But is it accurate? I address this question in a recent article as the organisation marks its 20th anniversary this year.
The African Union was negotiated, and signed by African governments in 1999. Its founding treaty would not have come into existence if at least two-thirds of the 54 African governments and Western Sahara had not ratified and deposited it on May 26, 2001.
My paper shows that since its official launch in 2002, the African Union has developed considerable agency. I defined this as its capacity to shape the agenda and decisions in Africa and on global affairs.
There is no question that the African Union has its challenges. It is financially weak and dependent on external donors. It is often seen as a club of old men that is inaccessible to ordinary Africans. And it has implementation deficits, with its work sometimes held back by poorly governed states.
Yet, the organisation is often at the heart of agenda-setting, decision-making, rule creation, policy development and strategic leadership for the African continent.
It is, therefore, an oversimplification of the complex relationship between the African Union and its members to treat the pan-African bureaucracy as a mere servant of the continent’s governments. The African Union and its bureaucracy are neither glorified messengers nor docile followers of the orders of African governments.
It has marshalled its 55 members to take common positions on many critical global issues. These have included building consensus on United Nations reforms, the COVID-19 response, and financing of African development.
Measuring impact, and failures
My paper shows the various pathways that the African Union exercises agency. It offers a nuanced way to understand how the union:
shapes the drafting of international treaties
enforces regulations, promises and treaties
represents the collective will of member states
sets agenda, and directs, influences and shapes thinking at the global level
offers strategic leadership.
Many of its treaties contain global firsts. This is true even though many member states still have loopholes in protecting democracy.
It has been able to contribute to treaties because it’s attracted some of the best policy minds on the continent. This research shows that African Union staff are some of the most highly educated international civil servants in the world. They also have extensive work experience.
Enforcing regulations, promises and treaties. The African Union has developed a well-oiled machine promoting peace and security.
Its initiatives have included developing an institutional design for mediation, political dialogue, early warning systems and peace-support operations. These have changed the game of peace missions and led to relative success. One example is the intervention in Somalia.
The Union has also been effective in changing the mindset of African political elites from their traditional posture of indifference to one that encourages them to intervene in each other’s affairs. It intervened swiftly in the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 and rapidly deployed Operation Democracy in the Comoros in 2008.
Collective will, setting the agenda and shaping thinking. The African Union has used the power of recommendations to great effect.
It used it to rally members to support a slate of African candidates vying for positions in international organisations. Examples include the election of Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as Director-General of the World Health Organization and Rwanda’s Louise Mushikiwabo as Secretary-General of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.
In addition, studies indicate that the African Union was able to get members to take common positions on more than 20 major issues.
Many of these positions shaped global debate and decisions. These include influencing the terms of engagement between the UN and regional organisations.
But the union has also convened and mobilised for bad causes. An example was the shielding of the former President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta from calls to appear before the International Criminal Court to answer charge of crimes against humanity.
Strategic leadership. The African Union has shown it is capable of providing leadership and acting as advisor to governments and intergovernmental agencies.
It successfully developed forward-thinking development frameworks such as Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. It has also created development agencies, including the African Union Development Agency NEPAD.
The African Union has been good at socialising African governments to accept development ideas and make them pillars of national growth plans.
But there are weaknesses.
The African Union resource mobilisation has been criticised for deepening Africa’s dependence on international partners. Some also argue that the union is good at coming up with lofty ideas but is often unable or unwilling to implement them.
The organisation has been held back by the constant push to reform it.
Between 2002 and 2009, Muammar Gaddafi’s relentless hounding to get it changed to a union government became a serious distraction and major impediment to the implementation of its programmes.
And since 2016, a process to reform the institution led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame has sowed division among the leaders of the commission. The process paralysed staff for almost five years and weakened the AU commission, as former South African President Thabo Mbeki observed.
Old habits – such as the cult of personality, concentration of power in the office of the chairperson of the commission, and shrinking of spaces for popular participation in decision-making – have set in over the past few years.
The rotation of the chairperson of the union largely among leaders who have questionable democratic credentials also suggests that the union has moved into the orbit of a particular group of African leaders. This is made up of authoritarian leaders who have turned the institution into a conservative and risk-averse body.
An example of a more conservative approach is the softening of its zero-tolerance position on military regimes.
It has been soft on recent coup makers. This is in contrast to its outspoken stance in previous years and the steps it took to ostracise military regimes in Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe in 2003, Togo in 2005, Mauritania in 2005 and 2007, Guinea in 2008, Mali in 2012, as well as Egypt and Central African Republic in 2013.
The recent resurgence of coups on the continent suggests that the African Union needs to revisit its position on unconstitutional changes of governments and strengthen its agenda to promote democracy.
The continent needs a stronger African Union leadership on this issue – and many others – over the next 20 years.