How does the African Union work?

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Last updated: 2019/03/13

The African Union is an organization or alliance of African sovereign states that have acceded to the constitutive acts of the body. One can safely say it was formerly known as “Organisation of African Unity (OAU),” however the OAU was disbanded in 2001, and the African Union (AU) conceived in its place.

Flag of the African Union (Source: Wikipedia Commons License)

It was officially launched on July 9th, 2002 in South Africa with its headquarters known as the African Union Commission located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, although it was actually founded on 26th May 2001. It currently comprises of 55 member states from all across Africa representing 98% of all the countries of Africa.

The African Union was established to protect the interest of African nations and fast track development all across Africa, amongst a host of other objectives; like, achieving greater unity and solidarity, defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Africa, promoting peace, security and stability, promoting democratic principles and institutions, promoting and protection of human rights. In a nutshell, its essence is to fast track integration within the African continent so as to enable Africa to assume a more prominent role in global economy and politics while addressing the social, economic and political problems of its members. Not that the former OAU was created for a vastly different purpose but it was largely ineffective and was discreditably dubbed “The Dictators Club” by critics.

So how does the AU function? Well the AU is a complex organization made up of both political and administrative bodies or organs as well as Financial Institutions. Its different organs are: Assembly of the African Union, Pan-African Parliament, African Union Commission, Court of Justice of the African Union, Executive Council, Permanent Representatives committee, Peace and Security Council and Economic Social and Cultural Council. The constitutive act of the AU calls for an establishment of an additional body to be known as Specialised Technical Committees. However, it is yet to be created.

Each of these organs of the AU performs specific duties important for the smooth and effective operation of the AU.

The AU also has its own financial institutions; African Central Bank, African Investment Bank, and African Monetary Fund. Their purpose is to work together for the actualization of a single African currency as well as provide financial support for the AU’s interests.

Official Emblem of the AU (Source: Wikipedia Commons License)

The Assembly of the African Union is the apex governing body of the AU and has the most power. It is the decision-making arm of the AU and its decisions once abiding by the constitutive acts of the AU are final and binding. It is comprised of heads of states and governments of all the AU member states. It arrives at its decisions by a vote of at least two-thirds majority of its members or by consensus. It elects its leader annually and is currently headed by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Pan-African Parliament comprises of 265 representatives from all of the AU member states. Its role is to represent the African populace in the activities of the AU. It ensures the involvement and participation of the people and civil society groups in the process of governance. Currently, this arm is headed by Roger Nkodo Dang from Cameroon and has its office in Midrand, South Africa

African Union commission is also known as the African Union Authority is the headquarter of the AU. It is located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Its leadership comprises of ten commissioners including a chairperson and a deputy chairperson with their supporting staffs, and its function is to coordinate the AU’s activities and meetings.

Court of Justice of the African Union as the name implies was created to resolve disputes arising from the interpretation of AU treaties or its constitutive acts.

Executive Council is accountable to the Assembly of the African Union; it is a body made up of ministers that are selected by the governments of each of the 55 member states. It is chaired by Shawn Makuyana from Zimbabwe. They look into matters such as foreign trades, agriculture, communications, social security, etc. and prepares portfolios that have been worked on by the Permanent Representatives’ committee for the assembly to discuss and decide upon.

Photo of The Members of the Assembly during the 24th AU Summit in 2015

Permanent Representatives’ Committee and the Executive council work hand in hand, the committee is made up of permanent representatives nominated by the member states. And their function is to prepare the work of the executive council.

Peace and Security Council arm of the AU is quite active. It deals with conflicts and crises situations all across Africa. It acts as collective security and seeks to develop basic defence policies as well as prevent, manage and resolve conflicts in the continent. Also, it is responsible for post-conflict peacebuilding. The Peace and Security Council is made up of fifteen members that are elected by the Assembly based on region.

The role of the Economic Social and Cultural Committees (ECOSOCC) is primarily advisory. It is composed of professional and civic representatives and is currently chaired by Akere Muna from Cameroon.

AU Commission in Addis Ababa

All these individual bodies together make up the AU, and they work together as a single unit each dedicated to its duties in order to achieve the AU’s objectives. So far the AU has been largely effective in building unity and boosting cooperation within the continent, most of its effort is directed towards minimizing conflicts, promoting and supporting democracy all across Africa. However, it isn’t without its challenges.

Funding is a major challenge for the AU, apart from being underfunded, its budget relies heavily on the support of its partners as well as member states, the later provides only a small part of its funding. As a result, there might not be exactly neutrality in dealings amongst member states. Also, the interests of its partners who provide for the bulk of its funding sometimes clash with the objectives of the AU which presents another challenge.

European countries and organizations are the primary partners of the AU and provide for the bulk of the financial needs of the AU. The European Union, for example, have provided €1.3 billion for primary, secondary and vocational education programs alone. Nevertheless, continuous efforts continued to be made by the AU, for total self-sustainability.

The topic of self-funding is often brought up in its summits, and after a series of meetings and planning the Assembly at its 27th assembly held in Kigali, Rwanda on May 2016 made a decision and directed all of its member states to implement a 0.2% levy on its imports for the purpose of financing the AU. This move has brought about remarkable improvement, only a year later according to the 2017 audit report published by the AU, member states contribution accounted for 42.3% of the AUs total revenue, and this is excluding debts owed by some of its member states.

Interference of foreign organizations and donor partners like the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and some European countries often disrupts the affairs of the AU. What transpired in Libya which led to the killing of its leader Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011 is an example. NATO completely prevented the AU from handling the situation in Libya even though it was on African territory. Military equipment taken by militias after the destabilisation of Libya ended up in the possession of terrorist groups which has made security a more difficult task for African nations. The AU has remained sceptical of NATO since then, although it insists relations have not completely broken down. It continues to work with the US and other foreign bodies in pursuit of its objectives for a more prosperous and influential Africa.

A vital part of the objective of the AU is the integration of African nations throughout the continent in other to function as a single force. This gave rise to a debate on the best approach towards realizing this objective; whether the continent should be treated as a single unit, or whether the objective will be achieved by seeking to integrate economic sub-regions which will in effect result in a complete integration of the continent.

Regional Economic Communities in the AU

It seems the AU chose the path of sub-regional integration. The AU stuck to the 1980 “Lagos Plan of Action For the Development of Africa” and the 1991 Abuja treaties which proposed the creation of “Regional Economic Communities (RECs)” as the basis for African integration. Therefore eight RECs were established and recognized by the AU under different regional treaties; Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), Common Market For Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Southern Africa Development Community(SADC).

Some unforeseen complications arose owing to the establishment of the RECs like overlapping roles amongst others. Finally, after years of discussion, the Assembly in the 2007 Accra summit adopted a Protocol on Relations between the AU and the RECs geared towards achieving harmonization, and in addition meet the timeframes for continental integration set by the 1980 and 1991 treaties.

The African Union is similar to the European Union (EU) both in setup and objectives. Divisions like the AU’s African Union Commission and the Permanent Representatives’ Committee is similar to Europe’s “European Commission” and “Committee of Permanent Representatives” respectively.

However, the two unions also differ in a number of ways. The EU caters for 100% of its funding, unlike the AU that caters for some percentage of its budget while the rest is provided by their partners. This grants the EU complete independence, the AU, on the other hand, has to protect the interest of its financial partners.

Also because the EU is older and has achieved a much greater level of integration, cooperation and structural stability they are much more effective than the AU and even to an extent interfere in the AU’s activities owing to their much larger financial chest.

Unlike its predecessor the OAU, the African Union has made slow but steady progress over recent years, suspending and sanctioning governments that have seized power through military coups, sending envoys and militia to mediate between warring parties as well as making progress in investments in the Continent.

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How does the African Union work?

by Editorial Team time to read: 7 min