It's not about Mugabe, it's about the AU

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 04 February 2015

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, newly elected chair of the African Union. Photo by: Jesse B. Awalt / U.S. Navy

A number of key decisions were made over the weekend upon the conclusion of the 24th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. What were they, how far-reaching will they be and what steps will be taken to turn theory into practice?

The pan-African institution united by mobilizing a 7,500-strong force to combat Boko Haram insurgents in northeast Nigeria, which continues to undermine the peace and stability of the region.

And as Devex reported last week, it agreed on the establishment of an African Solidarity Fund that will be instrumental in realizing an African Center for Disease Control and Prevention, aimed at strengthening Africa’s response to future pandemics such as Ebola.

AU member states also welcomed a proposal on levying taxes on plane tickets, hotels and text messages as alternative sources of financing for the African Union, which to date remains largely dependent on external donor financing for many of its programs. Indeed, only a third of its operational budget is currently shouldered by its current 53 member states, which is “unhealthy” and undermines the institution’s attempt to gain more legitimacy and credibility, according to Geert Laporte, deputy director of the European Center for Development Policy Management, an independent think and do tank specializing in EU-Africa relations.

“African leaders realize this … but enforcement is lacking,” as with many decisions put on the table for years, he argued.

The latest agreement on alternative finance seems to drive that point home. Member states agreed and adopted the proposal, but with one caveat: that it will be voluntary and nonbinding. In practice, this is expected to mean that any efforts to draw level with — or even exceed — external donor financing remains some way off.

Laporte explained a number of African leaders are already showing reluctance, fearing taxes on flights may deter potential tourists, negatively affecting an already weak tourism industry in many parts of the continent.

“If you don’t have consensus on how to do financial mobilization, then the ‘what to do’ does not make a lot of sense. The the big challenge the African Union is confronted with is to work out who pays and who will finally make sure this is going to work,” he said.

AU’s struggle

But the issue may run much deeper, it seems.

The African Union, formed in 2001, was envisioned to take on a bigger role than its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, beyond being just a secretariat doing mere administrative work. The AU Constitutive Act includes provisions for increased supranational powers.

But more than a decade on, the institution continues to struggle in fulfilling its intended role and becoming a major player in the international arena.

One of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of solid support from its member states, Laporte said.

“There’s a clash taking place between two groups of leaders — those who [are] still very much are sticking to their national autonomy and who do not want to share power with a supranational body [like the AU]; and those, mainly new generation of leaders, who are in favor of more supranational competencies for the AU and who understand Africa needs to play its part as a whole in the international fora … or risk losing influence altogether,” he explained.

This, in part, may explain the election of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as new chair of the Union for the current period, which immediately caused much fanfare.

The fact that a controversial leader is nominated, said Laporte, tells us “more about the weight the member states, through their heads of states, have in the African context and how they protect themselves, rather than relying on an institution [the AU Commission] that should have the powers to preserve the constitutional act and foundations of the AU.”

“Formally speaking, the AU Commission should have the mandate to say, ‘Look, no to dictators on our continent,’” Laporte argued, noting that despite its limitations it had recently attempted to take a tougher stance, as evidenced by the numerous coups and unconstitutional changes it had condemned.

Mugabe and AU impact

Mugabe’s appointment is not the first time that a controversial figure has been elected to the position. The late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi also had the role in 2009, for example.

While the decision may have caused consternation among some international observers, it was Southern Africa’s turn to take on the rotating presidency and some say he’s the only viable candidate at the moment.

In addition, not everyone in Africa is as critical of his leadership of the southern African nation, with many viewing him as the man who has been championing the fight against a lingering threat of colonialism.

Mugabe’s largely ceremonial AU leadership is not expected to have a big impact on the AU’s operations, although he will represent Africa at international fora and may push for stronger African identity. But whether his country would actually contribute extra funds itself to make this happen is another matter entirely.

Search for credibility

Laporte believes that the biggest issue on the table is not what Robert Mugabe will do next, but rather what steps the African Union — as a Pan-African body — will take toward fully realizing its potential amid a host of financial constraints.

If Africa wants to play a bigger role in the global arena, have better credibility when calling for changes within the U.N. system, including the U.N. Security Council, and be able to respond better to crises on its own continent, Laporte argues it better start focusing on strengthening its political institutions and really work towards financial autonomy.

“It’s very difficult to make your case as an African Union if you’re entirely dependent on foreign resources,” Laporte said, although he acknowledged the AU remains a very young institution and would need quite some time to get there.

What steps should the AU take to gain more legitimacy, more credibility and work towards financial autonomy? Have your say by making a comment below.

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About the author

Jenny lei ravelo 400x400
Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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