African Union reforms

It’s been sixteen years since the African Union, successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was launched in Durban, in July 2002.  This transformation signaled the evolution of a continental organisation that recognizes the importance of positioning Africa, in a fast-changing global world, to advance the interests of all its citizens.

Over the 16 years, the AU, through its Peace and Security Council, has intervened in Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan, Mali, DRC, Central African Republic, to end violence and work towards peace, and committed to silence the guns by 2020.

The continental integration agenda, through such programmes as the single African aviation market (SAAM), the Continental Free Trade Area, the Protocol on Free Movement of People and the African passport, industrialization and agricultural development, regional energy pools, transport corridors and projects linking cities and countries, is finally gaining steam.

The African Union, after its 50th anniversary in 2013, developed and adopted a 50-year vision, Agenda 2063, to consolidate its development, integration and objectives for peace and democracy.  The AU Agenda 2063 recognised that amongst the critical success factors for the achievement of the African Union are “capable and democratic developmental institutions and states”, and urge that we “strengthen and transform regional and continental institutions and the manner in which we do business, so as to effectively lead and drive the agenda for transformation and integration.“

The AU in a number of its summits discussed this issue, and at the Summit in Kigali in July 2016, appointed President Kagame of Rwanda as champion to lead the AU reform panel.

A Union fit for Purpose

The Kagame Panel tabled its first report to the Summit in January 2017, and explained the political rationale for the process as follows:

As unprecedented challenges multiply and spread across the globe at a dizzying pace, new vulnerabilities are increasingly laid bare, in rich and poor nations alike. Every country must adapt, but the distinctive feature of recent developments is that even the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations cannot hope to deal with the changes alone.

Even as the dramatic political upheavals unfolding in many states create new uncertainties about the future of multilateral cooperation, it is clear that effectively confronting issues … requires close cooperation with others, mediated in many cases by focused and effective regional organisations.  This is nowhere more true than in Africa, where the arbitrary internal divisions imposed on us by history, have left us relatively more isolated, both from each other and the world as a whole.  To overcome that legacy, we had to come together in shared purpose and action, first to liberate ourselves from foreign domination, and then to set our people on a path to dignity and prosperity.

Out of that necessity, we are fortunate to have inherited a set of institutions, notably the African Union and its predecessor, that are built on the ideal of African unity, and anchored in the values of respect, tolerance, and solidarity that we share as Africans.

However, the point of African unity has never been about rhetoric alone, but rather the practical need to work together to realise concrete improvements in the well-being and security of our citizens which would be unattainable working as individual entities.

Nevertheless, the unfortunate truth is that Africa today is ill-prepared to adequately respond to current events, because the African Union still has to be made fit for purpose.  

The cost of inaction will be borne by our citizens, and measured in shortened lives and frustrated ambitions. Without an African Union that delivers, the continent cannot progress, and we face the likelihood of yet another decade of lost opportunity. “

The Panel more specifically noted that at the heart of what makes the AU not ‘fit for purpose’ is a chronic failure to see through African Union decisions and a crisis of implementation; contributing to a perception that the AU is of limited relevance to African citizens. Reasons for this included a fragmented organisation with a multitude of focus areas; overdependence on foreign funding, underperformance of some organs due to unclear mandates, limited managerial capacity and accountability for performance; and unclear division of labour between the AU Commission, the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the NEPAD Agency.

The AU Reform panel therefore proposed decisive action in the following four areas:

  • Focus on key priorities with continental scope
  • Realign African Union institutions to deliver against those priorities
  • Manage the African Union efficiently at both political and operational levels
  • Finance the African Union ourselves and sustainably

Long route to reforms

Over the two years since the first report of the panel, there is progress in some of these four areas. For example, the decision to introduce an AU-wide community levy of 0.2% on imports was already adopted at the AU Summit in July 2016, with its implementation overseen by Ministers of Finance. A parallel process of streamlining spending and budget and financial controls also saw sweepings cuts in the AU budget, as well as the introduction of a multi-year budgeting cycle, rather than annual budgets only.

Other proposals such as transforming the NEPAD Agency into an African Union Development Agency (along the lines of the UN Development Agency (UNDP) are also afoot. Proposals aimed at ensuring more focused Summit agendas, with standard items on Integration, Peace and Security and Governance, have already been implemented.

Although there are decisions on some of these reform matters, there are challenges of implementation, and thus the AU will convene an Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government from 17-18 November 2018 to discuss these issues.

Amongst the outstanding issues that the Extra-ordinary Summit will debate include the method of electing the AU Commission, and a proposal to ‘right size’ the Commission to focus on a limited set of priorities (economic integration, political affairs, peace and security, global voice), with the AU Development Agency (to replace the NEPAD Agency) taking on other issues currently implemented by the AU Commission.

The journey to make the African Union more fit for purpose has therefore begun, but there is still a long route ahead.


By Fébé Potgieter, ANC General Manager


“The Imperative to Strengthen our Union. Report on the Proposed Recommendations for the Institutional Reform of the African Union” Report by President Paul Kagame to the AU Summit of Heads of State and Government on 27 January 2017.

“Agenda 2063. The Africa we Want.” Popular version. Final Edition, April 2015

“Will a fourth summit agree on African Union reforms?”, by Liesl Louw-Vaudron, ISS 19 July 2018.

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