Africa: A Force for Unity or Simply Toothless? the African Union At 60

The African Union is celebrating 60 years of unity in 2023. The organisation has achieved much since its creation, but ongoing conflicts have exposed the difficulties it faces in bringing peace and prosperity to the continent.

The African Union is often criticised as an institution without real power, but for political analysts, the simple fact that it exists is a huge achievement.

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) came about in 1963, to drive forward the decolonialisation movement started in 1957 with the independence of Ghana.

The organisation supported independence movements in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Angola and Mozambique, and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

This #AfricaDay we remember men & women at the forefront of #PanAfricanism #AfricanUnity #Anticolonlialism #Antiaparthied #LiberationMovements.Share your memories of Africa’s liberation heroes and visionaries #OurAfricaOurFuture Learn more:-— African Union (@_AfricanUnion) May 24, 2023

In 2002, the African Union (AU) replaced the OAU, keeping its headquarters in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

Since then, the union has reached a membership of 55, with the two most recent states joining in the past 12 years: South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July 2011, and Morocco, which joined in January 2017 after years of isolation.

But in 60 years, and especially the past two decades, the AU has faced many challenges, especially with the rise of new conflicts.

Rise of strongmen

“In 60 years, the organisation has surely given Africans a sense of unity and a place to rally,” says Thomas Kwasi Tieku, a Ghanaian researcher and associate professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who focuses on international organisations, mediation and African politics.

“But in 60 years, it should be further [along]. So, to me, the glass is half full, half empty,” he told RFI.

Governance has improved, Tieku said, but in terms of security, “we’re in a backsliding position”.

“Africa has known too many military coups,” he said. “Strongmen are still seen as the best way to govern, which led to more authoritarian leaders. This is backward thinking.”

More than 200 coups have occurred across the continent since the 1960s.

Terror threats

Senegalese diplomat Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, head of Dakar-based think tank the Institute for Pan-African Strategies, Peace-Security-Governance, told RFI’s Christophe Boisbouvier that the AU has failed to fight the rise of extremist terrorism.

“On that issue, we’re going backwards,” he said.

He deplores the “hyper-balkanisation” of Africa, and the lack of intervention by the AU as well as other African regional bodies.

He argues that the problem lies with the AU’s aversion to military intervention in conflicts, which means that those who instigate coups are rarely punished.

Border issues

A driver of conflict lies in the continent’s borders themselves, designed by European powers at the time of colonial conquest.

Attempts to redraw them only led to more conflicts, like in South Sudan. Some older borders have also created divisions, like in the Horn of Africa or in the Sahara.

“For the political elite and the African Union, it is important to maintain the inherited colonial borders,” Tieku explains. “But not for the Africans themselves, I think. Surveys show that some believe in a softening of this approach.”

According to him, they want fewer cross-border restrictions, for the purposes of work and trade.