Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s assumption of the chairmanship of the African Union (AU) last month is raising expectations that the sleepy organisation, which represents all of Africa’s 55 states, may finally become the dynamic one the continent needs in this time of rapid technological and economic change.
Kagame is widely viewed as a strong leader who restored stability to Rwanda and is leading it on the path toward speedy economic and social development. He has also already assumed leadership of efforts to reform the AU; at the AU Assembly’s behest, he produced a report in January 2017, containing proposals for AU’s reform. Now, with him as the chairperson of AU, the institution may accord a higher priority to its own reform.
In his acceptance speech on 28 January 2018, Kagame stressed that Africa’s defining challenge is to create a pathway to prosperity for its people. The continent, which missed the Industrial Revolution, could lose out once again on the rapid technological change unfolding at present. “The financial and institutional reform of the African Union”, observed Kagame, “derives all of its urgency from these realities.”
Like other regional groupings such as SAARC and ASEAN, AU has been strong on declarations and weak on delivery. This has especially been its record in the domain of reforms, since the time the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was transformed into the African Union (AU) and initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) were launched. Past efforts secured limited results at best. Yet, there has been considerable interest in reform proposals produced by the review process led by President Kagame – and as presented in his report.
His report concluded that the root problem was not technical, but rather the result of “a deeper deficiency.” This stems from a perception of AU having limited relevance to African citizens, the constant failure to implement AU decisions and an over-dependence on partner funding. The report aptly asserted: “It is not for lack of ideas, visions, priorities, resources, or capabilities” that the African Union has failed to keep pace with changing times. Nor can outsiders be blamed for the internal divisions that needlessly slow us down at times.”
This report came up with four principal recommendations:
- focus the organisation on key priorities with continental scope;
- realign AU institutions to deliver against those priorities;
- manage the AU efficiently in both political and operational terms; and
- enable the AU to finance itself in the long term.
The first, with its aim to provide financial independence to AU, is quite significant. As of now, over 80% of AU’s funds come from donors. The proposal, which is already being implemented, is “to charge a 0.2% levy on eligible imports to finance the African Union.” If fully implemented, the duty will raise $1.2 billion to finance AU’s activities. African governments realise that it’s only when the AU is financially self-reliant that it can become truly autonomous in its decision-making and operations.
Concerning the other recommendations, the central thrust is twofold. First, AU needs to resolve, through a consensus-based approach, the conflicts that rage in various parts of Africa: South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Mali and Central African Republic (CAR). Second, it should focus on creating conditions that facilitate faster and more inclusive economic development. In this regard, the goal of establishing a continent-wide Free Trade Area is likely to receive enhanced attention in 2018. AU will also need to improve its own coordination with various regional economic communities such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
While conceding the urgent need for institutional reform, scholars have argued that the AU should not lose sight of other priorities for Africa in the short to medium term, such as placing African issues on the global agenda and fashioning an overall policy for development cooperation with international partners – old (e.g. France) and new (e.g. UAE).
To meet its challenges, Africa needs to have effective leadership – one leader is not enough – and collective ownership of the reform process. A one-year term for the chairperson of AU is also rather short. As Acha Leke points out, Africa needs “capable leaders who have vision, determination, skill, and commitment to implement reforms.”
A new band of African leaders may be emerging, as evident from political changes in Zimbabwe and South Africa. AU will need the cooperation of leaders – new and old – of all key countries to show progress on its reform agenda and do justice to other priorities.
The Kagame report’s conclusion remains valid a year after its submission: the AU stands at yet another crossroads in its history. It needs to change direction to be relevant. Its progress will be watched with interest within Africa and beyond.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former high commissioner to Kenya, Lesotho and South Africa, he comments regularly on developments in Africa.
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 African Union, President Paul Kagame, Elected as New Chairperson of the African Union for the year 2018, <https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20180128/president-paul-kagame-elected-new-chairperson-african-union-year-2018>
 Research Contracts and Innovation, University of Cape Town, The Imperative to Strengthen our Union: Report on the Proposed Recommendations for the Institutional Reform of the African Union, <http://www.rci.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/78/News/FInal%20AU%20Reform%20Combined%20report_28012017.pdf>
 This perception came through vividly in another context. The $200-million building housing the headquarters of AU in Addis Ababa is China’s gift to Africa. A controversy broke out last month over a report in Le Monde that data from the Chinese-supplied servers and other devises was being transferred to China, thus establishing a regular plan to carry out spying on meetings in the building. President Kagame downplayed worries about Africa being spied on. His only concern was that the AU, not China, should have constructed the headquarters. “We should have been able to build our own building”, he said.
Please see ‘China rejects claim it bugged headquarters it built for African Union’, Guardian, 30 January 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/30/china-african-union-headquarters-bugging-spying>
 Please see an elaborate and useful report prepared by the International Crisis Group.
International Crisis Group, Seven Priorities for the African Union in 2018, 17 January 2018, <https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/b135-seven-priorities-african-union-2018>
 International Crisis Group, Seven Priorities for the African Union in 2018, 17 January 2018, <https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/b135-seven-priorities-african-union-2018>