Introduction: African Union response to COVID19
In a speech on 7 April to his country’s envoys gathered in Pretoria, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa praised the resilience and solidarity of African countries in the fight against Covid-19. According to Ramaphosa, who has led the continental response since his chairship of the African Union (AU) in 2020, “the AU’s coordinated response to the pandemic has significantly advanced the cause of African unity.”
“In the space of just two short years, the continent has made remarkable strides in strengthening institutional capacity, in building health systems resilience, and in advancing the case for the localisation of life-saving medical supplies.”
He stressed the need for this united stance to continue: “We have learned that as African countries we will not meet the aspirations contained in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 if we are not united, and if we do not speak with a single voice.”
Agenda 2063 is the AU’s roadmap to a more peaceful and prosperous country, launched in 2013. Certainly, the fight for equitable access to vaccines, the AU’s role in pooling resources to acquire protective equipment and the leading role that the African Centers for Disease Control in Addis Ababa played in informing the continent, was a turning point for the continental organisation that stepped up the plate on behalf of the continent when it was most needed.
However, when it came to choices about local health responses and managing pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, it was largely each African country to its own. Today, the general cacophony over who needs what type of vaccine certificate or test when entering each individual African country doesn’t bode well for the AU’s plans for future free movement of people. One single African passport for the continent, announced in 2016, remains a pipe dream and the pandemic has shown that national interests still override any common African positions.
Migration, great powers competition, and the climate emergency
Still, the AU increasingly tries to position itself as a united continent’s voice on crucial issues that affect all its member states. This has been the case in forging a common position on the plight of migrants. AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat’s desperate plea at the end of 2017 for sub-Saharan migrants to be rescued from Libya, for example, led to a large-scale evacuation of people that were caught up in a cynical battle between an increasingly closed Europe and Libya in the midst of a civil war. The AU was seen to be stepping in to save lives and be more people-centered than in the past. It has subsequently tried to champion Africa’s call to Europe to manage migration from Africa in a fair and just manner.
On an institutional level, the AU has also tried to speak for the continent and impose itself as the main interlocutor when it comes to engagements with big powers vying for its attention. As part of its reform process, which was launched more than five years ago, it vowed to rationalize the many partnerships with countries and entities seeking to engage it. This includes China, Japan, Russia, Turkey, and others that have organized summit meetings with the continent’s leaders.
This has only been partially successful. The initial plan, according to the reforms led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, was to limit the number of delegations to these summits to include only the AU Troika (the current, previous, and incoming chairs) and the chairs of the regional economic communities. So far, this hasn’t been the case since most countries would prefer to engage with global powers individually rather than work through the AU. African leaders still traipse to Beijing or Sochi when called upon, alongside the AU representatives.
Mahamat and others have also been vocal on behalf of the continent about climate change mitigation and adaptation, urging industrialised nations to stick to their commitments. At the recent COP26 in Glasgow it was again stressed by African negotiators that Africa is in no way responsible for global warming, but now suffers the consequences and is also called upon to limit the exploitation and domestic use of, for example, its vast gas reserves, much-needed in providing its citizens with access to energy resources. This year, COP27 will be chaired by Egypt, which should be an opportunity for the AU to rally its member states and weigh in on the debates.
The war in Ukraine and the AU limits in foreign policy
When it comes to speaking with one voice on controversial foreign policy issues, however, recent events have shown that Addis Ababa can provide guidance and use its convening power to attempt consensus, but it would struggle to unite the continent behind one single position.
Forging common positions is clearly easier said than done for an organisation with 55 member states that often have vastly different priorities and foreign policy orientations. When the war in Ukraine first broke out on 24 February, AU chairperson Macky Sall and Mahamat condemned the violence and called on Russia to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine. Subsequently, however, the continent has been deeply divided over the war. When countries were called upon to condemn Russia in the strongest terms during the 2 March United Nations (UN) General Assembly vote, over half of the AU’s member states abstained or did not vote at all. Divisions persisted during subsequent voting in the General Assembly and the decision over expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on 7 April.
Countries that abstained in all of these instances, like South Africa, have explained that this is in line with their longstanding tradition of non-alignment in global power struggles and have stressed the need for peaceful solutions. They have also pointed out the hypocrisy of global relations and that, for example, the violations in Palestine are hardly ever addressed by the UN. An independent Palestinian state is, in fact, one of the few global foreign policy issues where there has been consensus within the AU ever since its creation in 2002.
The war in Ukraine certainly showed the limit of what the AU can do when it comes to foreign policy. Other controversial divisions concerned the 2011 intervention by the United States and European countries in Libya. African states were divided over the UN Security Council decision to declare a no-fly zone and oust former strongman Muammar Ghaddafi. In the Libyan crisis, the AU was largely powerless and still doesn’t play any meaningful role in the search for peaceful solutions in that country, despite Libya being an AU member state.
The AU’s 15-member Peace and Security Council has, nevertheless, tried to create greater synergy between itself and the three non-permanent African member states with a rotational seat on the UN Security Council. This has permitted a certain policy coherence. The UN and the international community at large also increasingly look to the AU when it comes to decision-making on key peace and security issues.
Ultimately, one has to point out that the AU remains an intergovernmental organisation and states have not ceded any sovereignty to it. It remains up to the AU to show its member states the value of rallying behind one common position that will be beneficial to all its citizens across the continent. Only then will it manage to be Africa’s voice in the world.