The African Union is now complete, but at what cost?

There is no doubt that the AU has the potential to be an important political actor but it faces severe limitations as a continental body.

IDP camp in Somalia. Image via AMISOM Flickr.

At the end of January this year, Morocco was readmitted to the African Union, after spending 33 years on the “outside.” Morocco left the Organization of African Unity in 1984 due to the organization’s recognition of Western Sahara’s sovereignty by admitting a delegation claiming to represent the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as its 51st member two years earlier. Morocco’s readmission is important because it calls into question the AU’s political stance and its apparent commitment to ensuring the sovereignty of all members.

The AU has faced its fair share of challenges since its formal establishment in 2001. Its lax membership requirements, a remnant of its OAU legacy from the early 1960s, resulted in an organization of 53 countries, (54 with South Sudan’s admission in 2011), that was not entirely certain as to how to define itself or adhere to the principles it purported to embody. However, these lax membership requirements seemingly had their limits. The admission of the SADR was effected despite Morocco seeking claim to this territory, a site of contention for more than a decade between the Polisario Front, which represents the indigenous Saharawi people, and Morocco. Consequently, Morocco decided to leave the organization. In doing so, it became the only African country to not be a member of the African Union.

Not surprisingly, Morocco realized that it is better to be part of the club than out of it and began to petition for readmission in 2016. The petition came with the request that the AU cease to recognize the “phantom state” of Western Sahara as Morocco considers it to be an important part of its kingdom. Nevertheless, this “phantom state” is a member of the AU, and there is the expectation that the right to sovereignty of member states be upheld, which led to disagreements on the part of several countries.

There were those that supported Morocco’s return and those that remained critical of its refusal to recognize Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Yet, despite reservations on this matter, Morocco was readmitted with 39 members voting in support. Those in support of Morocco’s return to the AU argue that it was a choice between “unity and harmony,” but one can not ignore its increasing financial presence on the continent, especially in West Africa. This positioning led to a fierce reaction on the part of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who, despite ruling the country for 37 years, being accused of several human rights violations, and his wife stating that the party would field him for president in 2018 “as a corpse”, chastised the organization for its lack of ideology and how easily it was influenced by financial incentives.

Although Morocco is the fifth largest economy in Africa and may help fill the financial void left by Muammar Gaddafi, the AU appears to have sacrificed its own principles and morality to secure its finances. Mugabe’s challenge calls into the question the AU’s position on a number of issue; positions that have not always been clear due to outgoing chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s seeming lack of direction for the organization in recent years. (Her critics suggest she used her time there to organize a stealth campaign, now in full swing back home, to become South Africa’s next president in 2019 when her former husband’s two terms expires.) South Sudan and the current violent conflict that it faces is one example of the inaction on the part of key international and regional actors, that has left the AU in charge of addressing this large-scale humanitarian challenge, with the possibility of it serving as a trustee for the young nation. Still, the question of whether the AU should lead a country and its capacity to do so remains a concern.

Furthermore, the AU’s inability to address some of these political concerns has allowed the smaller regional blocs to wage an attack against the existence of a continental body given the differing levels of political development across the continent. This was evidenced, for example, by the support given to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for its ability to navigate the recent political tension in Gambia and committing to limiting the space for a dictator like Yahya Jammeh to survive. What will this lack of direction mean in addressing issues related to South Sudan, or the violence perpetrated by French soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR)? What does it mean for the AU’s role on the continent?

There is no doubt that the AU has the potential to be an important political actor but it faces severe limitations as a continental body. In order to establish itself and successfully address the current issues, the AU needs to critically reevaluate itself and what it aims to achieve as an organization. It needs to take a firmer stance on Morocco’s position in the organization if it is truly committed to preserving Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Morocco’s seeming disregard for finding a solution was evidenced by its absence at the Peace and Security Council (PSC) meeting held to discuss the issue. While the PSC voiced its concern at this meeting, no enforcement mechanism was put in place. Another area to be addressed is ensuring that source of funding does not dictate behavior. The AU must be able to use its funds in accordance with its mandate in spite of who the key financiers are. Member countries are signatories to the AU Constitutive Act and should not be at the mercy of the more financially viable states. If the AU is unable to address these internal contradictions, then its continued and, potentially debilitating, identity crisis will only worsen.

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