AU weathers Kagame whirlwind

Rwanda’s president put everything into reforming the organisation, with mixed results


Addis Ababa — Last weekend Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame handed over the baton to his successor, Egyptian President Adbel Fattah Al-Sisi, as chairperson of the African Union for the next year. And, if the ANC wins the May elections in South Africa, which is of course likely, it will be President Cyril Ramaphosa’s turn in 2020.

Despite much criticism against Kagame’s authoritarian regime back home, he managed to elevate the role of the rotating chairperson of the AU to a new level. He proposed initiatives such as reforming and streamlining the institution in Addis Ababa, and he put pressure on the 55 member states to pay their contributions to the AU. This will make the organisation less dependent on donor funding.

In the past, the role of the chairperson of the AU (which included Robert Mugabe in 2015) was largely symbolic, with the lead country chairing AU meetings and carrying out agendas set by the AU Commission in Addis Ababa.

Kagame wanted to do things differently.

He often berated his peers in speeches from the podium for not implementing the decisions taken at AU summits. Last year more than 15 meetings were held in Kigali to discuss AU affairs, according to AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, a staunch supporter of Kagame.

But his ambitious strategies didn’t always succeed. In fact, the reform drive has seen mixed outcomes.

This was partly a result of Kagame’s top-down approach for getting things done. After taking on the task of leading the AU reforms in mid-2016, for example, Kagame decided that the lengthy AU process of convening meetings of ambassadors to the AU, followed by meetings of foreign ministers, who then present drafts to heads of state for a final decision, was far too cumbersome.

He instituted “retreats” for heads of state on the eve of every AU summit, at which presidents were presented with a final draft of a decision and told: “Let’s decide now.” The presidents in the room were often cajoled into doing so.

The push-back from bigger and more powerful states in the AU was immediate. Many of the initiatives, such as imposing a 0.2% tax on imports from outside of Africa to fund the AU, have only received buy-in from less than half of the member states. The 16-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), with South Africa leading the charge, decided en masse to boycott Kagame’s initiative.

The fact that the Rwandan leader comes from a country with a population and gross domestic product a fraction of that of bigger states in the AU also hampered his efforts.

“How can Rwanda come and dictate to the big countries what to do?” asked a diplomat at the 32nd AU summit in Addis Ababa that concluded on Monday.

In the end, member states agreed to reshuffle the eight departments of the AU Commission, which often overlap, sometimes because of the concurrent agendas of non-African “partners”. From 2021 there will now be six instead of eight departments, notably with the merging of the portfolios of peace and security and political affairs.

The AU will only host one full-scale summit of the assembly a year. But the AU being what it is, this hasn’t really kicked in. After this month’s summit, there will be a smaller gathering of heads of state and ministers at the mid-year summit in Niger.

Already, however, it seems pretty much everyone will travel to Niamey in Niger for meetings, notably to launch the African Continental Free Trade area, which is well on its way towards receiving the required 22 ratifications by member states to enter into force. This is after South Africa deposed the 19th ratification at the summit.

Kagame and Faki also didn’t convince heads of state to strengthen the role of the commission chairperson, which would have permitted him or her to hire and fire commissioners. The falling-out between Faki and his deputy, Kwesi Quartey — in a letter leaked to the Mail & Guardian, Quartey accused his boss of circumventing due process to appoint an “old crony” as the AU representative to Brussels — is indicative of the confusion in the leadership structure of the AU, with no clear lines of reporting. Often AU staff believe they report to their presidents at home and national (even linguistic) divides muddy the waters in the institution.

READ MORE: Exclusive: African Union boss accused of hiring ‘old crony’ — by his deputy

There was also no way Kagame could convince other states that he could lead efforts to promote demo-cracy and free and fair elections in Africa. The limit of his persuasive power was demonstrated last month when the AU tried to intervene after flawed elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

It was just all wrong.

How could Kagame, who had won the past few elections in his country with more than 90% of the votes, with opposition leaders languishing in jail, push for a delay in announcing the results of the DRC polls?

The heads of state of SADC first pretended to go along with Kagame’s call for an intervention during a hastily organised meeting in Addis Ababa on January 17, but then went behind his back and recognised the declared winner, Felix Tshisekedi, before any AU mission could reach Kinshasa.

For issues such as freedom of speech and human rights, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kagame’s successor, is not expected to do better. Already, at the end of the summit, his refusal to answer questions from journalists during the habitual closing press conference frustrated many who had waited for hours for him to do so.

Economic integration and trying to solve conflicts such as those in neighbouring Libya are far more likely to be the focus of the Egyptians than reforming the AU or strengthening its leadership.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a senior research consultant at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria

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Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.

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