The African Union needs a reality check

The continental body has been neither consistent nor effective in living up to its various charters and stated aspirations for promoting democracy, peace and good governance.

The African Union (AU) set a target to silence guns on the continent by the end of 2020. The failure to achieve this ambition can partly be attributed to its indifference to the aspirations of many people on the continent, especially the youth. 

Since the AU was officially founded on 9 July 2002 in Durban, South Africa, replacing the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), it has been unable to develop and implement a consistent policy to achieve democracy and good governance among its members. This is reflected in the AU Commission’s end of term report (2017-2021) and events prior to and during that period. 

Unlike its predecessor, the AU has legal powers to get involved in internal conflicts on the continent. It has the right to intervene when the people in a member state are subjected to gross human rights abuses such as war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. 

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The AU’s Agenda 2063, the blueprint for Africa’s renaissance, outlines issues such as poverty, undemocratic behaviour, human rights violations, fragile states, gross government corruption, proliferation of illegal arms, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and inequality. It proposes stiffer sanctions against AU member states that behave undemocratically by, for example, provoking violence during elections. Ideally, this should come in handy to address the endemic violations in most of Africa’s elections. 

For example, 11 member states held general elections in 2017, followed by 14 in 2018, 15 in 2019 and 16 in 2020. Of these, the polls in Tanzania, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Niger and Togo, among others, should have attracted sanctions or some form of inquiry. 

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Like the recent election in Uganda, they did not reflect an “Africa of good governance, democracy and respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law” as envisaged in the AU agenda. In its end-of-term report, there is limited discussion of the AU’s efforts to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections on the continent beyond deploying observer missions. 

Turning a blind eye

The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi, who came to power after the “peaceful transition” that the AU helped to broker in 2018, has replaced South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa as AU chairperson. The election that brought Tshisekedi to power had serious question marks hanging over its legitimacy, with credible evidence of massive rigging and backroom deals. But the AU swept that under the carpet in favour of a peaceful transition that is now threatened by some of the overlooked issues. The DRC also remains mired in conflict with killings and looting in different parts of the vast, mineral-rich country. 

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Thomas Kwasi Tieku, the author of Governing Africa: 3D Analysis of the African Union’s Performance, argues that the AU’s importance to the African political elite is such that they would have created it today if it did not already exist. “The AU has been very successful in addressing the needs of the African political class but it is yet to make a significant difference in the lives of many ordinary Africans,” he writes.

The AU, Tieku says, has successfully socialised African leaders to accept liberal values as the foundation of international cooperation in Africa. However, the AU has been “less successful in connecting its activities and programs to many ordinary Africans; providing common public goods and services valued by commoners in Africa; giving voice to the majority of young people in Africa; promoting intra-Africa trade, good governance, and financial independence of the African continent as well as struggled to address the expressed material needs and quotidian concerns of ordinary Africans”.

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The implications of shutting down social media platforms and the internet during tense periods such as elections appear to be lost on the AU. This has happened in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Tanzania, Gabon and Ethiopia, among others, but passed without even a statement from the AU. 

In 2019, the Tanzanian government announced that it had withdrawn the right of individuals and non-governmental organisations to directly file complaints against it in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Tanzania’s decision, which drew no consequences from the AU, came against the backdrop of judgments by the court that went against the Tanzanian state.  

Beyond a statement and appointing envoys, the AU has done little to respond to the unfolding crisis in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where its headquarters are situated. And on the state-sponsored violence in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda, where young people protesting against police violence, repressive policies, corruption and bad governance have been executed, brutalised and incarcerated, the AU has been silent. 

Inconsistent responses

The cases of Egypt and Sierra Leone, 15 years apart, are instructive in understanding the AU’s ineptitude. When the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government met in Harare, Zimbabwe, in May 1997, delegates took up the issue of the military coup in Sierra Leone, which was a direct assault on democracy and good governance. 

In addition to “strongly and unequivocally [condemning] the coup d’état”, delegates also called on “all African countries, and the international community at large, to refrain from recognising the new regime and lending support in any form whatsoever to the perpetrators of the coup d’état”. 

In addition, the OAU also appealed to the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to help the people of Sierra Leone to restore constitutional order. It indicated that part of this effort must include restoring the ousted government. The OAU cooperated with Ecowas’ military arm, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, to oust the military junta on 13 February 1998. 

But when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt on 3 July 2013, the AU’s response was totally different. Not only was it timid, ambivalent and not as definitive or forceful as the OAU’s reaction to the coup in Sierra Leone, but it also failed to insist on the restoration of Morsi’s government.

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Although it briefly suspended Egypt’s membership, the AU proceeded to work with the leader of the coup, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and in doing so violated one of its most important governance principles. According to article 25(4) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, “[t]he perpetrators of unconstitutional change of government shall not be allowed to participate in elections held to restore the democratic order or hold any position of responsibility in political institutions of their state”.

“The AU should have challenged el-Sisi’s decision to present himself as a candidate for the presidency of Egypt since that decision violated one of the principles of the Lomé Declaration and the African democracy charter,” said John Mukum Mbaku, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank based in Washington DC. 

But not only did the AU fail to sanction el-Sisi, it also allowed him to participate in AU activities, including being elected to serve as its chairperson. “The full embrace of opportunistic autocrats such as el-Sisi does not augur well for the deepening and entrenching of democracy in Egypt and other parts of Africa,” Mbaku added.

Presidents unchallenged

This background is important in understanding the AU’s scattered approach to democracy and good governance on the continent. Several African heads of state, including el-Sisi, Faure Gnasingbé in Togo, Paul Biya in Cameroon, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Paul Kagame in Rwanda, have all changed their country’s constitution to extend their presidential mandates.

While this is forbidden by Article 23 of the democracy charter, the AU has not made any effort to condemn or prevent such behaviour. Although promoting democratic principles and institutions is, along with popular participation and good governance, one of the AU’s most important objectives, it has not consistently supported grassroots efforts to eradicate government impunity and military opportunism and entrench democratic institutions and a wider culture of democracy on the continent.

The exception is Sudan, where the AU took steps that suggest it refused to allow the military coup in the country by suspending Sudanese membership in 2019. Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan for 30 years, was being overthrown, and the AU only lifted the suspension once a civilian-led government had been established.

In contrast, in Egypt and in Zimbabwe in 2017, the entrenched forces running those countries were consolidating their power, which had been threatened.

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“The AU must begin by developing and implementing a consistent policy toward the entrenchment of democratic institutions and a culture of democracy in the continent,” said Mbaku. “As part of this process, the AU should impose severe sanctions on any government that comes to power through a military or constitutional coup. 

“In fact, the AU should do everything in its powers to deny recognition to such a government. In the case of a military coup, the AU should not only deny recognition to the post-coup military government, but should also make certain that any individual who took part in the coup is not allowed to participate in a post-coup government.”

Mbaku argues that the AU should enforce its own rules regarding the unconstitutional change of government. The AU, he insists, should also provide assistance to grassroots efforts to enhance and ensure the rule of law in various parts of the continent. 

And while elections are important to entrench democracy, the AU must also recognise that granting citizens other rights, such as the right to form political parties and compete for positions in government, to peaceful assembly and to petition the government for relief of grievances, must be treated as equally critical in developing and sustaining a political system based on democracy, the rule of law and constitutionalism. 

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