative Reform Roadmap was developed in 2018 to make the structure of the Commission leaner and more efficient. As part of the reforms, some of the AUC departments have been merged and the number of Commissioners has reduced from eight to six.

The institutional reforms are also reflected in the revision of the process to elect the next AU Commissioners and in the detailed criteria that have been established for the selection for each position. The process is guided by five key principles:

The year 2021 is the first in which these new rules are applied. They call for gender balance between the AUC Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson, and also state that they can’t be from the same region. To date, only one woman has been AUC Chair and no woman has been elected to the Deputy position – a clear sign of the need for concerted efforts to achieve gender parity, in line with the goals of Agenda 2063 and the AU Gender Parity Project, which seeks to have a 50% representation of women and 35% of youth (between 15 and 35 years) as part of the AU staff by 2025.

An effective and efficient AU requires not only an efficient administration but also strong and representative leadership, able to carry out the AU’s executive functions and coordinate with member states, regional bodies, and – increasingly – external partners.

3. Towards AU financial autonomy

The African Union finances its activities mainly from two sources: its member states and donors. AU member states have committed to fund the Union reliably and predictably but their input is often minimal. In 2017, for instance, they only contributed approximately 27% of the spent budget. This explains why the AU is still relying heavily on its external partners. In 2015, this dependence reached an all-time high with donor assistance reaching 71.8% of the AU’s overall estimated budget, excluding AU peace support operations. This unsustainable and politically risky dependency became an important driving factor behind the Union’s institutional reforms - not least to ensure greater ownership of the AU by all contributing countries and to also reduce free-riding.

The AU has historically relied financially on a handful of countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa. To ensure equity, the amount of money a country is asked to contribute (scale of assessments) has been revised for the period 2020-2022.

Member states are grouped into three tiers, based on their contribution to the continent’s GDP. This gives an indication of the amount they are expected to contribute.

The African Union has also developed a new financing formula following the analysis of the Kaberuka Report. This led member states to agree on a 0.2% levy on the value of imports from outside the continent, applicable to eligible goods to be determined by each member state.

This levy was hoped to generate approximately $1.2 billion per year – but has faced a number of challenges. These range from technical and legal ones, related to the implementation of the levy in countries; its compatibility with trade rules under the World Trade Organization; and problems related to the accountability around the use of funds. As a result, the implementation of the 0.2% levy remains a work in progress in the context of the AU’s reforms on financing and the budget processes.

The AU also strengthened its sanctions towards member states who fail to pay their contributions. This happened, for instance, when South Sudan and Tunisia failed to pay their share in 2020, leading South Sudan to pay enough to have the sanctions lifted, illustrating that the system can have the desired effect.

In addition to the levy, the AU’s financing decision sought to revitalise the pan-African AU Peace Fund, created by the OAU back in 1993 to finance its peace and security activities. It’s one of the five pillars of the AU’s African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and covers three main types of activities: 1. mediation and preventive diplomacy 2. institutional capacity development, and 3. peace support operations. Still today, the Peace Fund remains the primary instrument through which the AU funds its peace and security on the continent. Member states have committed to self-finance at least 25% of peace and security operations on the continent, the remainder being sought from external partners such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union.

4. Agenda 2063 Flagship Projects: Focus on the African Continental Free Trade Area

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is one of the 15 so-called ‘Flagship Projects of Agenda 2063’ through which the African Union wants to support economic growth and development – and, ultimately, positive and rapid transformation – of the continent.

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 pha@ecdpm.org or Martin Ronceray at mro@ecdpm.org. To know more about ECDPM’s work on African institutions and regional dynamics, and on the PEDRO II project, contact Bruce Byiers at bby@ecdpm.org.

This guide is inspired by and builds on our previous guide to the African Union.