This year, for the first time since 2004, the African Union (AU) Assembly didn’t meet for its mid-year summit of heads of state. Instead a smaller meeting was organised in July in Niamey, Niger, between the AU and regional economic communities (RECs).
This was one of the decisions of the AU reforms adopted in January 2017 aimed at making the AU more streamlined and efficient. It shows that some of the AU reforms, spearheaded by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, are slowly but surely being implemented.
The AU-REC meeting in Niamey was, however, overtaken by an extraordinary summit to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) attended by more than 30 heads of state. The AfCFTA is hugely important for the continent, but this meant that the idea of creating a leaner structure for AU summits was shifted to the backburner.
The first mid-year coordination meeting between the AU and RECs on 8 July, which was meant to replace the AU Assembly, was reduced to a short side event. Niamey ended up having all the trappings of a costly summit in a country that could ill afford to host it.
Some point out that India donated US$15 million to the government of Niger to organise it. But civil society organisations questioned the decision to spend donor funds on hosting such a costly event in a country in crisis. An important aim of the AU reforms is to bring the AU closer to the people, and while decentralising the activities of the union is important, these concerns must be considered.
One of the cornerstones of the AU reforms is strengthening the AU Commission and streamlining the summits’ activities. Others include focusing the AU on key priorities with a continental scope, and realigning AU institutions in order to deliver against those priorities. Managing the business of the AU efficiently and effectively at both the political and operational levels and financing the AU sustainably and with the full ownership of the member states are also priorities.
Some of the decisions on institutional changes at the last Addis Ababa summit that were meant to be taken in Niamey by the ministers were moved to the next summit in early 2020. This includes a decision on how the structure of the AU Commission will look going forward.
It has already been decided that the number of AU departments and commissioners will be reduced from eight to six by merging some departments. The details of the restructuring must be decided soon, so that the process of selecting the 2021 commission can start next year.
There were again divisions among member states in Niamey on the question of partnerships. The original reforms aimed at an agreement where ‘Africa should speak with one voice’. The intention was that the AU troika of current, past and future chairpersons and the AU Commission would represent the continent during some of these meetings with outside partners, particularly when Africa was called to meet with only one country.
Consensus has been reached on allowing all countries to attend meetings with similar large groupings such as the European Union or the League of Arab States. Some also agree that existing partnerships such as those with China and Japan should be kept intact.
However there is no consensus on who should represent the continent at summits with single countries such as Russia, Turkey, the United States or even France, which has held France-Africa summits for many years. Many heads of state believe they shouldn’t be sidelined in favour of a smaller structure that doesn’t necessarily represent their interests.
The executive council (foreign affairs ministers) decided that the AU Commission budget again be reduced from the previous year, this time down to US$647 million from US$681m. This was done by removing duplication and through better management of the AU Commission.
The Permanent Representatives Committee (ambassadors) presented a report by external auditors that revealed major weaknesses in the accounting practices of the AU Commission and its various organs. Clearly the call for the AU’s self-funding goes hand in hand with greater accountability and transparency.
AUC chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat told members of the executive council in Niamey that the commission noted the external auditors’ findings and was putting in place measures to improve the situation and sanction those responsible for wrongdoing.
While the 0.2% levy on imports to fund the AU – one of the initial cornerstones of the reforms – hasn’t been universally implemented, some momentum was created by the reforms to ensure a steady increase in members paying their assessed contributions.
It was also announced in Niamey that the AU Peace Fund had grown substantially to US$120.7m. Mahamat said the fund was ‘an instrument of sovereignty’ and would make it possible for Africa to ensure its active presence in conflict areas, and to work towards preventing conflicts.
While the modalities of accessing and managing the fund haven’t been clarified, this could give mediation and other conflict prevention efforts by the AU an important boost. Thanks to the Peace Fund, for example, the AU will be able to mediate in crises such as in Sudan or the Central African Republic without having to ask partners for funding.
It was decided at the summit that the theme for 2020 would be ‘Silencing the guns: creating conducive decisions for Africa’s development’. This theme is in line with the aims of Agenda 2063 that involved silencing the guns by 2020. Although this milestone is impossible to achieve, the aim is to take stock of the progress made by the AU and to devise new strategies to achieve peace on the continent.
Going forward, the challenge for the AU will be to continue implementing the reforms and to sanction those member states that don’t comply with continental agreements such as the self-financing of the AU. The outcomes of the Niamey summit show that reaching consensus on key issues remains an obstacle to a more efficient AU.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
This article was first published by the ISS Peace and Security Council Report.