Kagame’s AU reforms will struggle to survive without him


2018 was a frenetic year for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who doubled as chair of the African Union. He was the driving force behind the reforms process of the continental body and the initiative behind a historic agreement about free trade in Africa. At the end of it all, Kagame was named as the African of the Year at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards and appeared on the cover of Forbes Africa

Will he be able to sustain the momentum and ensure the implementation of his continental plans?

Kagame is a controversial figure in African politics. He has created a successful, although questionable developmental model in Africa: stability, economic growth and gender equality achieved against a background of authoritarianism. He has been president of Rwanda since 2000, and a constitutional referendum in 2015 removed term limits, which will in effect enable him to rule until 2034.

Under Kagame’s watch, Rwanda experienced significant GDP growth, averaging 8%, between 2001 and 2014. Kagame is not a democrat, but he developed a reputation for being efficient and effective. Seen as someone who can drive change, in January 2018 he was elected as the chairperson of the African Union (AU). Almost two years before, the AU tasked him with chairing a panel to prepare a report on reforming the continental organisation, known for inefficient bureaucracy, funding problems and poor implementation of its objectives. This document, officially entitled ‘The Imperative to Strengthen our Union: Report on the Proposed Recommendations for the Institutional Reform of the African Union’, is referred to as the ‘Kagame Report’ by most. Grand plans closely associated with politicians behind them often lose momentum when they leave office. The AU is thus concerned with ensuring that the reforms are institutionalised and not personality-driven.

Proposed reforms range from the specific to the broad and suggest a clear division of labour between the AU’s myriad structures; improving implementation of decisions following AU Summits; focusing on fewer thematic priority areas; strengthening the current sanctions mechanism; streamlining management and recruitment processes; auditing bureaucratic bottlenecks and inefficiencies; and, implementing the Kigali Financing Decision.

The last item on this list is a financing plan for the AU, which entails a 0.2% levy on all eligible exports of member states. This has been a sensitive topic for a while, as experts have argued that Africa needs to fund its own institutions, such as the AU, which are too dependent on European funding. In recent years, between 60% and 90% of the AU’s project and peace operations were funded by external actors. In spite of this, pushback on the levy has been significant, particularly by the large continental economies. 

Members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) even circulated a document which outlined their disagreements with many of the reforms, regarding their form, substance and lack of consultation in developing them. The documents specifically targeted the proposed levy.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior research consultant for the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), said: “Many SADC countries are anti-Kagame and are rallying at his authoritarianism.” As a result, the financial levy was made voluntary, rather than compulsory. It has only been implemented by 12 states including Kenya, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

While the AU has been previously averse to sanctions, it seems that there is political will to strengthen the relevant mechanism, with respect to non-payment of contributions. The extraordinary summit meeting in November 2018 decided that members who have not paid at least 50% of their contributions will be subjected to cautionary, intermediate and comprehensive sanctions, applied based on how long a state has been in arrears. AU experts, however, remain sceptical, predicting that sanctions will stop at ‘naming and shaming’.

Kagame also helped push through the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTFA) in March 2018 in Kigali. Forty-nine out of 55 AU member have signed this agreement, paving way for the world’s largest free trade area. Together with the reform effort, this represents his vision for an economically and politically united continent, led by a more focused and efficient AU.

While 2018 was clearly the year of Kagame in Africa, he may find it difficult to consolidate these gains in 2019. Egypt, whose president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken over as AU chair, has gone on record to state that it is unable to comply with the Financing Decision in its current form and is also rumoured to not be supportive of the proposed reforms.

Kagame insisted on holding an AU Extraordinary Summit in November 2018 to provide one last push for the reforms. Tellingly, al-Sisi did not attend. Overall experts agree that if the reforms can survive 2019, they will be successful.

Kagame’s top-down approach proved successful domestically in propelling Rwanda up the socio-economic and business rankings. He will find continental matters more difficult to deal with. Some have already questioned his approach, noting that achieving his goals will require much compromise and negotiation. African states have been reluctant to cede any of their sovereignty, no matter how incremental. Some of Kagame’s reforms are likely to fail, because member states are blocking issues which would have strengthened and professionalised the AU. Leading the continent will thus require a very different model to one he successfully implemented at home.

Yarik Turianskyi is the Deputy Head the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. He and Steven Gruzd are co-authoring an upcoming paper that provides an in-depth look at the African Union reforms.  

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