“The African Union lacks leaders with a truly pan-African vision”

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At the African Union Headquarters, Addis Ababa, October 14, 2021.

Senegalese President Macky Sall will take over as head of the African Union (AU) in February, succeeding Congolese Félix Tshisekedi for one year. As such, he will oversee the conference of heads of state responsible for setting the objectives of the pan-African organization, while the institution is in the process of reform. Benjamin Augé, associate researcher at the Sub-Saharan Africa center of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and co-author of a recent note on the AU Commission, deciphers the challenges of the Senegalese presidency.

The AU has often been described as “a union of heads of state” essentially concerned with covering up the abuses of each other. Has this changed?

The AU suffers from a lack of leaders with a truly pan-African vision. In the early 2000s, there was the Nigerian Olusegun Obasanjo, the Algerian Abdelaziz Bouteflika or the South African Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor. These presidents had the means, they represented the biggest contributors and held pan-African speeches.

Today, Cyril Ramaphosa is monopolized by his internal problems, the balance of power within the ANC [Congrès national africain, le parti au pouvoir en Afrique du Sud], the economic crisis… In Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari expresses himself very little on pan-African themes and does little in this direction, any more than Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algeria. The only ones who hold true pan-African rhetoric are the presidents of smaller countries. But most African states are still relatively turned on themselves.

What is the AU Presidency for?

It depends a lot on who is in that position. Over the last ten years, one of the only ones to have really marked his twelve months of presidency is the Rwandan Paul Kagame. He arrived with a team formed, determined to show that there can be some form of efficiency in this mandate. It laid the foundations for an institutional, structural and financial reform, which is still being implemented today.

“Due to the pandemic, the results of the last presidencies are very modest. The institution was not prepared to operate virtually. “

Many presidencies are handicapped by the institutional weakness of their national administrations. For example, the Congolese presidency, in 2021, had great difficulty in carrying out its projects, because structurally the diplomacy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is quite weak.

The previous presidency, that of Cyril Ramaphosa, fell at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. He managed the emergency: find funding, vaccines, etc. He saved his year thanks to a very strong diplomatic apparatus and a very effective ambassador in Addis Ababa. But due to the pandemic, for two years, the results of the presidencies have been extremely modest. The institution was, like many others, not prepared to operate virtually.

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How to define a “good presidency”?

It is a presidency which manages a little to twist the arms of the other members, to overcome resistance, in particular that of the five largest contributors to the AU: Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and the United States. South Africa. It’s very complicated to get the institution moving if they don’t want to. Let us take the case of Rwanda, a small country of 12 million inhabitants. Paul Kagame said to himself: “It’s okay, I’ll try to go for it and use all the tools I have to get results. At the end of the day, his presidency is the one that has marked the spirits the most over the past ten years.

What can we expect from Macky Sall’s presidency? Will it focus on resolving the Sahelian crisis?

The Sahel is one of its priorities. Without forgetting other crises, in particular those caused by the coups d’état in Guinea and Mali, two countries, like Senegal, members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He should also tackle environmental issues, especially in the Sahel, with this Great Green Wall project which he talks about quite regularly. But all of this, unfortunately, will once again be subject to the issue of Covid-19. The evolution of the pandemic will in any case have an impact on its agenda.

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How will he be able to move these priority issues forward?

Arriving with prepared plans and clear goals, no matter how small. Senegalese diplomacy exists, it does not discover the AU. But it will have to deal with a machine in the process of reform which is, all the same, still quite often dysfunctional.

The AU budget is still very dependent on external funding. Is it a weakness?

It’s better. Some countries are up to date with their contributions and funding mechanisms via the 0.2% customs tax on imports [réforme Kagame] gradually fall into place. But most of the members have not yet made their own this mechanism and it is difficult to get information on this subject. We are moving towards financial empowerment of the institution, but we are not there yet. A significant part of the money still comes from donors like the European Union (EU).

“France tends to favor a bilateral approach in its relations with African countries, rather than multilateralism with the AU”

However, the pressure exerted by Brussels is not particularly strong on the financial question. Already because European funding is a way to have influence on the AU and perhaps because within the EU, not everyone sees the AU in the same way. Some, like France, tend to favor a bilateral approach in their relations with African countries, rather than multilateralism with the AU. Others, like Germany or the Netherlands, prefer to work with the institution, being themselves from a very multilateralist tradition and having fewer embassies on the continent. There are thus different philosophies within the EU.

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Emmanuel Macron says he wants to focus on multilateralism …

The idea is rather to work with a certain number of African heads of state exerting influence in their respective regions. There have been a lot of efforts to get out of the traditional French precinct on the continent. But I do not see any particular efforts towards the AU.

In Senegal, President Macky Sall has just restored the office of Prime Minister, which he himself abolished a few years ago, on the pretext of wanting to devote himself to the presidency of the AU. Is this a good justification?

There is undoubtedly a part of domestic political cuisine, but a successful presidency of the AU requires giving itself the means and in particular traveling a lot in Africa and beyond. Let’s look at Paul Kagame. During his presidency in 2018, he made more than 30 trips abroad. To hope to obtain results, we must meet African heads of state and not just phone them. It is also a function of representation outside the continent. You have to be able to manage both at the same time.

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“The African Union lacks leaders with a truly pan-African vision”