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Will the African Union achieve better efficiency?

Martina Schwikowski
January 18, 2018

African heads of state will be gathering at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 22, 2018. Two difficult issues on the agenda: Reform and finance. Analysts are expecting contentious discussions.

Flags of AU member countries flying during a summit in Kampala
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Turkia

If words are anything to go by, a strong and peaceful Africa is a priority for the majority of African leaders. But the big question for heads of states attending the 30th African Union summit will be finding strategies for how this can be achieved. The high-profile meeting will kick off at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa on January 22. The leaders of the 55 members states will meet there to discuss ways to improve life in Africa and reform the African Union so that it is in a better position to be able to achieve important goals.

African leaders already agreed last year to reform the African Union. The pan-African body is cash-strapped and lacking the means to fund peacekeeping operations. It is still heavily dependent on financial assistance from abroad. In 2015, 72 percent of the operational budget came from international donors, such as the United States and the European Union. Critics also argue that it has been too slow to respond to security threats.

President Paul Kagame during an official visit to Germany 2017
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame was elected AU chair last yearImage: Imago/Zumapress/E. Contini

Rwanda‘s President Paul Kagame is leading reform efforts. In July last year, he was elected to succeed Guinea's president Alpha Conde as AU chair. Rwanda took over the chairmanship of the African Union at the beginning of 2018.  Proposals for change are already on the table. According to Kagame, the main pillar of the AU reform should be financial independence.

"It is reckless for Africa to rely so heavily on sources of funding that are likely to dry up sooner rather than later, especially when we have the means to pay for programs that are beneficial to us," Kagame wrote in an article in Rwanda's New Times newspaper this week.

"It is important to preserve the principal and purpose that inspired the reform, while showing flexibility on certain details where member states require it," Kagame added.

Keep the moment

Yann Bedzigui, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, also thinks that the African Union should maintain the present momentum. "We have to keep going to have a long-term impact," he told DW. Bedzigui thinks that the AU has already made great progress compared to its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU)

"About two-thirds of the funds are coming from donors, now they have to work on increasing African contributions on its own."  

Some progress in this area has already been made. Member states agreed on a proposal to finance the African Union with a 0.2 percent levy on eligible imports last July. Twenty member states have signed up for this mechanism and 14 are on the way to implementing it. According to Alex Vines, Director of the Africa Program at British think-tank Chatham House, there is an issue of coherence, because some regional organizations, such as the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS) have already implemented an import levy to finance their activities. This may well mean that West African countries are not very enthusiastic about raising another levy.

"Are there going to be two levies? There are similar thorny, practical issues the AU is going to have to hammer out," Vines told DW.

AU peacekeepers on a street in the Somali capital Mogadishu
AU peacekeeping missions are suffering from financial constraintsImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Abikar

Not all in the same boat

Vines thinks that there are good proposals for AU reform on the table, but questions about implementation remain. 

"Some proposals might happen in bits, and some are on paper and merely aspirational," he told DW. According to Vines, the African Union is not only dependent on foreign funding, but also on contributions from a few African countries like South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria. After the Arab spring and the following downturn in commodity prizes, funding has become inconsistent, Vines explained.

"Not all of the 55 countries are in the same boat. There are some economies predicted to have high growth rates and others that are not going to be doing very well," he said.

The AU chair will encourage investments from everybody, Vines told DW, and China could become a heated topic at the summit. "But unlike Europe, China is not a big supporter of the AU budget and plays a less important role in this debate." 

The AU and China have already been collaborating closely. China deployed a permanent mission to the AU in early 2015. It also built the impressive new headquarters for the AU in Addis Ababa and is funding infrastructure development in many African countries.

But apart from the issue of funding, many other challenges remain. The AU is deeply divided. Many analysts are doubtful whether enough African leaders will agree to follow any plans made by the pan-African body.