The African continent is home to 54 countries stretched across an expanse of 11.73 million square miles. It’s also home to 1.2 billion people.
Cooperation across the continent is important for promoting peace, trade, and democracy. The African Union exists to accomplish that goal, just as the United Nations does so for all the nations on Earth.
The African Union (AU) began life in 2001, and since then, it has attempted to raise up all its member nations together for improved peace and prosperity.
What is the AU, and what does it do? Keep reading to learn more about this powerful body of African governments.
What is the African Union?
The African Union, or AU, follows the disbanded Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
With 32 member countries, the OAU was considered to be an “old dictator’s club” because its commitment to peace and prosperity didn’t go as far as to stop coup plotters or to eject dictators.
In 2002, the AU replaced the OAU and included a greater membership (51 original members compared to 32 in the OAU). The AU also countered the criticisms of the OAU by suspending members who participated in coups. It also sends envoys to mediate between rebels and governments to avoid further bloodshed. They see some success: the AU’s security council are currently backing the Horn of Africa’s UN-backed government.
Today, the AU operates along the same lines of the European Union. Its leadership includes:
- Chairman (annual rotating position)
- Executive Council
The AU boasts ten commissioners overseeing critical departments (agriculture, security, political affairs, etc.) and implementing AU policies. In addition to governance and forming alliances, it also issues military interventions and sends peacekeepers into regions where violence is brewing.
The current headquarters operates out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A List of the African Union Members
There are 56 member nations represented in the African Union including:
- Burkina Faso
- Cabo Verde
- Central African Republic
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Côte d’Ivoire
- Equatorial Guinea
- Kingdom of Lesotho
- Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
- Sao Tome and Principe
- Sierra Leone
- South Africa
- South Sudan
- Kingdom of Swaziland
The last addition to the AU was Morocco, which rejoined on January 30, 2017, after a 30-year hiatus from African governance bodies. South Sudan became the second-latest member after joining in 2011.
What is the African Union’s Purpose?
The AU’s founding charter sees it developing “democracy, human rights and development” across the continent. It also promotes investment by working together and, as noted earlier, sends peacekeepers to areas where violence breaks out.
Its long-term goal has always been a political union that is not unlike the “United States of Africa” plan proposed by Muammar Gaddafi, but there are disagreements. A combination of small civil wars along with big powers, like Ethiopia and South Africa, worrying about sovereignty prevents these ideas from coming to fruition.
What are the Achievements of the AU?
The AU has had various successes. Perhaps one of its greatest achievements but also its largest oversight is its ability to address the desires and needs of the African political class. It has socialized leaders across Africa to embrace liberal values to secure international cooperation both across Africa and on the world stage.
However, the AU doesn’t make much of a difference in the day-to-day lives of African peoples. It has tried to create activities and programs that provide public goods and services, promote trade, and encourage good governance. These intentions don’t often make a material difference in ordinary people’s lives, and unemployment remains a huge challenge for governments across the continent.
Another of the biggest achievements of the AU (and the OAU before it) is with security and peacekeeping through the AU Peace and Security Council. It cooperates with the United Nations (UN) Security Council, which has bolstered the success of both groups in promoting peace on the continent.
What Challenges Does the AU Face?
Money is a significant challenge for the AU and its member nations in almost all aspects of its work, including peace and security.
The AU’s ambitious schemes come with a significant price tag. Yet, many member nations struggle with poverty at home. The AU prefers to bankroll its own projects, which surprises no one given the history of European colonization and imperialism and the strings attached to huge loans.
However, the AU began to accept the need for foreign help after 2004. Several leaders cited the benefits of the kind of external stimulus provided to Europe by the United States after World War II.
One of the biggest investors in AU pet projects is China, which paid a $200m price tag for the new AU headquarters.
China is a large investor in the continent, and there is some worry that China prefers to buy influence in the AU in exchange for free reign in its investments. This became particularly concerned was reporters revealed that the Chinese government bugged the “gifted” AU headquarters for years to gain access to state secrets. China’s ambassador to the AU denied the allegations and called them “absurd.”
Another significant challenge is that some of the members of the old “dictator’s club” at the OAU remain involved in the AU. The AU members use a “peer review” scheme to assess whether their fellow members use democratic policies and sound economics.
The inclusion of autocrats causes some to wonder whether there is enough political will for the voluntary checks-and-balances system to be effective.
The AU Has Much Potential
The African Union has serious potential for promoting the interests of both the continent and its member states. It has done good work in promoting peace, security, and democracy. However, its ability to improve the lives of everyday people in a meaningful way remains to be seen both in terms of organization and funding.
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