An African Union Summit held in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and against growing tensions in parts of the continent

Photo: GCIS
Photo: GCIS

The 34th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government was held virtually due to COVID-19 pandemic from the 6th-7th February 2021. The Summit focussed on Africa’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic; progress in the AU institutional reform and the election of a new Bureau for the AU Commission.

In this piece, I will limit my observations regarding the Summit to the following: 

The AU has, so far, handled the COVID-19 crisis rather well

The AU has been prompt in initiating a continental response to the crisis with the first meeting of health ministers convened on 22 February 2020 to adopt the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19. This was followed by other initiatives in the implementation of this strategy. 

As the continent and the rest of the world are now faced with the massive vaccination task, the @_AfricanUnion Summit demanded that #COVID19 vaccines be considered as a common good for humanity @djinnitsaid #ausummit2021

As the continent and the rest of the world are now faced with the massive vaccination task, the Summit demanded that vaccines against Covid-19 be considered as a common good for humanity. 

In confronting the COVID-19 related and other challenges that lie ahead, the African leaders should therefore continue to entrust and empower their collective institutions and mechanisms.

AU Institutional Reform well on track albeit some question marks

The process of renewal of the leadership of the AU Commission was conducted in line with the reform which reduced the number of its members from ten to eight. The remote electronic vote allowed the election of the Chairperson and Deputy-Chairperson, as well as four of the six Commissioners. Thus the need to fine tune the electoral procedure to allow the election of all members of the Commission at the same time.

The decision to have the Chairperson and the Deputy-Chairperson elected  by the Summit and the Commissioners by the Executive Council varies from the initial concept of a single college of commissioners with the same appointing authority enshrined in the Constitutive Act (Article 20 Para.2). While the initial proposal of the reform was intended to strengthen the authority of the Chairperson with a role in the appointment of the Commissioners, Member States preferred to maintain their powers of appointment of the Commissioners. 

The merger of the former Political Affairs and Peace and Security portfolios remains to be tested. Given the growing role played by the continental organisation in tackling the peace and security challenges since the establishment of the mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution in 1993 and the time and energy it required, it was felt that the two portfolios which were covered by one single Assistant Secretary-General under the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), should be separated. It was also considered that a separate portfolio should be devoted to promoting democracy, human rights and governance. The then Acting Commissioner for Peace, Security and Political Affairs travelled to Abuja to seek the support of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Heads of State and Government implementation Committee (NEPAD-HSGIC) for this proposal. The meeting of the NEPAD-HSGIC held in Abuja on 26 March 2002 “strongly supported the establishment of a portfolio in the African Union, and the election of a Commissioner to be responsible for Democracy, Human Rights and Good Governance”. In fact, the meeting even suggested that the position be established with the rank of High Commissioner. The acting Commissioner had to insist that this position should be at Commissioner level for the sake of alignment with all other Commissioners. 

The most significant reforms are the proposals to ensure African funding of the #AU. For the first time the AU recorded no arrears of financial contributions by Member States at the time of holding the 34th Ordinary Session @djinnitsaid #ausummit2021

Regrettably, that was not the feeling within the Permanent Representatives’ Committee (PRC). The latter recommended that the second portfolio be rather named “Political Affairs” while listing between brackets (as it is the case for the Peace and Security portfolio), the areas that it covers including Democracy and Governance. That was the origin of the ambiguity that prevailed between the prerogatives of the two departments.  

Another decision of the reform programme was to review the Rules of Procedure of the PRC to ensure that its role was to “facilitate communication between the African Union and national capitals, and act as an advisory body to the Executive Council, and not as a supervisory body of the Commission”. Indeed, over the years, the PRC emerged as a key decision organ especially regarding administrative and budgetary matters – with little endorsement role left for the Executive Council- and as a daily supervisor of the Commission. There is a need to confirm the PRC in its advisory role and leave room for the Ministers and Heads of State and Government to engage substantially on administrative and financial matters. 

However, the most significant and bold reform lies in the proposal to ensure African funding of the AU and to improve its financial management and autonomy. The Organisation has relied for too long on external funding especially for the implementation of its Peace and Security Agenda. The July 2016 Kigali Assembly decision to impose a 0.2% levy on all eligible goods imported into the continent to finance the AU’s operational and programme budget as well as peace support operations, is at various stages of implementation by 26 countries. This is very encouraging. For the first time in its history, the AU recorded no arrears of financial contribution by Member States at the time of holding the 34th Ordinary Session. 

Meanwhile, tensions are growing in some parts of the Continent

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt the african peace and security agenda. Despite the deepening crisis in the greater Sahel region, the collapse of the cease-fire in Western Sahara in North Africa with implications for peace and security in the region, the mounting tensions in the Horn of Africa and persisting crises in other parts of the continent, the Summit did not deal with peace and security issues. Traditionally, the Summit reviews Africa’s state of peace and security by discussing the Annual Report of the Peace and Security Council (PSC). In addition, at its recent extraordinary session on “Silencing the Guns by 2020”, the Assembly requested the PSC to convene a meeting at summit level before submission of the PSC Annual Report at the January 2021 Ordinary Session. 

Conclusion: the need to galvanise african leadership 

The establishment of the AU decided in Syrte in September 1999 and its launching in Durban in 2002, the adoption of the NEPAD programme in 2001 and the development of the New Agenda and Architecture for Peace, Security and Governance were backed by strong leadership. The AU made significant progress because it promoted consensus based on higher common denominators. The leaders which opposed change could not rally many behind them because the voice of those in favour of change towards greater relevance and effectiveness of the continental organisation was stronger and more convincing. The NEPAD initiative emulated the African leadership and provided a formidable energy to the AU.  The African and international context has changed ever since. The leaders behind the early 2000s dynamics are no more in function. But there are committed African leaders willing to pursue that path. The reform initiative of the AU, the silencing the guns agenda and the entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area provide strategic entry points for the repositioning the AU “to meet the evolving needs of its Member States and the Continent”. The recent election of a new Commission provides a new opportunity for galvanising the African leadership.  

Ambassador Said Djinnit is a senior advisor to ACCORD, based in Brussels, Belgium. He has served as the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and before that for West Africa. Before joining the UN Ambassador Djinnit served as the first Commissioner for Peace and Security at the African Union after serving as the last OAU Assistant Secretary-General in charge of political affairs. 

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Said Djinnit
Ambassador Said Djinnit
Special Advisor

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