Op-ed: A more relevant Union: Lessons from the Ebola crisis for AU reform

By Nanjala Nyabola*

In March 2013, the international health organization Médécins sans Frontiers (MSF) announced that the Ebola outbreak in the Mano River basin (Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone) was an emergency situation. By this time, hundreds of people had died in Guinea alone, and it was evident that the healthcare systems in three of Africa’s poorer countries – none with prior experience of the disease – would not be able to cope with the outbreak. Eight months and 3,000 deaths later, the African Union finally moved into action, releasing $1 million from the Special Emergency Fund for Drought and Famine for an emergency response.

By the end of the outbreak, over 11,000 people had died across the three countries (and Nigeria). In affected countries, hospitals and clinics were completely overwhelmed, and a generation will likely be permanently scarred from months of finding dead bodies in the streets. Cultural norms on hospitality and affection – handshakes, hugs or kisses – were changed forever because of fear of contamination. Global panic triggered racially biased travel restrictions against Africans of all nationalities. International air travel was indelibly altered with mandatory health screenings now taking place in many countries. The 2013/2014 Ebola crisis permanently changed the fabric of affected societies, and beyond.

The role of the AU in failing to manage this outbreak is indicative of some of the systemic issues that should ideally be addressed by thorough reforms of the organization. At its heart, the reform process intends to create a more relevant Union. However, this definition of relevance should be centred on the needs of African citizens, beyond the political fictions that give them citizenship, given that the long-term philosophical goal of the process of building the AU is to erase colonial borders for the benefit of African people.

Quite simply, the AU was  mostly under the radar in the early days of the Ebola crisis. It wasn’t that African countries had no prior experience with Ebola – even the war-torn DRC routinely and effectively contains periodic outbreaks that are inevitable due to the remoteness of some of its communities. Other countries like Uganda and the Republic of Congo have also successfully managed outbreaks.

Rather, it was that the AU responded unforgivably late and turned up with minimal resources, unable to leverage its unique position on the continent to take charge. By the time the AU reacted, thousands were dead, and the Union’s interjection was viewed as adding unnecessary bureaucracy rather than helping per se.

The AU’s Ebola response failed in three important aspects. First, it was late. As mentioned above, MSF and other international organizations declared the Mano River Ebola outbreak a national disaster in March 2014, but the AU’s first statement on the issue was delivered in September. While there was certainly monitoring in the background, there were no external signs of movement until September. Given the unprecedented nature of the crisis, a reassuring word from the organization that represents Africans on a continental level would have been more than welcome. This doesn’t cost money, but goes a long way towards establishing goodwill between the Union and ordinary people. Moreover, it was embarrassing for there to be timely reactions from non-African organizations like the EU or the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and for the AU to appear unseeing or unfeeling in the face of such tragedy.

A similar pattern has emerged around the ongoing Mediterranean crisis in which the AU has allowed the EU to set the tone for engagement even though the vast majority of those dying on the high seas are Africans. As a result, the response to the crisis has been focused on the needs of European countries – on keeping Africans out of Europe rather than the humanitarian needs of those on the move. Moreover, the EU has offered financial and in-kind support for the very regimes that are pushing young Africans to their deaths as an incentive for containment. Only when international reporting on the inhumane conditions in EU-supported migrant detention centres in Libya emerged, did African countries finally start moving.

One of the five pillars of the ongoing reform process is “Connect with Africans”. The lesson from these crises is that there are practical and available acts of solidarity and support that the AU can offer to African citizens during such emergencies that don’t cost anything. The AU should have been among the first international organizations to express solidarity with victims of the Ebola crisis, and to offer ideas moving forward. The AU should be first in proposing ideas for protecting African migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Lack of resources cannot be an excuse for doing so little, and the AU cannot wait for other organizations to show leadership on issues in which it has unique knowledge or interests.

Secondly, the AU’s Ebola response was under-resourced. Many of the African doctors who went to West Africa to combat the outbreak paid their own way or received support from other international organizations. US$ 1 million may seem like a great deal of money for an individual, but for an international response to a crisis of this scale it was a pittance, and it was not properly leveraged into the areas where the Union would have made the greatest difference. Instead of facilitating knowledge transfers between affected countries and establishing a crisis command centre, the AU was stuck, trying to move money around different agencies.

The sustainable financing pillar of the ongoing reform process could address these shortcomings. In the “Financing the Union” decision taken by the Heads of State and Government in November 2016, the AU recognized that the organization could not run effectively unless it became self-reliant. At the moment, up to 72% of the AU’s budget is funded by external partners, particularly the European Union, which, owing to its own internal upheavals, is keen to re-evaluate the cooperation.

This dependency on external funding has significantly affected the way the AU works, for example, with the funding of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In 2007, the AMISOM mission was founded to permit African countries to engage directly in peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. In 2016, the EU announced that it was reducing the funding given to the AU mission as peacekeeper allowances by up to 20%, which was significant because the AU relies entirely on the EU for these allowances. Even though the AMISOM mission is a central part of the global initiative to end the war in Somalia, Brussels was forcing African soldiers to take a pay-cut, and there was nothing that African countries could do about it. Noting that there are questions about the conduct of the AMISOM mission in Somalia that are beyond the scope of this piece, the power imbalance is remarkable. Financial dependency has given the EU significant agenda-setting power over a peacekeeping mission that, for more than 10 years now, is a flagship peace and security initiative of the African Union.

Under the “Financing the Union” decision, AU Heads of State pledged to implement a 0.2% levy on all imported goods produced outside the continent to increase the self-reliance of the Union. But the AU isn’t underfunded only because African countries are poor. Rather, the main reason why the AU is underfunded is because African countries are often late with their membership dues and don’t fulfil their obligations until well into the financial year. So while raising a new tax is a creative solution to the financing problem, it doesn’t address the lack of political will to support the organization, and it is unclear whether there is a strategy to address that problem.

Finally, the AU’s Ebola response was too reactive and not at all pre-emptive. There are of course many aspects of a health emergency that cannot be foreseen, but in this case, there were several that were. The dire state of healthcare facilities in affected countries was a matter of public record. So too was the fact that doctors in other countries who have significant experience with the disease had conducted significant research and knew how to contain it effectively. But there were no journals in which their discoveries could be published and disseminated among African experts. In the absence of a continental coordination effort, there was a disdain for existing local knowledge as Western organizations immediately turned to their own experts who have marginal experience with malaria, let alone haemorrhagic fevers. The AU ended up playing second fiddle when it had the knowledge and capacity to take the lead.

These are some of the operational inefficiencies that the reform process should address. “Be ready so you don’t have to get ready” is a cliché for a reason. Within this reform process, there must be an operational culture that recognizes and values pre-existing knowledge and practice within member states. This knowledge should be properly organized and easily accessible so that in the face of an emergency the AU isn’t constantly starting from zero. Information must move fast within the organization to where it is needed the most. The AU may never be the richest organization in the world, but it can do something much more significant that doesn’t require that much money – it can be more efficient.

Fundamentally, the lesson from the Ebola crisis is that the AU reform process isn’t happening in a vacuum, nor is it about replicating other organizations on the continent; it is about building a more relevant Union. There are years of prior experience to be learned from, but the organization must be willing to lean into the discomfort of critically examining its notable failures in order to make this reform process meaningful.

*Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.