What is the African Union?

What is the African Union?

In this article, we shall discuss the international organization that is the African Union within international relations. We will answer the question “What is the African Union?” In addition, we will also discuss the history of the organization, its relation to other entities such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and also the African Court and Human and Peoples’ Rights, the activities and objectives of the African Union, the structure of the international organization, as well as the successes and challenges of the organization. We shall also examine some of the future goals of the African Union. 

History of the African Union

In order to better understand the question of “what is the African Union?” it is important to know the history of the African Union, and the impact that this history has had on the objectives of the international organization. The African Union is an international organization made up of African states. The organization was created in 1963 as the Organization of African Unity. It was in 2001 that the Organization of African Unity turned into the African Union (CNS.miis.edu, 2013). The idea was that the new African Union would be able to take the foundations set during the OAU and have more success in implementing ideas such as African unity, along with integration among the states (Laporte & Mackie, 2010).

The organization has 54 members. They are:

“Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Kenya, the Kingdom of Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, South Sudan, Kingdom of Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe” (cps.miis.edu, 2013; updated information on South Sudan).

There were many initial goals for the formation of the Organization of African Unity. Namely, the organization wanted to emphasize cooperation among African states, work on security, sovereignty, as well as stressing the importance of pan-African identity. In addition, they are also focused on diplomacy, conflict prevention, development, human rights, the environment, amongst other issues.

While much of the initial focus of the OAU was towards Pan-African Unity, as well as dealing with other issues of importance to the African states, Laporte & Mackie (2010) argue that it has been only more recently that states have been able to work more towards a unified voice. As they explain, with relation to Pan-Africanism,

“Progress in the post-independence period was slow, however. The OAU was little more than a secretariat whose main task was to support regular meetings of Heads of State. This role did not fundamentally change until the beginning of the 1990s. The end of the Cold War produced significant progress. As ideological debates and Cold War rivalries lost momentum, so political perspectives on African regional integration gradually began to converge. More and more African leaders supported African integration as a necessary vehicle for improving the living conditions of their populations, for the integration of the continent into the global economy and for the creation of a stronger African voice in international affairs. The end of apartheid in South Africa also helped to mould a shared vision for the integration of the continent among African leaders, as did a desire to develop African solutions to African problems” (15).

And while there have been renewed efforts with the formation of the African Union, issues of sovereignty continue to exist; state leaders are careful not to give up too much of their power and influence to the international organization (Laporte & Mackie, 2010). In addition, when looking at the political history of the various African states, it is evident that various economic conditions and developments impacted the level of interdependence between the African states. For example, following colonialism, many of the countries’ economies were either primarily centered on export commodities, or consumer products for the domestic populations; “This economic structure did not allow for too much possibility of horizontal commercial exchanges among them. Even at that, each of the countries adopted standard tariff policies vis-à-vis one another that reflected more of a stand- alone strategy and less of a policy for deliberately promoting horizontal intra-African trade and investments” (Laporte & Mackie, 2010: 44). In addition, European countries made trade with them much easier, through the establishment of various international trade agreements.

However, with economic trade available with an international market, many African states were trading with Europe. This has negative implications for increased continental trade amongst one another. Namely, these agreements “reinforced an international division of labour that was established with regard to Africa’s role in it in the colonial period. Effectively, the conventions reproduced and entrenched the competition among Africa’s primary commodity producers, deepened their vertical ties with Europe, imposed constraints on their collaboration on trade and industrial policy, and contributed to the ineffectiveness of the economic cooperation and integration efforts that had been launched” (Laporte & Mackie, 2010: 44). Some continue to argue that little voice in international economic institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have made it further difficult for African states to build their economies (Paterson, 2012), and it is for this reason that many are quite critical of these international organizations and their neo-liberal principles, and the impact that their policies have had on the Global South.

The Peace and Security Council (PSC)

Understanding what is the African Union also entails knowing the role of the Peace and Security Council. The top governing body of the African Union is the Peace and Security Council (PSC). The Peace and Security Council is comprised of 15 members, and become involved in international relations of the region when there exist gross human rights violations, or crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against peace, etc… This entity has contributed peacekeeping forces in countries such as Burundi (2003-2004), as well as in Darfur, Sudan (2004-2007) (Paterson, 2012). It is also important to note how the African Union has approached peacekeeping. As Paterson (2012) notes, “The continental body’s peace and security architecture includes a Panel of the Wise, which promotes high-level mediation efforts; a rapid-reaction African Standby Force (ASF) built around five sub-regional brigades; a Continental Early Warning System (CEWS); a Military Staff Committee (MSC); and a Peace Fund. The AU has adopted a holistic approach to peacebuilding that seeks to link peace, security, and development, and emphasises the importance of national ownership of post-conflict reconstruction efforts” (1).

But despite its actions through peacekeeping missions, it should be noted that one challenge with regards to the effectiveness of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) is that “…over 90 percent of the AU’s peace and security efforts are funded by external actors. However, the AU’s lack of influence over external interventions led by the UN Security Council and its five permanent members (P-5) – the United States (US), China, Russia, France, and Britain – who often have their own more parochial interests, has sometimes resulted in undesirable outcomes” (Paterson, 2012: 1). Thus, many have questioned how the United Nations Security Council has impacted interests of the African states.

The African Union and International Relations

The African Union, while created for African states to work together on these issues, “the AU governance institutions are seeking to broaden and deepen their relations with the international community. In recent years, traditional AU partners such as the European Union (EU) have placed a great deal of emphasis on renewing and strengthening the partnership and on supporting AU capacities and institutions. The Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) expressed a desire on the part of both Unions to construct a new and different type of partnership. As a framework for long-term continent-to-continent partnership, the JAES, in concert with other EU and European Commission support programmes, should also be a vehicle for strengthening the AU’s institutional architecture” (Laporte & Mackie, 2010: 13). Speaking on this issue of EU-African Union international relations, Laporte & Mackie (2010) say that

The EU was initially sceptical when the AU was first established. This attitude quickly changed because the EU regarded the pan-Africanist movement as creating an excellent opportunity for the emergence of an interlocutor at a continental level. In the EU’s eyes, the AU had tremendous potential to tackle continental and global challenges that could only be dealt with at a continental level (e.g. peace and security, migration, and climate change). This explains not just why the European Commission’s expectations were high, but also why Europe wanted to play a strong and influential role in supporting the AU.

Based on its own role model, the EU understands that the AU needs strong independent institutions to organise a strong integration process. Support for the AU has therefore been targeted mainly at strengthening the AUC in Addis Ababa, with a view to creating a coherent and effective mechanism that would be appropriately equipped to carry other reforms forward (16).

In addition to the European Union, the African Union states are also looking to establish, and continue relationships with other countries such as the United States, as well as China, Brazil, Russia, along with other countries (Laporte & Mackie, 2010).

Activities of the African Union

The African Union has been involved in a host of activities as it pertains to socio-economic, cultural, and political issues. In this section of the article, we shall discuss some of the particular initiatives and/or programs that the African Union has established, or is looking to set up in the near future.

New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)

The African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is a program that was created to focus on development issues within the African Union countries. As of 2012, NEPAD had 25 million dollars donated for its work. However, Paterson (2012) argues that challenges exist for the full effectiveness of NEPAD, saying that: “

the pace of implementation has been lethargic. Low rates of intra-African trade continue to be exacerbated by poor infrastructure, high tariffs, unwieldy customs procedures, and a lack of diversity in production. Furthermore, agreement on a comprehensive international aid mechanism for NEPAD has not been reached, interim donor funding remains unpredictable, and international promises to forgive the large external debts of African countries of about $290 billion have frequently been broken. NEPAD has also been stymied by the uneven development of Africa’s RECs and their overlapping memberships, which have often resulted in duplication of efforts” (2).

AU 2063 Agenda

The African Union has outlined a series of goals under what known as its 2063 Agenda. The African Union explains that Agenda 2063 is an approach on how the continent should effectively learn from the lessons of the past, build on the progress not underway and strategically exploit all possible opportunities available in the short, medium, and long term, so as to ensure positive socioeconomic transformation within the next 50 years” (http://agenda2063.au.int/). There are a number of objectives that they hope to reach through the Agenda 2063. Speaking about this agenda, the African Union explains that “

“The main elements of “Agenda 2063” at the operational level are/will be outlined. At its heart, this new roadmap, emphasizes the importance to success of rekindling the passion for Pan-Africanism, a sense of unity, self-reliance, integration and solidarity that was a highlight of the triumphs of the 20th century.” They go on to say that

“Still at the operational level, the possible major risks/ threats and critical success factors should be discussed. These include regional political, institutional renewal and financing/resource mobilization issues, as well as the changing nature of Africa’s relationships with the rest of the world.”

The African Union and Renewable Energy

The African Union states have been working together as it pertains to renewable energy. For example, thousands of world leaders, activists, etc… were meeting in Paris on December 2015 to work towards an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Among discussions in Paris related to climate change was the commitment that the African states made towards renewable energy. According to reports, “The African Union, an alliance of 54 countries, announced a plan to mobilize $20 billion to develop at least 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on the continent by the end of the decade” (The Star, 2015). Reports went on to say that “The African Renewable Energy Initiative was announced Tuesday at the United Nations climate summit. It will be hosted by the Abidjan, Ivory Coast-based African Development Bank” (The Star, 2015). The project would be supported by money donated years earlier by Global North states (in 2009). Many of the state leaders in Africa spoke about the effect that global warming and climate change has had on their environment, agriculture, and livelihood. For example, in meetings with French leader Francois Hollande, “12 African leaders who described the Sahara Desert encroaching on farmland, forests disappearing from Congo to Madagascar and rising sea levels swallowing homes in West African river deltas” (The Star, 2015).

International actors and non-African states such as France have been speaking about continuing to offer contributions towards renewable energy, along with electricity in Africa. But France is not the only one; the United States, among others, have also spoke about the importance  of contributing to these energy sources in Africa.

The African Union Passport

On December 2nd, 2015, it was reported that the African Union, during the November Africities summit that was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, that the international organization is planning to reveal their plans for a single passport for all of the members of the AU. The passport would allow individuals from the 54 members of the international organization to travel to each other country. The African Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Dr. Aisha Abdullahi was quoted as saying that this African Union passport “…would also ensure the free movement of people on the continent. Our people will not have to carry a visa to gain access to other African states. There will be free trade of goods” (Sotubo, 2015).

Successes and Challenges of the African Union

As mentioned, the African Union was created to help solve various issues that the countries in the continent were facing.

For example, Laporte & Mackie (2010) argue that while the international organization has been continuing to build the organization up, as well as increasing its influence in the international system, there are still some problems that need to be addressed as it relates to the African Union’s ability to be effective as an international organization. Namely, they argue that:

Despite the renewed efforts made during the past decade to promote further African integration, major problems still need to be overcome. These include:

• Ownership. Questions are regularly asked as to whether the new AU integration process is really owned by most Africans. Clearly, opinions differ in Africa on the deepening of African integration. The current drive towards African integration has divided the continent between ‘maximalists’ and ‘minimalists’ rather than uniting it.

• Leadership vacuum. There is currently no credible leadership guiding Africa’s integration. There seems to be a dearth of driving forces for regional integration, i.e. people who combine visionary leadership with the sense of pragmatism that is needed to move things forward, manage reforms and deliver results. For different reasons, both Nigeria and South Africa have not played this role either adequately or consistently in recent years, in spite of being among the initiators of key continental projects such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). So far, progress on African integration has always resulted from a small number of individuals taking the initiative to push through the next step, rather than from a sustained long-term process.

• Institutional rivalries. These have been caused by a lack of clarity on mandates and roles. No serious debate has been set in motion on who is best placed to do what in African integration (i.e. the AUC, or the RECs, or the member states), based on the principle of subsidiarity. While a common vision has been formulated on the ultimate aim of African integration (i.e. the proposed creation of a United States of Africa), there are still wide differences of opinion on the path that should be followed and the speed at which unity should be achieved. A number of African states are clearly unwilling to transfer coherent mandates, competences and powers to a supranational pan-African body. Others want to move faster. For far too long, the relationship between the AU and the RECs has been one dominated by competition rather than by cooperation. The RECs now have liaison officers at the AUC in Addis. Although, initially, their remit did not extend beyond peace and security issues, they are now being called on more and more to perform other general liaison tasks.

• Sequencing and planning. Crucial issues, such as sequencing and the speed at which the continent should move towards integration in different fields, remain unresolved. Careful attention is not always given to identifying how these areas interlink and how progress in one area may depend on the results obtained in another. This was also one of the problems with the African Union Commission’s Institutional Transformation Programme (ITP) and helps to explain why it did not deliver the expected results. The planning and sequencing of such complex change processes is a difficult undertaking in itself, requiring careful monitoring and regular updates and adjustments” (17-18).

There have been attempts to remedy some of the challenges that exist, but roadblocks have continued to exit. For example, take the issue of leadership. Many argue that the African Union needs more direct leadership, but that leaders are either focused on their own country interests, or that the leaders are not popular within the African Unity states. For example, Laporte & Mackie (2010) argue that:

“Since the mid-1990s, under the leadership first of President Nelson Mandela and subsequently of President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa has been a forerunner in promoting African integration. However, it now seems more preoccupied with the Southern African region, primarily in the context of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Equally, Nigeria, under President Obasanjo, played an important role for a time, but no longer seems keen to assume a leadership role given the grave internal problems it now has to tackle. Libya has also sought to assume a leadership role, but lacks credibility both in Africa and in the rest of the world. Yet the lack of a solid and credible political leadership and powerful drivers makes for slower progress and at times creates confusion. This may explain why African Heads of State regularly fall back on what is sometimes called ‘regime-boosting regionalism’,6 adopting strong formal declarations that sound impressive but are not followed up. Agreeing decisive steps forward is fine, but they need to be accompanied by strong, clear and consistent leadership in order to achieve any tangible follow-through.”

Again, the African Union has also been careful to challenge state sovereignty, particularly given the history of colonialism in Africa. As Udombana (2000) points out, while the OAU Charter is clear in speaking against human rights abuses, states did not want to call out other states, for fear of having attention on their own activities. It was for this reason that so many advocated for the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as they were looking for an independent body who could offer real justice on matters of human rights. 


In this article, we have answered the question “What is the African Union?” We have went through the history of the organization, examined how it was founded, who are its members, and also the functions of the IO. In addition, we have also discussed critiques of the organization, and new initiatives within the African Union. 

What is the African Union Non-Linked References

Paterson, M. (2012). The African Union at Ten: Problems, Progress, and Prospects. Centre for Conflict Resolution and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, International Colloquium Report, 30-31 August 2012.

Udombana, N.J. (2000). Toward the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights: Better Late Than Never. Yale Human Rights and Development Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pages 45-67.

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