Featured - Opinion - July 17, 2022

OP-ED | AU@20: Trajectories and prospects, By Charles Onunaiju

The African Union has endeared itself as an efficient mechanism to facilitate and advance the continent’s integration and development.



The transition from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), to the African Union (AU), in 2002, was a historic moment for the continent. The OAU was the crystallization of the Pan-Africanist sentiments that swept through the continent in the wake of the popular anti-colonial struggle and was its foremost institutional expression.

Though born with fanfare, the OAU was also an ideological compromise of various tendencies and political temperaments of the time and even though it was a significant and huge achievement to find common ground, the organization was affected and even constrained by the then-paralyzing cold war international system.

Its boldest move to identify the structural challenges and other weaknesses of functional integration was the document of the Lagos Plan of Action of its special summit, held in the then capital of Nigeria in 1980, which designed and charted a comprehensive and integrated framework of genuinely pan-African vision of development that spanned industrial, infrastructure and region-wide connectivity.

The lack of political will and effective coordinated institutional direction meant the plan was sidelined and in its place, a program of structural adjustment developed by the western-based Bretton Woods institutions- the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was shoved down the throat of the continent.

Other mechanisms like the African Economic Community (AEC), also finalized in Abuja in Nigeria in the 1990s, also suffered a similar fate as the Lagos Plan of Action. With the end of the cold war in the 1990s whose effects on the crucial theme of African unity and integration have been less than sanguine, it was obvious that the transition and even transformation of the OAU to a mechanism of effective action on the identifiable challenges of the continent would be compelling.

Hence, the birth of the African Union at the historic summit in Durban, South Africa in July 2002, encapsulating the vision of an “Africa, integrated, prosperous and peaceful, an Africa driven by its own citizens, a dynamic force in global arena.” There is no gainsaying that such an ambitious vision invites a broadly shared consensus superbly complimented by a genuine political commitment towards regional integration.

Though the African Union is built on a practical mechanism to advance integration with the aim of gradually filling the gaps in the institutional and structural constraints, it also harbors its own poetic dimension that seeks to radically fasttrack the establishment of the “United States of Africa” with a single president and cabinet ministers to boot.

The late leader of Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi not only set his vision squarely on achieving it but was willing to commit resources to it. Since his tragic demise in 2011, in the NATO orchestrated destabilization of the country and his consequent assassination, the strident advocacy for the establishment of the “United States of Africa” as the immediate aim of the AU has considerably mellowed down, while other critical components for the integration of the continent continued apace.

A unique and distinct feature of the African Union has been the institutional outreach to Africa’s eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs). The common market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the East Africa Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States, (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), the inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA).

The synergy of the AU Commission with the RECs has significantly sharpened the focus on the important challenges of integration and also, crucially, galvanized the international cooperation needed to increase the synergy.

There is no doubt that the founding of the AU was, in part, motivated by a desire to strengthen Africa’s leverage to engage with the rest of the world and to manage the process of globalization to the continent’s advantage.  In this respect, the AU has charted and initiated creative and proactive measures which have prevented the continent from being entirely marginalized by the trends of globalization.

Despite a weak economic foundation, the continent’s distinct advantages, including its economies of scale, especially with the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), demographics, low labor cost, resource endowments, in addition to more effective political coordination, make the African Union a serious international actor.

As a major and key actor in South-South Cooperation, the AU Commission in its end of term report of 2017-2021, titled “taking stock, charting the future”, said that “the establishment and operationalization of the Beijing representation office marks the first ever South-South Cooperation office outside the continent”.

China-Africa Cooperation, which has a long history and has continuously evolved from sharing common trenches in the anti-colonial struggle and common aspirations to building self-reliant economies to cooperation at phenomenal levels, is marked by pragmatic engagement that feeds tangible aggregates to Africa’s requirements for functional integration and development.

Within the framework of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the 55- member organization comprising 53 African countries with diplomatic relations with Beijing, China and the AU Commission, the continent has reported vital progress in key areas of regional integration. As noted in a white paper issued in 2021 titled “China and Africa in the New Era: A partnership of Equals”, it observed that “China -Africa friendship has not been an over-night achievement, nor has it been gifted from on high.

Rather, it has been fostered throughout the years when China and Africa supported and stood alongside each other in trying times. China has aided to the limit of its capabilities the development of Africa and has been grateful for the strong support and selfless help African countries and their peoples have extended to China for a long period of time. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, China and African countries have continued to provide mutual support, writing a new chapter in China-Africa solidarity and friendship at times of crises.

At the Eighth Ministerial Conference of FOCAC that was held in Dakar, Senegal last year, the Chinese leader, president Xi Jinping, outlined  nine programs widely held in Africa to be compatible and relevant to the much needed recovery of the continent from the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With infrastructure construction cooperation, agricultural modernization, industrial and production capacity cooperation as the strategic pillar of China-Africa Cooperation; trade, investment, peace and security and other crucibles on whose plank, Africa advances on the trajectories of renaissance and sustainable development, China’s partnership with the AU is existentially incumbent on the realization of its mission, especially the bold vision of 2063.

However, while the FOCAC process has reinforced the mutual opportunities that China and Africa offer to each other, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mechanism of international cooperation and development, focusing on infrastructure connectivity within countries and across countries, has decisively added momentum to the dynamism of China-Africa Cooperation.

At 20, the African Union has churned out important milestones and has endeared itself as a very efficient mechanism to process the necessary tools to facilitate and advance the continent’s integration and development, but has also forged a crucial and important international partnership that makes tangible and practical contribution to its mission goals.

In Africa’s post-colonial history, China represents a turning point, willing and able to support Africa in the onerous challenge of building the continent into one that works for all her peoples and her extensive cooperation with the AU mechanism attests to the enormous prospects, renaissance and attainment of the lofty goals of vision 2063.


Charles Onunaiju is director, Center for China Studies, Abuja, Nigeria. This article was originally published on This Day. The views expressed in it are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect African Newspage’s editorial policy.


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