UP EXPERT OPINION: AU fails to achieve 20-20 vision despite milestone anniversary

Posted on July 26, 2022

Professor Adekeye Adebajo reflects on the impact and outcomes of the Africa Union (AU) as it celebrates it 20 year anniversary this month. 


The AU was born in Durban 20 years ago this month. Led by Thabo Mbeki, African leaders seemed determined to promote economic and political integration and democratic governance as part of an African renaissance.

Unlike the Organisation of African Unity, the AU allowed for interference in the internal affairs of its members to stem instability and sanction unconstitutional changes of government, though autocrats have continued to rig electoral outcomes. The continental body has launched praiseworthy military stabilisation missions in Burundi, Darfur and Somalia. 

However, the Addis Ababa-based AU Commission has struggled to establish its independence to take initiatives on behalf of its 55 members. A 2007 audit report led by Nigerian scholar-technocrat Adebayo Adedeji revealed how, under Malian Alpha Konaré’s commission (2003-2008), the organisation misunderstood its mandates and authority levels, and failed to co-ordinate overlapping tasks. Under French-influenced Gabonese Jean Ping’s commission (2008-2012), only 40% of the $260m annual AU budget was paid by members, with the EU, China and US mostly funding the rest.

The omnipotent AU assembly of leaders has often failed to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity in which decisions are taken at the lowest practical level, with populations frequently left uninformed about continental integration efforts. As chair of the AU Commission (2012-2016), SA’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma complained that more than 97% of AU programmes were funded by external donors but failed to reduce this dependence, as AU leaders refused to back alternative sources of funding such as customs duties and taxes on flights and hotel stays.

Under the current commission chair, Francophile Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat, the vacuous Kagame report on AU reform, released in 2017, has lacked substance and proper consultation. The panel noted that 74% of the AU’s 2017 $439m budget was to be financed by external donors, before quixotically calling for the implementation of the AU’s “Kigali Financing Decision” in which members fund 100% of the organisation’s operating budget, 75% of the programme budget and 25% of peacekeeping operations.

A final example of AU alchemy is the 2018 African Continental Free Trade Area, which seeks to facilitate trade, build infrastructure, establish a common market for goods, services and investment, and ensure the free movement of people. But, outside West and Eastern Africa the free movement of people remains a pipe dream as most security-obsessed African governments remain hostile to intra-African migration. 

There is also a lack of convergence of African economies, many of which remain competitive exporters of raw materials rather than complementary exchangers of diverse goods. Road, rail and port infrastructure remains poor. Rules of origin are often restrictive, while nontariff barriers are widespread. If integration has not worked at the national and subregional levels, would transferring all of these problems to the continental level really integrate Africa?

The AU Peace and Security Council has contributed substantively to peacemaking and worked closely with the UN. However, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development clearly lacks the resources and capacity to develop the continent; the African Peer Review Mechanism is toothless; the Pan-African Parliament remains a “talk shop;” while the Economic, Social & Cultural Council has failed to provide genuine civil society participation in the AU’s institutions. The idea of the diaspora as a sixth AU subregion is largely devoid of substance.

More positively, the AU has raised over $315m for its revised Peace Fund, complementing a $650m 2022 budget. African leaders must now strengthen the fledgling institutions they created, operationalise the African Standby Force, and establish one effective economic pillar in each subregion to promote regional integration and economic development.

The AU’s first two decades have largely represented a magical, mystical world of diplomatic marabouts, fetishes and incantations. This is not yet uhuru.


Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 24 July 2022.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2023. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

To contact the University during the COVID-19 lockdown, please send an email to [email protected]

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences