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A new breed of leaders deconstructs the ‘toothless bulldog’ African Union narrative


Michael Khorommbi is a researcher on regional integration and peace building in Africa. He is also a part-time lecturer in history at St Augustine College of South Africa. Moreover, he is an intern at/with the Political Economy of Southern Africa, as a junior regional analyst. PESA is a political economy think tank focused on SADC regional integration and African development. Last, he is currently studying for a Master of Science in Governance and Regional Integration at the Pan-African University Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted within University of Yaoundé II, Soa, Cameroon.

Fifty-five years since the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, we have a new breed of leaders that are confronting the continuing challenges of forging unity within their multi-ethnic countries, building sustainable democratic institutions, and building an enabling environment for socio-economic development.

The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.’

The above quotation was taken from a speech titled the “Wind of Change”, which was eloquently delivered by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa, on 3 February 1960 in Cape Town. From 6 January 1960, the Prime Minister had been on tour visiting four African countries — Ghana, Nigeria, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and South Africa. I do not think the Prime Minister could have prophesied the inevitability of independence more strongly than in the above extract as it is one of the most cited quotations in contemporary African political analysis, from master’s dissertations to opinion articles.

Many historical scholars argue that although the speech was predictive, it was not out of a moral obligation but as a result of Cold War politics and the urgency to prevent Soviet infiltration in Africa. The dramatic events of 1960 could be among the reasons why the entire speech still holds so much weight to this day. That year, 17 African countries attained their independence, and countries under colonial rule began to mobilise significant political and diplomatic support from the rest of the world towards self-governance.

This was the first wave of the “wind of change” characterised by a conscious rising tide of pan-African nationalism. A number of pan-African heads of states and scholars such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Kenya, Sékou Touré of Guinea and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia begun providing moral, financial and military support for the independence of other African states. These collaborative efforts accumulated to the formation of the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU) on May 25, 1963, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The organisation was committed to eradicating colonialism and neo-colonialism from the African continent. During its lifespan from 1963 to 2002 it was referred to as a “toothless bulldog” with a “bark (but) no bite” as well as a “club of dictators” whose heads of states adhered strictly to the “principle of non-interference” which resulted in its inability to establish a proactive continental conflict prevention and resolution mechanism.

It will be recalled that by the end of the 1990s there were steps undertaken by post-colonial progressive African leaders such as South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki that led to the formation of the African Union (AU) on 9 July, 2002, and the demise of the OAU. This transformation ushered a promise into a new thinking and approach which accumulated into an institutional framework that would ensure the successful implementation of the organisation’s objectives. The OAU was devoid of any supranational elements in terms of “African Union law” that would bind all member states.

The transformation of OAU to AU was the second wave of “wind of change” which captured a new agenda from the historical mandate of decolonisation, to a new mandate to transfer sovereign powers to African Union institutions. The Constitutive Act of the AU, which entered application on 26 May, 2002, symbolised a major shift to ensure that all member states are accountable to the AU according to the agreed standards on democracy, good governance and human rights.

Recently, a third “wind of change” has been blowing across Addis Ababa, this time signalling an end to the “toothless bulldog” with “bark (but) no bite”. Though challenging, the third wave of “wind of change” is characterised by a global governance evolution which has forced African leaders to adapt to changing realities. This has led them to evaluate the existing paradigm of multilateralism on the continent.

The “wind of change” I am referring to is a new realistic approach being championed by African leaders in African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government. Leaders such Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Ali, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo, Sierra Leone’s Julius Maada Bio, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa are beginning to question how it is that the continental organisation has been hobbled for the past decade. This realistic approach takes precedence over the ideological pan-Africanism rhetoric of the OAU and the past decade of the AU.

Due to global uncertainty and geopolitical volatility, under the leadership of Chairperson of Assembly of Heads of State and Government Paul Kagame and Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki there seems to be an urgency to preserve credibility and relevance; and the uneasiness that it is about time the union “must act now”. The outcomes of the 11th Extraordinary Session of the African Union Summit show that African leaders cannot let the AU remain in its current form. The summit was held in Addis Ababa from 5-18 November 2018; under the theme: “Institutional Reforms of the African Union”. This theme emerged from a series of meetings and consultations that argued the continental organisation has not been effective in promoting political and social-economic integration, peace and security because of its poor structural design, which some scholars argue is too centralised and weak to function as envisioned.

The summit ended with a meeting of the African Union’s decision-making body, the Assembly, from 17-18 November. The Assembly adopted a number of key reforms such as reducing the structure of the AU Commission from 10 to eight members by 2021. The structure of the new commission will be as follows: Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and six Commissioners. The recruitment process will be in accordance with equitable regional representation and gender parity. Equally important, the Assembly emphasised that the process should be transparent and merit-based.

Furthermore, they agreed on new portfolios of the commission such as the Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment and a combining the Peace and Security with Political Affairs, and the Economic Development was merged with Trade and Industry. Of note is that these new reforms of the commission shall come into effect at the end of the tenure of the current Commission in 2021.

In addition, these reforms will also involve the transformation of the NEPAD Planning and Co-ordinating Agency (NPCA) into the African Union Development Agency (AUDA). AUDA will co-ordinate and execute regional as well as continental projects to promote regional integration, to support the capacity of member states and regional bodies and advance knowledge-based advisory support.

Last and notably, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat announced a sanctions regime against non-paying member states. This determination to reform the continental organisation should be a positive sign in the right direction, as this could potentially boost the efficiency of the continental body which has been accused of ineptness and the inability to deal with some of the challenges facing the continent.

I am privileged to be a recipient of the AU Scholarship, currently studying for a Master of Science in Governance and Regional Integration. It is not just a matter of personal and research interests but my indebtedness and Afro-opportunism that caused me to follow up the proceedings of the summit. I agree that since the formation of the AU there has been a lot of Afro-pessimism directed towards the AU, with most critics arguing that the organisation gives the impression of slowly gravitating towards feebleness in the same manner of its predecessor, the OAU.

Most of the criticism is directed towards the ineffectiveness of the organ for peace and security to prevent atrocities such as those that took place in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. However, the outcomes of the recent African Union summit are reassuring, that there is a leadership that is putting in place a coherent strategy to implement its core objectives such as accelerating regional integration and addressing social, political and economic problems facing the continent.

Honestly, I never thought it was an accurate metaphor to refer to the AU as a “toothless bulldog”. The AU was given teeth by Constitutive Act of the African Union, but African leaders were reluctant to use them.

Moussa Faki Mahamat’s declaration that there will be sanctions against member states that would fail to make their annual financial contributions to the continental body is the type of “teeth” we are beginning to witness.

The set of sanctions will include a total suspension of a member state from the AU assembly and other gatherings. And astoundingly this was approved by the assembly which comprised of heads of states representing countries that were not making payments on time.

The “bite” will be the implementation of these sanctions. I totally concur with Moussa Faki Mahamat that “the first responsibility of a member state is to pay its contribution”. Member state contributions guarantee that the organisation can carry out its mammoth operations.

Ambitious declarations are less likely to create that “bite” if they are not backed up by action. Many scholars argue that much of what emerges out of Addis Ababa after every AU Extraordinary Summit is usually exaggeratedly ambitious, vague, and unattainable outcomes creating the impression of “all bark and no bite”.

Let’s be careful that Paul Kagame and Moussa Faki’s opportunism during their tenure does not cause us to lose sight of some of the fundamental institutional challenges that the continental organisation continues to face. However, 55 years on, since the formation of the OAU, we have a new breed of leaders emerging, confronting the continuing challenges of forging unity within their multi-ethnic countries, building sustainable democratic institutions, and building an enabling environment for socio-economic development. It is disingenuous to say that we are not witnessing at least some changes in areas such as to ensure that member states contribute more than the organisation’s development partners.

Some of leaders l mentioned above may seem to be having challenges in cultivating a culture of integrity and ethics as they are implicated in issues of corruption, and authoritarian tendencies, such as being unwilling to face criticism or open political debate.

Nonetheless the third wave “wind of change” is blowing across Addis Ababa and the “wind” has been overdue. The struggle continues. I have faith that the current leadership will either at least chart a new course or lay the foundation for a new course away from some of the African ways of doing things they inherited from the OAU.

As the saying goes, “there is nothing new about old wine in a new bottle” – well, look around, it seems the old wine is slowly running out, and when it does in the distant future, we shall have the AU we want. DM


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