The African Union Is Weak Because Its Members Want It That Way – Experts Call for Action on Its Powers

African leaders meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa on 18 February 2024. Michele Spatari / AFP via Getty Images.

The African Union (AU) comes in for a lot of criticism. Most recently this is from within its own ranks. The AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, set out his frustrations after an AU summit in February 2024. The commission is the executive organ which runs the AU’s daily activities. Mahamat accused member states of getting in the way of the commission doing its work, and failing to match rhetoric with action:

Over the last three years, 2021, 2022 and 2023, 93% of African Union decisions have not been implemented.

We think many of the criticisms of the AU are justified. This is based on more than 15 years of researching its political and legal development.

The AU was formed in 2002 to replace the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Its institutions include the AU Commission, the Pan-African Parliament and the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, but the real power lies in the hands of its assembly, composed of heads of state and government.

The assembly has refused to transfer meaningful powers to any of the AU organs. For example, the Pan-African Parliament does not exercise any binding legislative powers. And the AU Commission cannot compel member states to comply with AU rules. Most member states refuse to comply with the decisions of the human rights court.

The AU differs in this regard from the European Union (EU), where supranational, binding powers are exercised by organs such as the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The AU’s aim of deepening continental integration in Africa is not matched by the powers of its organs. As various AU-mandated reports have shown, the organisation is dysfunctional and not fit for purpose.

We have previously argued that the AU has come a long way in its first 20 years. But we believe its long-standing weakness lies with member states, not its executive, the AU Commission.

Fixing the problem requires political willingness by member states to gradually sacrifice their sovereignty for the greater good of continental integration. Also, more innovative and creative ways are needed to see how powers can be transferred to weak AU organs.

Structural weaknesses

Member states have little trust in the AU. Since its creation in 2002, there has been more talk about what is needed to make it effective than actually fixing its many problems. The AU Constitutive Act allows the assembly to transfer some of its functions to organs such as Pan-African Parliament and AU Commission. Very little has been done about this, though.

Rather than granting the parliament the ability to make binding laws, the amended PAP Protocol only gave it the powers to make “model laws”. These are no more than recommendations. The same applies to the AU Commission. It can’t compel member states to comply with its decisions. So the AU has no way to exercise supranational powers (binding over its member states).

The AU is only as strong as member states allow it to be. African leaders have a worrying track record of putting narrow domestic gains ahead of transferring higher powers to the AU.

This is unfortunate because African regional integration does not, as is often assumed, come at the cost of national sovereignty.

In 2016, African leaders mandated Rwandan president Paul Kagame to provide a report on how to reform the AU. The report was submitted to the AU Assembly in 2017. It called for better coordination between AU organs and the regional economic communities, and enhancing the capacity of AU organs to achieve continental integration. After eight years, Kagame is frustrated with the lack of results.

Though proponents of ambitious AU reforms are disappointed, the reforms suggested by Kagame have produced some tangible progress. They have prompted a welcome rethink of the institutional structures.

One example is the decision on self-funding, which has revialised the AU Peace Fund and the UN peacekeeping budget available for requests to support AU peace support operations. However, 61% of the overall AU budget is still financed by the AU’s external partners – including the EU, the US, China, India, Turkey and South Korea. Member states still pay on average only 80%-90% of the contributions they owe.

Poor leadership and weak empowerment

The AU’s situation is not helped by some aspects of its leadership. Mahamat’s stewardship of a number of key projects and issues has been controversial. Notably, he largely remained silent about atrocities committed by Ethiopian forces in Tigray during the two-year Ethiopia war which broke out in November 2020.

More hands-on, principled leadership would have been desirable. At the same time, member states haven’t created an environment in which the chairperson could operate as an effective change-maker.

AU member states and international partners have become frustrated with the AU Commission’s performance, often attributing the AU’s problems to Mahamat’s personal leadership.

But blaming the chairperson is to ignore the deep-rooted structural deficiencies of the organisation. Without addressing these structural problems, whoever is elected when Mahamat’s term ends in February 2025 will fall into the same inefficiency trap.

Pathways to supranationalism

The AU’s exercise of binding powers over its member states will require separating personal from institutional politics, ratifying existing legal instruments, and showcasing instances of good pan-African governance.

AU member states should commit to coming up with a feasible plan that shows how, in the short to medium term, they intend to transfer meaningful powers to the AU Commission and the Pan-African Parliament.

For example, member states that are willing and able to move ahead with endowing the parliament with supranational legislative powers should be encouraged. The amended PAP Protocol does not prevent this as it encourages member states to experiment with direct elections of membership to the parliament.

Also, the AU Protocol on Free Movement encourages willing member states and regional economic communities to take action.

Nothing prevents such member states from getting into an arrangement with the Pan-African Parliament and AU Commission to provide guidelines and even monitor the way they implement these objectives. Along the example of the African Continental Free Trade Area, national ratifications of AU instruments should be public and transparent to speed up action on agreed decisions.

Member states should encourage the inclusion of wider civil society in framing the terms and conditions of moving forward with the AU supranational project. In this way, the sense of popular ownership and legitimacy of the organisation will be guaranteed.The Conversation

Ueli Staeger, Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Amsterdam and Babatunde Fagbayibo, Professor of International Law, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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