Two major headlines came out of last week’s 28th annual African Union summit held in Addis Ababa. The first is the news of Morocco’s admittance to the African Union by recognizing the independence of the Western Sahara, regarded as part of its historic territory. Morocco left the organization’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity in 1984, after a majority of member states voted to recognize the independence of Western Sahara.
The re-admittance is a result of King Mohammed VI’s extensive campaign to strengthen economic and political ties with AU nations. Morocco’s recent economic prosperity strengthened their case for entry to the organization. As the state with the fifth largest GDP on the continent, Morocco could ease the reliance of the organization on European funding for the organization which at present accounts for 72% of its budget.
Not everyone was happy with Morocco’s readmittance though. Nine countries voted against Morocco’s inclusion into the organization including South Africa who called the decision “regrettable,” suggesting that “by readmitting Morocco the AU is tacitly endorsing the long-standing occupation of the Western Sahara. During the campaign, Zimbabwe, Algeria and South Africa made active moves to stop Morocco’s admission. This no doubt will weaken the bargaining position of these countries within the organization. Interestingly, Western Sahara was happy with Morocco’s admittance to the African Union.
The second big news coming out of the annual meeting is the election of the new AU Chief, Chad’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat as the new chair of the African Union Commission (the Secretariat of the AU) and the continent’s top diplomat. He replaces Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the wife of South African president Jacob Yuma. By not seeking re-election to the AU post, many are convinced that she is gunning for the leadership of South Africa. Mahamat edged out Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed, who was considered the front-runner. This signals a move of the leadership of the organization from Southern African to Central Africa.
Mahamat takes on the mantle of the organization at a very difficult time. He has pledged to put development, security and streamlining the bureaucracy at the top of his agenda for his five-year term. The last one being vitally important because the AU has implemented only 15% of its 1,800 resolutions since 2002. Major security issues plaguing the continent of 1.2 billion people include massive violence caused by radicalization, a near-genocide in South Sudan, individual’s livelihoods being threatened as a result of changing climate.
The AU largely works as a diplomatic organization which seeks to project a unified African voice to the rest of the world, rather than having 54 independent voices. It has also played an important role in regional integration through its Regional Economic Communities (REC) which form the building blocks of the AU. Among the other major achievements of the organization is the collaboration to promote women’s rights and human rights, and the active role in alleviating the 1970s Ebola crisis.
However, today’s context brings unprecedented challenges to the organization. This in the light of a fractured AU (following Morocco’s inclusion), and the unpleasantness of a bitter election, Mahamat will have his work cut out for him. A majority of the AU’s program and peace and security budget are almost exclusively funded by external partners. This dependence also curtails the scope and choice of development and security options for African states who have to defer to the interest of external partners.
If Mahamat wants to pursue his objectives of development and security, he must find a way of building African self-sufficiency first. In a global context of retreat from international systems, this may be the only hope for the organization in the long run. The next two years will be integral as important elections in Europe and Brexit negotiations will determine the fate of the EU. The AU is an important organization but faces significant challenges to its work of development, peace and security.