At the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 it was Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah who urged: “We must unite now or perish.” Fifty-four years later this call was once again made with urgency. Although African states are now united in a continental body, not everyone is pulling in the same direction – and this will be necessary for its survival.

Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who was tasked with coming up with an AU reform plan, had all the right words to say at the Retreat of Heads of State that took place a day ahead of the recent African Union Summit in Addis Ababa at the end of January.

Moussa Faki Mahamat would have to make some unpopular decisions to effect the reforms, while at the same time trying to make himself popular at the AU headquarters.

“It has always been Africa’s moment,” he said. “The demeaning anecdotes that infect the portrayal of Africa deepen cynicism amongst our own youth, who internalise the idea of a helplessly dysfunctional continent.

“We should take responsibility for the part we have contributed to these negative images and work to change perceptions by coming together in real solidarity to transform our approach to the business of developing and protecting this continent.”

If words alone could effect change, these would have been it.

Changes at the top

The no-nonsense Kagame took only six months to come up with a 16-page document of proposed changes, but he said it was up to the leaders themselves to make these work.

President Paul Kagame. Photo: Jean-Christophe Bott/AP/TT

In the week before the Gathering of the Heads of State on 30 and 31 January, there were rumours that the election there of a new AU Commission could be postponed so that these reforms could take effect first. All eight commissioners were up for re-election, as were the chair and the deputy.

A postponement would have made sense, because some of the most important changes to happen are in the commission, where portfolios range from peace and security to economic affairs to science and technology.

In future, the AU Commission chair will appoint the commissioners, much like a president appoints their cabinet. The rationale is that this will get the most competent people into the jobs and eliminate the horse-trading accompanying the elections. (Already the election of two commissioners had to be postponed to the next summit because the candidates did not fit into the regional and gender quotas.) So it will be another four-year term before this proposed change can take effect.

The newly elected commission, led by chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chad’s former prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, is now tasked with implementing the reforms. At the same time, he has to find his feet and assert his power in Addis.

He was one of five candidates for the post, and it took an unprecedented seven rounds of voting by heads of state for him to get the two-thirds majority required to become chairperson – a far cry from the pre-2012 convention of appointing AU Commission chairpersons by consensus. In the end, 15 states remained unconvinced and abstained from voting. Mahamat was the only candidate to go through to the final round.

At a seminar a few days after the summit, Yann Bedzigui, from the Institute for Security Studies, asked whether Mahamat, the AU’s “safe choice”, could implement Kagame’s “shock therapy” for the continental body. His conclusion was that it would be politically difficult. Mahamat would have to make some unpopular decisions to effect the reforms, while at the same time trying to make himself popular at the AU headquarters.

Bedzigui said the lack of a clear timeline was also a concern: “The AU is easily bogged down by bureaucracy, so it’s not a good thing not to have a calendar.”

The stock-take at the mid-year summit is likely to determine if these reforms will succeed or sink – like the Audit of the African Union Report of the High Level Panel, which was produced 10 years ago by Nigerian professor Adebayo Adedeji, former United Nations under-secretary general. Back then, when this report was presented at the AU, the new commission was also up for elections. Most recommendations were never implemented due to a lack of agreement in the continental body, and due to a lack of timelines.

 

Money is the matter

Funding might also prove to be a big issue that could hamper this round of reforms. At last year’s July summit in Kigali it was agreed that the AU should fund 100% of its own operations, 75% of developmental programmes and 25% of peacekeeping operations.

Countries are expected to impose a 0,2% levy on all imports from non-AU countries, which could raise up to US$1,2 billion annually, enough to cover costs.

In 2014 the AU budget was US$308 million, more than half of which was funded by donors. By last year donors contributed 60% of the US$417 million budget, while this year donors will fund 74% of the US$439 million needed.

One of the big problems is that not all member states have been paying up. By December 2016, only 25 out of 54 member states had paid their full contributions. Fourteen had paid more than half their contribution, and 15 had not made any payment. They have this year to get their laws and revenue-raising instruments in order before the new system kicks in next year. Stricter sanctions – such as the suspension of membership – are on the cards for those who don’t pay up.

 

Divided, the reforms will fall

But what chance is there that the reforms will happen? The AU has just emerged from a summit that saw divisions and suspicions deepen. Despite the spin that the admittance of Morocco was by consensus, there is deep unhappiness among especially southern African states, who wanted Morocco to first recognise the independence of Western Sahara. Morocco left the OAU in 1984 when Western Sahara became a member state. There were open accusations of some states having been “bought” by Morocco to vote in favour of its admission.

Some are also whispering that countries like France still have too much influence over what’s happening on the continent, and this is fanning divisions.

In his speech Kagame used the example of how West African countries united to help The Gambia when they forced former leader Yayah Jammeh to give up power after an election defeat. They put the interests of the African people first, he said. The AU, though, is a somewhat bigger and more complex creature.

Talk of unity of purpose is already ringing ominously hollow.