Op-ed: African Union reform – The challenge of ownership by the masses

By Assane Diagne*

African Union (AU) reform featured prominently in the discussions of the 7th Tana Forum, which was recently held in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. But can it succeed without the continent’s citizens? “During the Ebola outbreak, African Union missionaries were sent to the affected countries. They wore jackets marked ‘AU’. The populations wondered which NGO it was. This raises the question of ownership of the continental organization”.

This story, recounted at the Forum by the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), Moussa Faki Mahamat, at the 7th Tana Forum on Peace and Security (Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, 21 and 22 April  2018),  is indicative of the population’s lack of knowledge about the continental organization and the urgent need to take far-reaching actions to increase ownership.

The diagnosis has been posed at the highest level, and the problem clearly identified. Now, what do we do? Preference should be given to a more participatory and more inclusive approach in the development and implementation of these kinds of initiatives.

The media and civil society organizations, among other components of the population, should be better involved so as to play a leading role. For example, African civil society has several entry points to exchange and interact with actors within the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA).

 Civil society and early warning system

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, AU specialist at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a think tank based in Johannesburg, believes that civil society “can play an important role, especially in early warning”.

“The AU has early warning systems, but often [when they are activated], they refer to the local media. Civil society can take part in this early warning and enable organizations to act. It can assist in conducting a more in-depth analysis, and look into the recurrence of problems in the long term,” Louw-Vaudran noted.

Beyond the warning role, civil society can also assist in addressing the challenge of applying the 0.2% tax on imports intended to sustain the AU’s finances.

How do we go about it? By assuming a leadership role for the required lobbying and advocacy with governments to influence national policies and ensure that AU funding becomes a governmental priority.

To date, only 20 of the 55 Member States are complying with this initiative which, in the long term, seeks to relieve the Pan-African organization from its dependence on the resources of foreign partners to finance peace-keeping operations and other activities on the continent.

Since its creation in 2002, APSA has become the first continent-wide regional peace and security system, founded with the mandate to look for African solutions to African problems.

Involvement of the media

However, these actions cannot yield the expected results without the involvement of the media, which serves as a communication channel, sensitizing and educating the populations in whose name these actions will be undertaken.

As acknowledged by the former President of Ghana and new Chairperson of the Tana Forum Board, ownership of peace and security presumes that “African actors are at the forefront. The international community can assist but cannot replace the role of the continent.”

The approach should be the same with regard to young people and women who, according to Graça Machel, “must be involved and encouraged to make their voices heard.”

There is thus a need to ensure that citizens take full ownership of these initiatives since they are being carried out in their name. In other words, inclusion requires shifting from an AU of Heads of State to an AU of the people, an AU by the people and an AU with the people.

The media and civil society must remain at the core of the reforms and not on the periphery. This is the only way to ensure success and make ownership by the popular masses a reality.

*Assane Diagne is an editor for Africa Check based in Dakar, Senegal.