African Union must adapt to the winds of change

A Libyan rebel fighter mans a check point in the stronghold oil town of Ras Lanuf in 2011. (Marco Longari/AFP)

A Libyan rebel fighter mans a check point in the stronghold oil town of Ras Lanuf in 2011. (Marco Longari/AFP)

The African Union is illsuited in its current form to secure quality democracy, inclusive development and peace on the continent.

The AU needs to be dramatically restructured, refocused and reenergised to provide leadership in a terrifyingly volatile, complex and uncertain world.

So far, the organisation has been unable to respond effectively. The continent’s decade-long growth spurt, the so-called “Africa rising”, has come to an end. China, Africa’s largest trading partner, is struggling to rebalance its economy, which has harmed African growth levels. Global commodity and crude oil price slumps have also devastated African economies.

Africa has been divided on how to respond to the European Union’s economy-undermining economic partnership agreements, which some countries rejected and others embraced.
They forced African countries not to sign trade deals with countries or regions that compete with the EU.

A common response from the AU would have made it difficult for the EU to punish those not signing them and playing countries off against each other.

The AU has failed to respond effectively to the United States’s “war on terror”, which, in many cases, has propped up authoritarian African regimes, whose misrule were the cause of religious fundamentalism and which often spurned a new, deadlier cycle of radicalisation. A better option would have been to partner with African civil groups, democratic organisations and activists to build equitable democracies, economies and societies.

The AU’s inability to provide solutions to Africa’s complex problems has meant that Western and emerging powers have invariably intervened on African soil, in most cases catastrophically. A case in point was the US-led intervention that resulted in the ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. It took place with seemingly little understanding of the internal dynamics of the region and hence destabilised the whole region, unleashing the mass migration to Europe we see today. It is now a truism that Africa’s prosperity in an increasingly uncertain, complex and rapidly changing world depends on even closer political, economic and trade integration between countries.

But the current leadership of the AU is too discredited, the institution too toothless and the rules for membership too lenient. The ways in which many African leaders and institutions have generally thought about African unity is simply too outdated for our turbulent times.

The AU has no minimum entry requirements, whether in terms of the quality of democracy or the prudence of a country’s economic management. Because membership of the AU is largely voluntary, countries such as Zimbabwe can still be members even if their governments have appalling human rights records and they mismanage their countries’ economics and politics. This means that Zimbabwe and all the other rogue regimes can be fully fledged voting members, determining the outcomes of crucial decisions.

Ugandan AU soldiers with AU flag
Ugandan soldiers, part of the African Union peacekeepers for Somalia, hold the flag of African Union at Mogadishu’s international airport. (Reuters/File)

African political unity must be selective. The basis of a revamped AU should start with a small group of countries that can pass a double “stress” test based on the quality of their democracy and prudent economic governance.

The AU could follow a three-track system, with a core group of countries that meet the minimum democratic and economic governance criteria, and a second track of countries that do not meet the requirements but are serious about pursuing the AU’s new objectives. The rest, the third group, would be the assortment of dictatorships, which should be shunned until they introduce democratic governance. The second-track countries should be assessed annually to see whether they are ready to enter the first track of countries.

Not many African countries would pass such a test right now. Stricter rules would mean the AU would start off initially as a small club of countries. At best, they would probably be only South Africa, Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde and Namibia – and then only if the criteria in some cases were flexibly applied. The second group of countries that are genuinely on the way to meeting the minimum democratic and economic governance criteria should be set targets to reach before they are allowed into the elite group. The achievement of these should then be rewarded with increased investment.

The third group of African countries, with very minimum levels of democratic governance and prudent economic management, should also be set targets, with deadlines to meet at least some requirements to be allowed into the group of secondtier nations. Those countries scoring badly and unwilling to reform should be sidelined until they shape up. The AU, like its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), has made state, rather than human, security its underpinning. This wrong-headed principle is at the heart of African peers shielding despots such as Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe from criticism instead of coming to the aid of their desperate citizens. For the OAU, African presidents were more important than the continent’s people. This has remained unchanged under the AU.

African solidarity must not be based on leaders but on values such as democracy, social justice, clean government, ethnic inclusiveness and peace; protecting citizens against disease, violence and hunger; and prudently managing economies for the benefit of the continent’s people.

The AU’s charter would have to be changed from protecting the sovereignty of individual countries to protecting the security of Africans themselves. The principle of noninterference in the affairs of neighbours still partially informs the AU, which has been very reluctant to intervene forcefully in misgoverned nations.

Many African countries have still not adapted the limited democratic institutions, restrictive laws and official powers inherited from colonial days. In many others, where democratic institutions such as parliaments and human rights commissions have been set up, these are often in name only. In fact, democratic political cultures are absent in many countries.

There is not much provision for African citizens to have a direct influence on AU decisions. The AU and African leaders were themselves reluctant to have civil society, let alone their voting citizens, scrutinise their institutions and plans. So far, the AU’s continental and regional institutions are glorified clubs of leadership chums, mostly dictators for that matter. Referendums could be introduced in which citizens, electorates and civil groups could vote on crucial policies of continental and regional institutions.

Democracy and inclusive development must be the glue that holds the AU together.

Part of the revamp of the AU should be the establishment of effective pan-African institutions, such as a continent-wide supreme court and a constitutional court. These should be independent and have jurisdiction over prescribed areas in member states so that when tyrants such as Mugabe emerge they can no longer depend on the acquiescence or support of fellow rogues. Member countries of revamped AU and regional institutions would also have to establish credible democratic institutions – independent judiciaries, electoral commissions and human rights bodies.

A revamped AU would have to compel all its members to scrap repressive laws. A citizen from a member country must have recourse to the AU if that citizen is brutalised by his or her government.

Gender equality must be the basis of all AU business. Every member country would have to adhere to two limits for presidencies. There would have to be a transparent procedure to impeach presidents or leaders who start off as democrats but turn into tyrants.

Political parties in AU member countries that get state funding should adhere to minimum internal democratic rules, which would prevent one-man and tribal parties. The AU should also set new minimum standards of conduct and operation for all parties, including ruling and opposition parties. Currently, most of them are too undemocratic, corrupt and tribally based to lead the continent to a new era of quality democracy and prudent economic management.

The AU’s admirable aspirations for the continent set out in its Agenda 2063, which calls for eradicating poverty in one generation through inclusive growth and sustainable democracy, will remain a distant dream unless the AU is transformed.

William Gumede is the chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation ( He   is the author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

William Gumede

William Gumede

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor and Managing Editor of The Sowetan.During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the bestselling author of several books including, "Thabo Mbeki & the Battle for the Soul of the ANC” and "The Poverty of Ideas: South African Democracy and the Retreat of the Intellectuals" amongst several others. Read more from William Gumede

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