Is the African Union up to scratch?

Africa Insight
16 min readApr 7, 2021
Cc: African Union Commission


As the forces of globalization permeate national borders and establish intricate systems of diplomatic and economic cooperation, new institutions have emerged to manage relationships, harnessing new opportunities while grappling with the negative externalities of this new order. Across the continent of Africa, new forms of economic and diplomatic cooperation have grown exponentially, culminating in the creation of regional and continental institutions. One such institution, the African Union (AU), has been the topic of intense discussion. As an overarching body with institutional authority derived from the 2000 Constitutive Act, the AU is charged with fostering pan-African solidarity, unity and cooperation to address the challenges impacting the day-to-day lives of people living in Africa. As the years have passed, the AU has been found itself adopting new functions in a variety of areas ranging from cultural exchange to security and peacebuilding. The questions this article seeks to address is whether the AU has been a force for good in encouraging continental dialogue on key issues as well as to whether or not its presence is sustainable.

What is the African Union?

The AU was officially established as a follow up to the Organisation for African Unity (OAS) after the ratification of the Constitutive Act of 2000. The AU, much like its European counterpart, consists of various organs responsible for different aspects of policy creation and implementation. The Assembly of Heads of State and Government is the AU’s main decision-making body while the Executive Council advises assembly members. The Commission, meanwhile, is charged with implementing AU policies and coordinates the other bodies meetings and activities. Over the years, a series of human rights bodies have also developed including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the AU Commission on International Law. Beyond the simple name change, the transition from the OAS to the AU represented a tectonic normative shift away from strict adherence to non-interference to the right of a supranational organisation to intervene in the name of humanitarian intervention. For instance, Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act stipulates that the AU has the right to intervene in a member state “pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” This not only establishes a legal basis for intervention but imposes an obligation on the AU to intervene to prevent mass atrocities. This represents just one of the many functions undertaken by the AU since its establishment including accelerating socio-economic integration, promote common interests, democratic norms/institutions. As the AU adapts it role in response to new challenges and opportunities, debates have ensued over the organisation’s institutional capabilities. The proceeding sections will examine some of these functions in order to assess the AU’s record as well as its ability to reform and remedy institutional shortcomings.

Security through peacebuilding/keeping.

Cc: ISS - Is the African Standby Force any closer to being deployed?

As was previously mentioned, the AU has opted to take additional responsibilities in the realm of humanitarian intervention, establishing key security agencies to respond to instances of political violence. Institutions like the Peace and Security Council (PSC) were established to give the AU a comprehensive mandate to anticipate and support disputes, authorise peace support missions and provide humanitarian assistance. This was followed by the establishment of the African Standby Force (AFS), which operates consists of five regional brigades: The Southern African Development Community; The Eastern Africa Standby Brigade; The Economic Community of West African States; The North African Regional Capability and the Multinational Force of Central Africa. In 2016, the ASF overcame significant barriers to become fully operational in 2016. An AU assessment from 2017 found that progress was made by West, Southern and East Africa in establishing their regional standby forces, while the Central and North Africa regions were still lagging behind. Additionally, the AU has developed considerable

experience working on peace operations in places such as Burundi, Somalia, Sudan and the Central African Republic. The African Mission in Burundi (AMIB) represented the African Union’s early ambitions to engage in peace operations. Initially, the operation was undermined by a lack of necessary. Despite a commitment of over 2,500 troops, a UN report found that “the financial and logistic constraints under which AMIB is operating prevent the force from fully implementing its mandate.” Yet, even in the face of limited resources, the AMIB helped stabilize the situation long enough to secure a larger and capable UN force deployment. As one report summarised: “AMIB’s presence encouraged thousands of refugees and IDPs to return to their communities and empowered exiled political leaders to participate in the transitional government.” Furthermore, from 2003 to 2011, the AU participated in or staged nine peace operations. These included small-scale election monitoring in the Comoros, to deploying 9,000 troops in a mission to Somalia. Across the same time period, the AU has implemented 10 separate sanctions over unconstitutional changes in government. The extent of the AU’s engagement in a wide variety of intricate and tense conflicts in the region shows promise, with one study from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia judging that 78% of the AU’s interventions were successful or partially successful. That same report also determined that 86% of all interventions were deemed to be of high or medium quality. The AU’s efforts to build and secure peace has been demonstrated by a monumental shift in the normative and institutional frameworks to support humanitarian efforts. The diverse nature of its missions, combined with its experience operating across multiple conflicts, offers a critical insight into Africa’s capacity to resolve challenging issues on its own terms. In fact, this has had positive implications for the continent’s interactions with the outside world, for it has elevated its role in the global security agenda. As a joint report from Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) states: “This is best exemplified by the increasing number of resolutions and presidential statements adopted by the UN Security Council and the frequency and regularity of matters considered by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) that are subsequently referred to the UNSC.” Clearly, in the eyes of the international community, the AU and its security institutions are commendable resources for mitigating conflict and securing peace throughout the continent.

Of course, no supranational organisation can boast an absolutely perfect record, especially when it comes to the issue of security and humanitarian intervention. Political sensitivity over the matter of sovereignty remains a prevalent issue for the AU and its members. For instance, conflict prevention requires addressing serious issues in how states govern, meaning state actors are unwilling to accept recommendations or engagement by external actors. Sovereignty, therefore, is invoked to avoid the international scrutiny of potential causes of crises. This strikes at the heart of a rather tumultuous choice African leaders face. On the one hand, a single state cannot address internal conflicts on its own, thereby depending on assistance from outside actors to mediate the conflict and broker peace. However, on the other hand, African countries — holding justifiable resentment over the legacies of colonialism and exploitation — still regard territorial sovereignty to be of the upmost importance when navigating the harsh terrain of continental and global affairs. The AU, with reform and refinement to adapt and respond to new conflicts, can help secure peace across Africa. But such a decision depends on states willingness to cede sovereignty to this supranational entity. Of course, the AU does have a distinct advantage in that it is managed, owned and led by Africa and its leaders, the embodiment of ‘African solutions to African problems.’ At a time when supranational organisations like the UN, IMF and World Bank are accused of neglecting local expectations and demands, the AU is in a unique position to listen and respond to such expectations in a way that reflects local consensus. Despite this hurdle, the AU has not stopped pursuing a rigorous security agenda by fostering several institutions that are worthy of praise. The most prominent of these includes the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), which works in conjunction with sub-regional organisations to facilitate the anticipation and prevention of conflicts on the continent. Since its inception in 2002 more resources have been devoted to improving its overall capacity to monitor and provide early warnings on emerging conflict.

Agenda 2063.

The AU’s aspirations to integrate the African continent were realised with the Agenda 2063initiative. Serving as a “blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future” Agenda 2063 marks the AU’s commitment to an Africa that can reduce poverty and promote development at home while simultaneously working as a productive partner within the global economy. Integral to Agenda 2063 is the prioritization of continental integration as a means of prosperous growth and sustainable development. To do this, Agenda 2063 identifies free and open trade as a critical means to achieve intracontinental integration. The establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most significant milestones with 55 member states signing up and 35 ratifying it. The agreement will connect 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at US $3.4 trillion has the potential to lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty. A report published by the World Bank states that “under the AfCFTA scenario, real income would increase by 7 percent by 2035 relative to the baseline for the African region — a sizeable gain.” Intracontinental exports are projected to increase by over 81%, while exports to non-African countries will increase by 19%. This represents a rather significant uptake in intracontinental trade numbers that had been relatively low. For example, in 2017, 17% of Africa’s total trade was conducted within the continent, rising from 9% in 2000 while more integrated continents like Europe and Asia have intracontinental trade that is over 50%. The reduction of trade barriers will also enable firms’ greater access to emerging markets and better technologies across the continent, increasing business growth and fostering greater economic links between countries. The AfCFTA elevates Africa’s economic independence, as it will foster growth that is closer to home rather and driven by further integration. With greater economic output, this will give African leaders greater leverage when negotiating with non-African countries. The freer movement of goods facilitated by the AfCFTA will enable greater economic integration while having a considerable impact on the welfare of member states, showcasing the potential for the continent to exercise greater resilience and strength in the global economy. While Covid-19 poses a challenge for countries to trade due to economic downturn, the AfCFTA marks a significant step in the right direction by the AU to enhance intracontinental harmony. Additionally, the freer movement of goods and services has been accompanied by efforts to enable freer movement of people. So far, 32 member countries have signed the Protocol to the Treaty on the Establishment of the African Economic Community relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment. Challenges still remain in place, however, like the slow pace of signatories for the protocol and the strong perception of security threats associated with freer movement of people. But despite this, sub-regional and bilateral agreements have been reached at a much higher rate. It would therefore be beneficial for the AU to support frameworks and establish roadmaps at a sub-regional regional level by devoting resources for organizing conferences and providing institutional support. AU bodies such as the PSC can also facilitate discussion to combat fear and paranoia surrounding security concerns related to free movement.

Agenda 2063 represents a broad set of aspirations and goals from the AU. The specific goal of intercontinental integration has been further realised with the implementation of the AfCFTA. While there remain short-term challenges that stem from its implementation and transition to liberalized trade, the AfCFTA represents a bold step to integrate the African economies and foster economic intracontinental interdependence. If liberal arguments about international relations are substantial, freer trade incentivize states to maintain a greater degree of peace that will secure economic productivity, marking a promising step to guaranteeing stability throughout the continent. The increase in welfare and living standards brought by the AfCFTA will also make a momentous step towards another goal of Agenda 2063: a high standard of living, quality of life and well being for all citizens. When it comes to measuring the quality of life, there are metrics showing considerable progress. In a recent report, it was remarked that accesses to the internet grew from 21.8% in 2013 to 41.9% in 2019. This can have a profound impact on the extent to which individuals can engage with new forms of online learning and activism. Across the same time period, access to safe drinking water rose from 68.4% to 77%, although substantial regional difference in the provision of water supply and sanitation exists. The quality of one’s life and standards of living are determined by accesses to education, where marked improvements are being made. In a report from the Africa-America Institute (AAI), it was noted that “enrollment in pre-primary education programs is expanding throughout Africa. Enrollment rose by almost two and half times between 1999 and 2012. On average, only 20 percent of young children in Africa were enrolled in pre-primary programs in 2012.” Given that early childhood years will determine whether a child will be successful in school, gain decent employment and income, this level of early access can go a long way in uplifting future generations. Additionally, access to primary education from 59% to 79% from 1999 to 2012, translating into roughly 144 million children, although quality of education remains a serious problem.

Overall, Agenda 2063 is a very ambitious set of promises revolving around greater continental integration and higher standards of living. There are not hours in the day to cover the debates surrounding its likelihood of success. But considerable progress has been made by the AU to better integrate the economies of Africa and promote a better standard of living for its member’s citizens. While challenges like inadequate sources of funding are prevalent, projects like the AfCFTA have the potential for governments to raise additional revenue that can then be allocated to the other flagship AU projects, offering a sense of hope that the organisation can better overcome significant barriers to elevating more people out of poverty.

The AU and its capacity for reform.

The AU — much like its European counterpart — is subject to an intense discussion as to whether or not it is a democratic body that accurately reflects the interests of its members. However, as previously mentioned, the transition from the OAU to AU represented a fundamental shift in how the entity responds to undemocratic changes in government. While the OAU was perceived as a club for African strongmen whose leaders were unwilling to criticize each other. The AU, however, has sought to differentiate itself from the OAU in its response to unconstitutional changes of government. A report paper from the South African Institute of International Affairs noticed this particular shift by stating the following: “several states, including the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Togo, have been suspended from all AU activities following coups. More than a mere ‘naming and shaming’ mechanism, suspension has significant implications for a country’s status and political standing. Specifically, exclusion from the political activities of the AU is a strong motivation to put government affairs in order and either reverse the coup or hold elections.” This lends some merit to the idea that the AU holds enough political power to shame and isolate members when they commit wrong-doing and therefore offers a sign of progress in the AU’s capacity to incentivize good behavior while punishing bad behavior. However, the AU struggles to mobilise resources, particularly financial contributions to support its activities from member states. Indeed, the AU’s budget as of 2016 was up to 90% funded by external actors. This poor devotion of resources by member states leaves it susceptible to the whims of foreign donor states interests and preferences, compromising its capacity to reflect the interests of its members. This has sought to be overcome with new proposals from African Development Bank (AfDB) chief, Donald Kaberuka. At the 27th AU Summit, he proposed a strategy that included a 0.2% levy on imports to African countries. This should enable AU member states to fully fund the functioning of the AU Commission and to cover 75% of programmes. According to a briefing paper from the European Centre for Development Policy Management, the 0.2% import levy is a predictable and sustainable source of financing for the AU, including for its peace operations. As of December 2017, sixteen countries have implemented the levy while four have initiated legal and administrative processes to allow for the implementation of the 0.2% import levy. Additionally, the 0.2% levy will endow the Peace Fund with $325m in 2017 rising to a total of $400m by 2020 against an estimated overall Peace Fund budget of $302m in 2020. This creates a system of accountable financing where member states are more invested in transparency as it is their money that’s going into the system. In the end, this “led the African Union Commission (AUC) to put in place stronger oversight and accountability mechanisms to ensure ‘effective and prudent use of the resources.’” Additionally, the European Centre for Development Policy Management remarks that the AUC “sees the progression of the AfCFTA into a customs union which in their interpretation means the levy becomes possible and fully justifiable.” This will help overcome any potential legal challenges when implementing the levy and ensuring revenue raised goes to the AU. The implementation of the 0.2% levy has been complimented by a system to incentivize compliance. For example, the AU Assembly strengthened the sanctions regimes for non-paying member states. This regime sets clear timelines, reduces the grace period within which member a state is considered to be in default from two years to six months, and introduces graduated sanctions of six months, one year and two years, with specific sanctions for each defaulting period. This sliding scale of sanctions for non-payment, rising over time, combined with the availability of the means to pay through the levy, may help to encourage states to pay their dues.

The extent that these reforms are effective in overcoming institutional barriers to reform remain to be seen. However, they represent a significant effort to implement reforms that are both democratic and efficient in helping the AU fulfill its mandate. Overcoming the insufficient contributions from member states can have a significant impact in reducing the AU’s dependence on foreign donors while incentizing reforms that lead to greater oversight of finances.

The AU and Asia: towards greater international solidarity

The AU has undertaken additional steps in the realm of international cooperation. This has been evidenced by closer ties with the continent of Asia with individual states and regional organisations like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Both continents have a unique and yet troubled history, with shared experiences over colonialism and struggles for independence underlying their attitudes towards the international system within which they function. Additionally, both continents face similar challenges relating to food security, climate change and uneven forms of development, all while while navigating the geopolitical interests of global powers like China and the US. Therefore, there is much these two continents share in their history and vision about the state of the world, with the AU working to construct effective dialogue with its Asian partners. Continental cooperation between Africa and Asia has accelerated in recent years, as evidenced by the proliferation of forums and conferences like the Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD). In August 2019 the 7th session of the TICAD was attended by 10,000 participants. This included 42 African leaders, 52 development partner countries, the heads of 108 international and regional organisations and, finally, representatives from over a dozen civil society groups and private sector actors. The scale of such involvement and logistical support indicates the extent to which Africa has forged closer ties to the continent of Asia to achieve common goals. Serving as “a platform to ensure the African Union’s ownership of the TICAD process”, the conference illustrated the AU’s capacity to represent the interests of the African continent in international negotiations, securing additional support to enhance diplomatic and economic ties with Tokyo. A central theme discussed at the conference was the promotion of ‘ownership and partnership’, with Japanese Foreign Minister, Yoshifumi Okamura, lambasting Western approaches to development denying recipients their capacity to ‘own’ their development. Writing that “economic and political reforms will not bear fruit if not done by its own initiative”, Foreign Minister Okamura’s words demonstrate the legitimacy of Africa’s development interests and, with greater multilateral engagement, can be achieved. Here, the AU is capable of establishing continental consensus of development reform and then advocate for support when engaging international development partners like those at the TICAD. The AU’s outreach has additionally been evidenced by stronger ties with South Korea. Since the beginning of the 21st century, South Korea has sought to enhance economic and diplomatic ties with the African continent. In 2006, for example, President Roh Moo-hyun convened the first Korea-Africa Forum (KOAF) which aims to strengthens the partnerships and the sharing of development experiences. This represented President Roh’s overall attitude whereby Africa must be allowed to achieve independent economic prosperity, falling in-line with the AU’s objectives. As of the second forum in 2009, the AU became a co-organizer of the event along with the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, demonstrating the extent of the AU’s ability to interact successfully with international partners.

The AU has made considerable strides in developing international partnerships across the continent of Asia. These partnerships not only elevate the organisation’s status and soft power on the global stage, but also secures key partners that are united over common assessments toward international development. As previously mentioned, criticism toward Western-orientated ideas about ‘guiding’ Africa’s development have gained prominence amongst Asia’s biggest economies, giving the AU alternatives to enhance cooperation in the field of development.


The AU’s role has shifted and evolved to encompass areas involving security, human rights promotion and climate change. The merits of its work warrant further discussion as Africa comes to play an essential role in international relations. The challenges it faces, including weak political will to pursue a bolder agenda, is a fairly common problem for such an organisation of this size. However, what has been shown throughout this article is a gradual step in the right direction by the AU. Progress may come in leaps or minor steps, but it is progress, nonetheless. It is evident that there is a greater willingness on the AU’s part to recognize where success has been lacking. This was evidenced in 2016, when the African leaders identified institutional reforms as an urgent and necessary priority, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame appointed to lead the process. By recognizing the problem and the underlying causes, it makes it easier for AU bodies and leaders to identify and enact effective solutions. Time will tell how far the AU will go, but the fact it has established a series of institutions in the realm of security and peacebuilding and peacekeeping. While the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been subject to scrutiny following its application to justify military action in Libya, this normative shift by the AU represents a willingness to play a dominant role in Africa’s security governance to save lives and minimize conflict. Overall, the AU’s development represents Africa’s relevance to the global order. As globalization brings new challenges and opportunities, the AU marks an ambitious effort to consolidate and reflect Africa’s voice on the global stage.

About the author:

My name is James Manion and I am an intern for Africa Insight. I have a Bachelors in Politics and International Relations and a Masters in Diplomacy.

If you have any enquiries about this article and its contents, I’ll be happy to respond through email at



Africa Insight

Africa Insight is a Seoul-based NGO with the aim of facilitating education and awareness surrounding African development, both in Korea and worldwide.