Home » The African Union’s 20 years: Record and new challenges
Africa Featured Military National Security

The African Union’s 20 years: Record and new challenges

The AU has scored some progress toward making Africa a peaceful and developing continent. However, serious problems remain, and new ones are rising.

Inspired by Pan-Africanism and the architecture of the European Union, the African Union (AU) recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Dramatic events of the 21st century – from the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, to the Great Recession 2008-2009, from the migration crisis to rising popular grievances, from Covid-19 to the war in Ukraine – show that the world is in a period of deglobalization, uncertainty and generalized anxiety. For an organization like the AU, this produces stiff challenges amid old and new threats and the repositioning of crucial allies. 

The past two decades have also been eventful in Africa. The continent has been the stage of armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, and Somalia. A new state of South Sudan came into existence, and Morocco rejoined the AU. A free trade continental area has been established, and many long-standing leaders “for life” have been toppled. 

Africa faces multiple security and political challenges, including ongoing conflicts in the DRC and Ethiopia, terrorism in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, military coups in ChadGuineaMali and Sudan, popular uprisings, refugee flows and rising food insecurity. 

Flagship AU reforms 

Two developments were particularly relevant in shaping the AU. The first was the adoption in 2015 of Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for the organization outlining flagship projects and its main goals (including peace and stability, eradicating poverty, and establishing a federate or confederate United Africa). Some of these projects, such as the free trade area or a single air transport market, are being implemented. Others – like the African Union Passport – have been delayed, while some, like ending all armed conflicts by 2020, have fallen short.

The AU provided an effective negotiation forum for resolving internal conflicts in Africa.

Also noteworthy was the reform process launched in 2016 under the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. After identifying the organization’s weaknesses (including fragmentation and dispersion, an inefficient structure, financial dependency and limited coordination between the organization and regional economic communities), a reform plan was designed. The aim was to reduce the number of priorities of the AU, review the structure of operations, reconnect with African citizens, increase efficiency and achieve financial independence. 

Free trade breakthrough

Besides setting an agenda and institutional reforms, the AU made two significant advances. It provided an effective negotiation forum for resolving internal conflicts and a platform from which African countries can voice their interests and concerns in the wider international arena. That does not mean that African countries speak with one voice on every matter, as evidenced by the different positions adopted regarding the war in Ukraine. 

The second accomplishment was the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an Agenda 2063 project. Except for Eritrea, all the AU states have signed the agreement, and 43 countries have deposited their instruments of ratification. 

That there is a near-consensus on the very ambitious free trade deal with significant implications for state-level economic policies counts as a major diplomatic triumph. It is also a strong indicator of rising trade and economic integration, which will impact production structures, infrastructure, and rules for the movement of people within the African space. 

Veteran Chadian politician and diplomat Moussa Faki Mahamat heads the AU Commission since 2017. He has been reelected for another term ending in 2024. © Getty Images

Arm in arm with the UN

The AU has been less successful in promoting peace, security and stability on the continent. In 2013, the AU Assembly committed to ending violent conflicts in Africa by 2020 with its “Silencing the Guns” initiative, part of the Agenda 2063. However, old and new armed conflicts continue in the DRC, Libya, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. A fragile peace hangs on by a thread in Sudan and Somalia, and communal violence has increased in many areas of Africa, as has the proliferation of armed groups.

The AU’s focus on managing and mediating political crises is essential.

While violence and its root causes remain, the AU has assumed a vital role in peacekeeping operations across the continent, under the principle of “African solutions to African problems,” in close cooperation with the United Nations. Results have been mixed, but the AU seems to be considered more legitimate in operational theatres. The reason lies in recent history. On a continent where the memory of the struggle for independence is still vivid, mediation and peacebuilding efforts by actors from the outside world are not trusted and usually fail. 

Source : GIS Report