Empowering the African Union – the long path to legitimacy

“A half-century into this independence era, it is long past time to put aside old stereotypes of an Africa forever mired in poverty and conflict.  The world must recognize Africa’s extraordinary progress.  Today, Africa is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world.  Africa’s middle class is projected to grow to more than one billion consumers. With hundreds of millions of mobile phones, surging access to the Internet, Africans are beginning to leapfrog old technologies into new prosperity.  Africa is on the move, a new Africa is emerging”

– President Barrack Obama, US President, in his address to the African Union 2015.

Across the birth cradle of humanity, the tides of power are shifting back to those who suffered under the predations and control of Western powers for more than two centuries.

Since its proposal more than fifty years ago, the African Union has grown into a political unit that spans the entire continent and holds members from almost every single country. The importance of such a political unit cannot be understated – African problems are now being solved through the leadership and cooperation of African countries rather than the outside world. Yet even as the African Union charts a new course for its members it faces many challenges on how it will shape the future, and the road to economic success is hardly an easy one.

Heads of state and government representatives during the 17th Ordinary African Union Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in 2011. Photo by: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea / CC BY-ND
Heads of state and government representatives during the 17th Ordinary African Union Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in 2011. Photo by: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea / CC BY-ND

What was old…

Founded in 2001, the African Union (AU) was established to replace its predecessor – Organisation of African Unity (OAU), an organisation created in 1963.

Where the OAU’s main focus had been eradicating colonialism, the African Union instead shifted the emphasis to a political union that emphasised economic growth and infrastructural development through cooperation. The African Union gave its member states a means of coordinating on foreign policy as well as on continental security issues. The creation of the AU was also an attempt to end the international perception of the OAU as a “dictators club” more focussed on creating a “United States of Africa” led by Princes and Presidents for their own benefit rather than that of their people.

The focus for the African Union is on increasing the interdependency of its member states in order to foster an atmosphere of solidarity that has so far been lacking for the 1.11 billion people who call the continent home. In its charter, it states its core goal as to “accelerate the social-economic integration of the continent”, creating a regional bloc like the European Union. As a long-term objective, the AU aims to become the central decision-making organ for its members though like many things for the AU, its ambitions are often marshalled by the constraints of reality.

Refugees in Tissi wait to board trucks that will take them to the Ab Gadam camp.
Refugees in Tissi wait to board trucks that will take them to the Ab Gadam camp.

Words don’t fill bellies

Living conditions remain abysmal across the continent for the average person. The UN’s signature index suggests that 24 out of 25 countries at the bottom of the Human Development Index are African. The AU also has problems concerning how it is funded – 60% of its annual budget comes from overseas donors.

A key hindrance on Africa’s economic growth has been that the AU’s aspirations simply can’t be met by its constraints. With an annual budget of just US$308 million in 2014, the reach and scope of operations only a drop in the bucket. Compare that to the UN’s budget over the same period which was US$5.2 billion. Many member states struggle with their financial commitments and whilst the AU is dipping its toe into Humanitarian, military or police interventions, these actions are extremely expensive.

The UN estimated that US$600 million was necessary to contain the spread of Ebola during its latest outbreak. Due to budget constraints,  the AU contributed just US$1 million. Currently, it holds an US$800 million shortfall in its international fund to prevent famine and relive suffering in South Sudan which is just one of the dozens of states requiring assistance in the region.

It has to be remembered that whilst Africa as a continent is huge, its combined economies are global minnows. At an official exchange rate, the combined economies are only on par with the Netherlands in terms of size and reach.

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Tunisie - Rural water supply - 09 2015 - BKA
Workers construct water-works for the African Development Bank’s infrastructure progam in Tunisia – 09 2015 – BKA

Unity and a future

One of the key benefits of forming such a regional bloc is the political power it gives to these member states. By coming together, the African Union holds a lot of political weight, allowing it to influence the social and political norms and encourage a more friendly and open Africa. The continents rise is due in no small part to its sturdier adherence to international rule and cleaner government. By being a bloc, the AU negotiates on behalf of its members with intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) such as the United Nations or the World Bank. By bringing their collective interest to bear, the AU has been far more successful in securing funding and projects to better suit its needs.

The AU’s parliament has successfully established key conventions that have streamlined and imposed uniform rules upon its members. The most important is arguably a convention on combating corruption signed in 2003, and a charter on democracy that outlines uniform processes for how elections and governance should be held in 2007.

Morocco is the only country which has refused to join the African Union in protest of the membership of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic whose legitimacy it does not recognize as it believes its territory belongs to Morocco. The country does, however, hold a special status which bestows it all the benefits and services available to all member states such as access to the African Development Bank.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe delivers his speech during celebrations to mark his 90th birthday in Marondera about 100 kilometres east of Harare, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. Mugabe who is Africa's oldest leader has been in power in the Southern African nation since 1980. (AP (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe delivers his speech during celebrations to mark his 90th birthday in Marondera about 100 kilometres east of Harare, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. Mugabe who is Africa’s oldest leader has been in power in the Southern African nation since 1980. (AP (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

For the people?

Despite its progress, the AU faces numerous challenges to both its legitimacy and capability. Politically, the biggest challenge surrounds shaking off its past as a ‘dictators club’ and dealing with the question of undemocratic regimes. So far the AU has skirted any such moral revisionism beyond rewording its charter, however many states that make up its membership are repressive and authoritarian, yet are allowed membership without penalty. Compare this to the EU where membership is strictly invitation only and to join countries must meet strict standards.

There is still a long road to go. Perhaps one of the most obvious hypocrisies surrounding the AU is the fact that its highest decision-making organ, the Assembly of the African Union, is led by Robert Mugabe, the controversial President of Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe represents the worst elements of the OAU – widely condemned internationally for his racist and authoritarian rule whilst leading one of the most corrupt countries in Africa through an economy that has been built on crony-capitalism at the cost of his own people.

Critics watch the AU’s political development with frustration. It’s underfunded and lumbering parliament has consistently prioritized power over justice, refusing to send war criminals and corrupt leaders to The Hague to face justice. There is a feeling internationally that the AU’s leaders are more obsessed with protecting themselves first rather than their people. If there is hope however, it is in the fact that as slowly as it is occurring, change is happening.

African Union troops prepare to fight Al-Shebab forces
African Union troops prepare to fight Al-Shebab forces

A force of their own

If there is one force that continues to hamstring and divide the continent, it is the prevalence of armed conflict that continues to inflict misery and stunt economic development. Whilst the reasons for the myriad conflicts vary a central motivator for ethnic and tribal conflict has been that Africans are still paying the price from when colonial mapmakers arbitrarily carved out crude states with no consideration for the more than one thousands languages and ethnic groups.

The Union’s foray into military intervention has had mixed results, though has been motivated by the right reasons. It’s first intervention occurred in 2003 when it deployed peacekeepers into Burundi to stabilize its collapsing government. Whilst the operation ensured that there was no bloodshed, it did little to stop the military coup from holding a sham election and imposing quasi-legitimacy for itself, raising questions as to how effective the AU’s military forces really are.

The most high-profile deployment it has made has been to the Darfur region of Sudan where more than 300,000 lives have been lost in its war for secession. Despite deploying more than 7000 peacekeepers, the AU’s forces were unable to stop the sectarian violence, rapes and atrocities that ravaged the countryside beyond its limited control. The same situation occurred after its deployment in Somalia where AU troops have struggled to set up a viable long-term state. The country had been without a functioning central government from 1990 right up until 2012. In spite of a peak force of 22,000 the AU could do little to secure the capital let alone the majority of the country beyond it.

Critics have pointed the finger at the forces being ineffective being mainly due to the lack of funding that the force receives. It is further hamstrung by the poor quality of the personnel who are usually supplied by the poorest members of the Union, and by the fact that they don’t have the numbers nor equipment to secure more than regional capitals in areas that are often the size of France or greater. In spite of secession being a consistent motivator for states to fail across the region, the AU frowns on secession though offers no viable alternative for groups seeking to create a nation of their own.

A market in Nigeria. Nigeria's economy is now the strongest on the countinent with a GDP of more than $500 billion.
A market in Nigeria. Nigeria’s economy is now the strongest on the countinent with a GDP of more than $500 billion.


Following in the footsteps of the European Union, a central part of forming a regional bloc is in the unification of the continent’s economies. With this in mind, the African Development Bank (AfDB) was originally founded alongside the Organisation for African Unity as a means for investing funds across Africa to encourage economic growth and development.

During its forty years of operation, the AfDB has financed more than 2,800 projects at a cost of more than US$47.5 billion. It is also in relatively good health with US$32.043 billion in capital and maintains a AAA rating from international institutions. The main focus of its efforts have been on infrastructure, especially power supply, water and sanitation. This accounts for more than 60% of its budget, though the bank’s broad scope also allows it to combat the myriad health issues that plague the country such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic in which it has invested almost US$500 million.

In spite of its progress, millions of Africans across the continent continue to live in abject poverty. Despite more than 50 years of operation, the majority of the population are uneducated and have poor or no healthcare. The sheer vastness of the continent provides a logistical issue that makes infrastructural projects extremely costly and very small in terms of impact and reach.There is also the ecological question of how to deal with recurring famines, desertification, and a lack of ecological sustainability.

Looking forwards we shall see an AU that resembles the EU as a single economic unit. The AU intends to achieve this through the creation of a free trade area for its members, a single customs union and market, a central bank and a common country which would establish it as an economic and monetary union. In its roadmap, the AU intends to achieve a single country by 2023.

The last male white rhino is protected by its own team of anti-poachers
The last male white rhino is protected by its own team of anti-poachers


If nothing else, Africa is the continent of potential. Despite the persistence of warfare and poverty, its economies show signs of vast economic potential. Under the aegis of the African Union, these countries now have a chance to decide what that future will be and work together, rather than against one another to build it. This is not to say that the old problems that have so hamstrung the continent have disappeared, only that now, finally, Africa may have a chance to correct them.

The African Union was founded on the hope of a transformation, the key shift from Africa being a continent of self-serving dictators to Africa being a vibrant powerhouse for its more than a billion citizens. Almost in spite of itself, that change is coming, and that change can only be positive.

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