Interview - May 9, 2023

INTERVIEW | AU@20: How AU can better serve African people in the next 30 years – Wafula Okumu  

In this no-holds-barred interview, Prof Wafula Okumu, co-editor of the book African Union at 20: African Perspectives on Progress, Challenges and Prospects, provides an incisive analysis of the trajectory of the African Union’s evolution, challenges as well as its prospects for integrating, unifying, and developing Africa.


Prof Wafula Okumu


PAV: You are out with a new book titled African Union at 20: African Perspectives on Progress, Challenges and Prospects, may we know the motivation for and relevance of this publication at this point?

Prof Okumu: There are several motivations for producing this book at this point. As you know, your 20th birthday is a gigantic leap into adulthood—it marks the time of coming of age, a point at which you begin to live on your own.  It is in one’s 20s when major decisions that will affect the rest of one’s life are made. Hence, we had the urge to tell the story of the African Union over the past two decades—what happened to the agenda encapsulated in its Constitutive Act? What happened to radical norms such as the right to intervene in failing states, etc.?

Second, the book is a conversation between us (Africans) and the AU in which the authors candidly reflect on the noble idea of transforming the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into a vibrant, pro-active, self-reliant, African-oriented organization. It is an open conversation between Africans and the AU. We critically review its performance over the past two decades, point out its achievements, challenges, and offer ideas on how the AU can perform better and serve the African people in the next 30 years.

Our third motivation is revealed on the cover of the book: to tell an African story of the AU—Africa of hopeful, confident, and placid people; to depict the AU as a “people’s organization” rather than that of leaders and the glittering Chinese-built structure [AU Headquarters]. The fourth motivation was our passion to see the AU succeed by pointing out its strengths, weaknesses that need to be addressed, and opportunities that will contribute to the achievement of Agenda 2063, i.e., the 50-year strategic framework for Africa’s development.

We note that the past 20 years have generated enough lessons that the AU can learn from to achieve its goals in the next 30 years. The book points out that the organization has generated many valuable lessons that should be reference points instead of reinventing the wheel whenever it is confronted by new challenges. Learning lessons from its experiences should be part of the agenda for the next decade. It would guarantee Africa’s path towards the fulfillment of Agenda 2063. If not, a damning story will be written when the AU is assessed in 2063.

The fifth motivation was our willingness to share the richness of ideas about the AU. Contributors to the book are former AU employees and Africans who have worked with the AU or studied the organization over the past two decades. We noted there are big voids in African-generated knowledge and hope such a book will fill some of them. Lastly, we wanted to find out why the AU, despite having many advantages, has underperformed in implementing its decisions and key instruments by analyzing the importance of institutions and leadership in implementing the ambitious agenda adopted in 2002.


PAV: Looking at the global context, can you situate the importance of the African Union, and looking at its membership, can you say the body represents the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Africans?

Prof Okumu: The AU was established as “a dynamic force” representing Africa “in the global arena.” It was meant to be a platform for “encouraging international cooperation” and an instrument to “develop common policies on trade, defense, and foreign relations” to be utilized to defend the continent and strengthen “its negotiating positions.” The AU has not only forged working relations with other international organizations; it has also established permanent missions in Beijing, Brussels, New York and Washington, DC, to pursue these goals.

Over the past two decades, the AU has become the face of Africa and represented its interests.  Nevertheless, its success in promoting and protecting Africa’s interests in the global arena has been undermined by the AU’s over-reliance on “external partners.” These partners have taken advantage of the AU’s high appetite for donor funds to manipulate, coerce and exploit its Member States, Commission, and institutions to serve foreign interests rather than the African people.

Some of these external partners have hijacked initiatives such as the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the Silencing the Guns in Africa campaign, and the African Union Border Programme to implement their “solutions” to “African problems.” The AU Border Programme, which was established in 2007 to ensure borders do not cause disputes between African countries, has, in the past 10 years, been taken over by a foreign country that claims to be implementing it on behalf of the AU.


PAV: The AU was launched [in 2002] with so much fanfare. From your perspective, what accounts for the fact that its twentieth anniversary went largely unnoticed?

Prof Okumu: Indeed, the razzmatazz that marked the launch of the AU symbolized the enlivening moment — the African Renaissance had arrived! The backdrop of this moment was the debilitating underdevelopment on the continent, caused mainly by bad governance and violent conflicts that the OAU had failed to address. Under the OAU, Africa has gained a dubious distinction as a continent ruled by strong ‘big men’ who flagrantly abuse the rights of their subjects under the guise of sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of independent states.

The OAU is generally considered to have underperformed in promoting “the unity and solidarity of the African States” and coordinating “efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa,” as expressed in Article 2 of its Charter. The new organization was celebrated as a momentous transformation of its predecessor and for bringing about doctrinal and radical paradigm shifts. Among the many distinguishing features of the AU were that it was to involve citizens in its activities, intervene in states that had failed in their responsibility of protecting their citizens, and ban unconstitutional changes in governments.

The AU offered hope that it was the elixir for addressing Africa’s development challenges. Unfortunately, the AU’s 20th anniversary passed unnoticed with no acknowledgement of its key achievements. It is not clear why the AU top organs never issued any statement, planted a tree, or erected a monument to commemorate this milestone. Only the Chairperson of the AU Commission can explain why this moment was insignificant and undeserving of acknowledgement.


PAV: From your findings, may we know where you see progress for the AU and what achievements have been recorded by the continental body?

Prof Okumu: Most of the key achievements of the AU were recorded in its first 10 years. During this period, African leaders adopted radical measures to protect civilians from weakening and collapsing states, to consolidate democracy, to enhance good governance, to promote peace, to maintain security, and to achieve the dreams that were deferred during the OAU years.

Progress was also made in operationalizing key institutions such as the Peace and Security Council (PSC), adopting key policies and legal instruments, and playing active roles in keeping peace in war-torn countries such as Burundi and Somalia.

Also, the AU admirably midwifed the birth of South Sudan, and timeously intervened to stem the spiraling 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. The AU also attempted to resolve conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), Comoros, Libya, Mali, and Madagascar.

Most recently, the AU astutely facilitated the peaceful resolution of the Tigrayan-Ethiopian federal government crisis, and commendably handled the Ebola epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic. It is also notable that since the formation of the AU, more countries have embraced multi-party political systems, and the politics of the bullet, which marked the OAU era, has been replaced by the politics of the ballot, with almost all AU Member States holding regular multiparty elections.


PAV: In terms of failures and challenges, can you highlight some of the most consequential ones?

Prof Okumu: We note from the onset that the AU is not guided by the Pan-Africanist ideology that birthed it. Pan-Africanism has been undermined by sovereignty, leading the AU to wobble without an ideology to drive its integration agenda. Pan-Africanism is viewed as a threat to national sovereignty by elites who control nation-states, which guarantee them privileges a supranational entity does not provide. So long as these selfish elites control AU member states, the organization will always be ineffective in implementing a pan-Africanist agenda.

Since its formation, the AU has made too many decisions and commitments; most of them unmet, deferred or abandoned. The speed with which the AU makes decisions, resolutions, communiqués, and other forms of communication has contributed to their inconsistencies and obvious inapplicability among many of the AU’s documents. Yet, the AU lacks the “powers to enforce its decisions and the legislation adopted by its institutions.”

In 1986, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere lamented that it had become ‘a regular practice for African states to dishonor their obligations to African institutions or other African states.” Professor Tiyanjana Maluwa, who served as the legal counsel when the AU was being formed, points out in his chapter that “the growth of AU law requires an organization endowed with supranational powers to make legally binding decisions that are prerequisites for advancing the economic integration project.”

Yet, we have not only witnessed the reversal of key norms but also the existence of a wide gap between norm-setting and norm-implementation as AU Member States generally lack the political commitment to effectively implement norms and instruments that inculcate a culture of democratic governance, constitutionalism, rule of law, and human rights. It is also notable that although the Constitute Act is the grand norm of the AU system, it is sparingly referred to or invoked in the formulation of initiatives as well as in decision-making and policy implementation processes.

The AU’s frosty relations with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its action to give African leaders immunity from prosecution for international crimes have undermined achievements made to prevent and end a culture of impunity in Africa. Additionally, its tolerance of “good coups” and the failure of Member States to ratify key human rights instruments and their lukewarm support of existing human rights bodies have blotted out the AU’s good intentions to promote a culture of human rights, rule of law and constitutionalism. Since 2012, we have witnessed the AU endorse “good coups” in Egypt, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Despite the AU adopting elaborate legal frameworks to promote good governance, the continent has over the past decade been experiencing “democratic hemorrhage,” according to Dr Khabele Matlosa, former AU director of the political affairs department and contributor to the book. This hemorrhage has been described variously in terms such as democratic erosion, democratic recession, democratic backsliding, democratic breakdown, democratic façade, democratic reversal, democratic slowdown, etc.

The democratic hemorrhage has manifested itself in ways such as manipulations of electoral processes, violence accompanying elections, weakening of democratic institutions to serve the interests of the political class, declining electoral integrity, declining public trust in governance institutions, declining voter turnout, unconstitutional changes of government (despite the AU’s zero tolerance against this phenomenon), constitutional amendments to tamper with or remove term limits, etc.

While the AU has made major achievements in including women and youth in its governance, its Member States have yet to establish accountability mechanisms to ensure women’s and youth empowerment strategies are implemented. Across Member States, unemployed youth have been linked to urban violence, and the youth bulge has contributed to the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Moreover, the AU is not yet the organization of the African people. The African population is generally not knowledgeable about and supportive of the AU agenda.

Hence the lack of African people’s commitment and participation in its implementation. The statist nature of the AU has locked out the people and turned it into a protector of state interests rather than those of the continent and its people. It is noteworthy that ECOSOCC, the people’s body, was designed to serve as ‘an advisory organ composed of different social and professional groups,’ and its ‘functions, powers, composition, and organization’ were to ‘be determined by the (AU) Assembly’ of Heads of State and Government.

Institutionally, the AU is headed by maladroit leadership and staffed by dispirited and unmotivated employees. In terms of the capacities of AU institutions, they are still weak and poorly managed and have, therefore, been unable to effectively implement AU agendas, including the articulation of African interests in the global arena. Reports by panels headed by Adebayo Adedeji, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, as well as a commissioned report by PricewaterhouseCoopers have all pointed out various dimensions of the serious institutional defaults and governance challenges the AU faces.

This begs the question: can an organization that is poorly governed and badly managed promote good governance on a continent yearning for it? Overall, the AU lacks strong, strategic, and visionary leadership like that of Muammar Gaddafi, Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo that drove the efforts to establish the AU. Currently, Africa lacks leaders who are committed to a Pan-African agenda. Most are more absorbed in their domestic affairs and have little time for continental matters. They only show interest in the latter if it will benefit them.


PAV: What was your team’s assessment of issues to do with security and conflict resolution? What needs to be done for Africa to take ownership of its own security needs?

Prof Okumu: When the AU was formed, its founders realized that it needed an effective mechanism to address Africa’s conflicts and insecurity, particularly those of a complex nature such as the Rwandan genocide. The African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) was a creative arrangement for preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts and maintaining security in Africa. It was conceived with key institutions functioning under specific conditions, glued together by norms and principles, and undergirded by a slew of legal instruments.

However, APSA mechanisms have not been fully implemented, delaying interventions to mitigate and resolve conflicts. Conflict prevention mechanisms such as the Continental Early Warning System and the Panel of the Wise and conflict management instruments such as the African Standby Force lack the capacity to effectively undertake their mandates. Despite this, AU Member States have ensured that the AU does not act swiftly and robustly by invoking their sovereign right to manage their internal affairs without external interference.

Over the years, we have witnessed the replacement of institutionalized mechanisms by ad hoc arrangements that are now the norm and the AU’s preferred conflict management and resolution method, although they were intended to be stopgaps. The AU has relied on “high-level panels” to undertake missions to facilitate peace in Darfur and between Sudan and South Sudan, investigate human rights violations in South Sudan, and assess APSA institutions.

These panels intervene in conflicts instead of the Panel of the Wise, while peacekeeping arrangements such as the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the elimination of the LRA (RCI-LRA), the Multinational Joint Task Force operation against Boko Haram and the G5 Sahel Joint Force are preferred to the African Standby Force regional brigades. Some ad hoc arrangements, set up to operate differently outside APSA mechanisms to enhance donor interests, have severely undermined “African solutions to African problems.”

Ad hoc arrangements have been tailor-made to meet sponsors’ interests or their understanding of the African problem. For instance, the EU proclaimed in 2004 that it would support the AU through the African Peace Facility (APF) to implement African solutions to African problems with APSA. However, by 2021, it had replaced APF with the European Peace Facility, which bypasses APSA by directly supporting ad hoc arrangements. By stripping it of its central role in addressing African peace and security challenges, the EU has pulled the rug from under the APSA.

We strongly recommend that APSA be fully implemented through subscription to its core principles of partnership, coordination, and cooperation, consultations, African ownership, comparative advantage, subsidiarity, complementarity, lessons learned, and best practices. Finally, we strongly recommend that for the AU to effectively assume its primary responsibility of promoting peace and security on the African continent, its Member States and the African people must assume the primary responsibility for funding its peace and security agenda.


PAV: How are foreign interests helping or stalling the AU agenda?

Prof Okumu: The support of external partners has been critical over the years, to the point that without it, the AU would not have delivered its agenda or built most of its institutions. The high appetite for donor support of its projects and programs has seen the AU forge international partnerships with the UN, the European Union, the League of Arab States, South America, Germany, the US, China, Japan, Russia, France, India, Turkey, and Korea.

The nature and objectives of these international partnerships reflect, to a large extent, the wishes of the incumbent chairperson of the AUC at the time they were entered into. But the agreements are not public and most of them were not subjected to due diligence to protect Africa’s interests. Since most of these agreements provide for financial exchange, the AU pays little to no attention to the fine print that compromises the independence of the organization and betrays its pan-African aspirations and status.

Most of these deals have conditions that strip the AU of its control and ownership of projects or initiatives being funded by external partners. For instance, the AU has largely handed over the operationalization of its peace and security architecture to foreign partners. Most disheartening was the handover of a program established to address African border issues to a European country.


PAV: How was the book received at the AU and what feedback have you received from the public so far?

Prof Okumu: So far, we have not solicited any feedback from the AU but hope to get its views when we engage with various officials and organs on major findings and recommendations in the book. We sincerely look forward to engaging with the AU since this book is an open conversation between Africans and the AU.

The feedback from the public has been positive so far. We hope to receive more feedback as the book is freely available online. As you know, most books on Africa published by major publishing companies are exorbitantly priced. By making this book easily accessible to the public, African people, for whom the book is written on their behalf, can now find out why the AU has not worked for them as expected and how to make it work better for them in the future.


PAV: What other broad policy recommendations are necessary to make the AU more efficient?

Prof Okumu: There are many recommendations that can be summarized: the AU should truly embrace Pan-Africanism as the AU’s and Africa’s ideology. Pan-Africanism will reify the AU and Africa’s common position and guide the AU to formulate and adopt an ‘African mindset,’ or a truly African outlook, and characteristic African ideas that distinguish us from the rest of the world. In this regard, the AU must reclaim its primacy in promoting African integration and unity by subscribing to the pan-Africanist value of self-reliance and protecting African interests by sustainably financing its institutions and activities.

For the AU to achieve its agenda of integrating, unifying, and developing Africa, it must be given supranational powers. The AU needs supranational powers to enable it to make legally binding decisions applicable to member states so that it does not end up as another “talking shop.” Africa’s ability to meet its development, integration, constitutionalism, rule of law, and human rights targets will largely be determined by the AU’s success in addressing the continent’s instability, insecurity, and conflicts.

To curb its penchant for duplicating decisions, activities, and institutions, which increases costs astronomically and extends time for meeting commitments, the AU must be disciplined in its approach to policy and program implementation and financial spending. To be an effective voice for Africa in the global arena, the AU must clearly articulate common African positions and skillfully navigate international relations. The shepherding of African leaders to foreign capitals to be paraded in ‘African summits’ is disgraceful and demeaning.

Moreover, the AU should carefully choose and judiciously manage both African and external partnerships.  Africa’s partnerships should be based on quality rather than quantity. Accordingly, the AU should significantly reduce its reliance on external partners to fund their preferred programs and projects at the expense of its agenda and commitment to the African people. Overreliance on external partners for funding has led to gaps in priority and ownership of Africa’s agendas. The high level of donor dependency has weakened African ownership in the implementation of AU agendas and led to non-African strategic drift.

Therefore, the AU must reclaim ownership of ideas, projects and institutions that have been undermined or made moribund by foreign interests. There should be a special focus on cases where foreign actors claim to support “African solutions to African problems” but enact processes that undercut the AU’s ability to act. Some foreign role-players have taken advantage of the AU’s weaknesses and challenges to promote other processes, which has ultimately prevented full implementation of a Pan-Africanist agenda.

The AU must reclaim the identification and understanding of African solutions and the generation and implementation of solutions. It must rely on African paradigms to understand African realities and challenges. It must work with African research institutions and experts, and fund solutions generated using African knowledge. Choosing the proper paradigm and producing the necessary knowledge is key to solving most African problems. Finding the appropriate knowledge for the right initiatives at the right time is the responsibility of the AU and its Member States.

Likewise, institutional design and functionality, as noted by the AU founders, is critical to its success in implementing its agenda. Consequently, the AU must enhance its institutional capacities, administrative and operational abilities, effectively manage its organs and mechanisms and provide sufficient finance for its initiatives.  Additionally, the AU must implement all audit reports relating to its governance, and its institutions must be professionally run. For the AU to make progress in achieving Agenda 2063, it must hold more consultations and allow the involvement of the African people, through civil society, in its implementation.

This will require better sharing of information and making the AU more accessible and accountable to the people rather than only to the African heads of state and government. The AU must be ably led. This requires strategic and visionary leadership to mobilize the human, financial, scientific, and social resources needed to implement its agendas. The continent is in dire need of a new generation of more assertive Pan-Africanist leaders to lead the AU if it is to succeed in integrating, unifying, and developing the African continent.


This interview was originally published in the April edition of the Pan African Visions (PAV) magazine. You can download a copy of the book African Union at 20: African Perspectives on Progress, Challenges and Prospects here


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