Why AU reform critics are wrong


On February 10 President Paul Kagame’s term as Chairperson of the African Union came to an end, paving way to Egypt’s Fattah el-Sisi, who will also be at the helm for a one year term before handing over to South Africa in 2020.

At the sunset of Kagame’s term, which coincided with a task that was assigned to him by his peers to lead the AU reform process 2016 and continues beyond it, the veteran journalist Charles Onyango Obbo suggested the East African newspaper that the reforms “were a step in the wrong direction.”

Obbo’s controversial articleappeared to draw both praise and ridicule in equal measure.

But was Obbo drawing controversy for its sake or did he have a point? His main argument – that he ascribes to former South African President Thabo Mbeki – is that the Kagame-led reforms aim to “turn the AU into a more technocratic, UN-like organisation.”

The problem, it is argued, is that such change “is not what Africa needs most.” And what does Africa need, according to this critique? It needs an ideologically inclined organisation that “fights to give political protection to Africa globally.”

This makes proponents of this view “sceptical about the AU reforms.”

A question worth asking is this: Does an ideology exist today that gives “political protection to Africa globally?” The answer is no.

For almost half a century Africa’s only coherent ideology was decolonization.

After Portuguese colonies (Lusophone countries) gained independence in the 1970s it morphed into an anti-apartheid struggle until black majority rule returned to South Africa in 1994.

Africa has been in the state of ideological nothingness ever since.

It is no coincidence that the OAU became a purposeless organisation that needed to be replaced only less than a decade after that and had to reinvent itself with new meaning now that all of Africa was liberated from colonial – and white minority – rule.

In other words, for close to two decades since its formation in 2002 the AU has neither been a technocratic nor an ideological entity.

These critics of the AU reforms concede to this fact.

They note that in the past Africa “turned to China” whenever it needed political protection globally. Unfortunately, “China is no longer a keen champion of African interests.”

Here’s why China gave up being Africa’s protector: “Africa has not collectively asked China for anything big.”

According to critics, “it’s this kind of political action” of being able to ask China for big things “that Africa needs more of.”

In other words, the critics are not talking of an ideology where Africa asserts itself by speaking with one confident voice in the global arena; on the contrary, the grand ideological ambition is to be appease China into a reluctant role as Africa’s mouthpiece.

Ironically, this sounds almost UN-like. Doesn’t it?

The second concern that draws scepticism for the reforms is the proposal to merge the Department of Political Affairs with that of Peace and Security (PSD).

The merger presumably places Africa’s strategic security at risk given that the PSD is “almost wholly funded by external partners, being a darling of the donors” means that it is under foreign control.

Similarly, the merger constitutes a “takeover or elimination of the AU function that gives political voice to Africa’s interests, some of them uncomfortable, or even inimical, to donors.”

This is a treasonous charge: AU reformers are implicitly accused of auctioning off the PSD and the political affairs department to foreign interests.

In other words, that Africa’s strategic security is being placed in the hands of its potential aggressors.

Remarkably, almost two-thirds of the entire AU budget is funded by these potential aggressors.

Since the AU reforms started to kick in only a year ago, donor contribution has reduced from 67% to 60%.

It is unlikely that any department – not even the political affairs department that’s supposedly “gives political voice to Africa’s interests” – is able to insulate itself from donor control because it, like the PSD, gets its money from that kitty.

In other words, the critics’ concerns are much ado about nothing. Ironically, the merger of these two departments is the surest way of guaranteeing Africa’s strategic security.

Donald Kaberuka, the former President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and member of the AU reform team had this to say in a tweet, “The AU reform proposals championed by President  Paul Kagame at the request of his peers, focus on AU that is high performing, self-funding, focused, accountable, closer to citizens, not to mirror any other institution; many of which are in need of reforms too.”

Moreover, in July 2016 the AU Peace and Security Council created the Peace Fund, which is an endowment for Africa to fund its peace operations.

Does Africa need ideology? Yes. However, it is not the empty sloganeering that has become synonymous with Africa. Neither should its ideological aspirations rely on asking China – or anyone else – for favours (big or small).

Doing so would be to aspire to remain within the “technocratic, UN-like” setting that the critics appear to, at once, hold in admiration and disrepute. However, such a toothless dog won’t put up the “fights to give political direction to Africa globally.”

It is only self-funding that will wrestle the AU from the grip of its potential aggressors and give substance to ideology.

This is why I think the critics of the monumental reforms at AU are wrong.


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