I wrote this piece for Africa is a Country a few weeks back and as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our economic, political, and social systems, I still find it to be an important read. Especially as countries like Tanzania and Zambia are pushing for the reopening of their countries to stimulate their economies. The African Union and the African Centres for Disease Control must be lauded for their commitment to tackling this pandemic through multilateral means. There is a clear understanding that given the continent’s interconnectedness, a solution will require countries to work together and not in isolation.
Since its inception in 2002, the African Union (AU) has called for higher levels of political, economic, and social integration among member states. While this has been difficult to achieve for a number of reasons, including the lack of consensus among major actors like Nigeria and South Africa, limited funding mechanisms, and continued dependence on development partners, there has recently been a landmark move towards achieving this goal. Namely, on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018, 44 member states of the African Union signed the African Union Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA).
The AfCFTA seeks to achieve a number of objectives. Most importantly, it creates “a single continental market of goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments, and thus pave[s] the way for accelerating the establishment of the Continental Customs Union and the African customs union; expand[s] intra-African trade through better harmonization and coordination of trade liberalization and facilitation regimes and instruments across RECs and Africa; resolve[s] the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships and expedite[s] the regional and continental integration processes; enhance[s] competitiveness at the industry and enterprise level through exploiting opportunities for scale production, continental market access and better reallocation of resources.” This ambitious plan has been lauded for taking a crucial step toward implementing the AU’s mandate of accelerating the “political and socio-economic integration of the continent” and promoting “sustainable development at the economic, social, and cultural levels as well as the integration of African economies.”
However, despite the continued calls for the organization to do just this and fulfill its agenda to facilitate trade between African countries, 11 countries have not signed on to the agreement. One notable absence is Nigeria. President Buhari has argued that the country needs more time to consider the implication of this framework and how it might negatively impact domestic industries. According to Buhari, ‘‘We [the Nigerian government] will not agree to anything that will undermine local manufacturers and entrepreneurs, or that may lead to Nigeria becoming a dumping ground for finished goods.” His position was echoed by the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) which argued that the agreement would lead to many manufacturing companies dying “a quicker death.” Notably, this sentiment was not shared by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a key proponent of the AU’s transition from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), who referred to the rejection of the agreement by these 11 countries as “criminal”.
In addition, South Africa, Africa’s most advanced economy, signed the Kigali Declaration that signals its commitment to boosting trade between African countries but is not the actual Continental Free-Trade Area agreement. Ironically, two of Africa’s largest economies that championed the establishment of the AU refused to sign onto an agreement that deepens regional integration.
So, given these dynamics, concerns as to how well this framework will be implemented given its shaky start, are quite valid. From the organization’s standpoint, this is especially problematic given the constant push for the AU to establish itself as a critical actor on the continent and in the international community. This situation exposes the tensions that exist within the AU itself because, while the AU Commission might advocate the agenda set forth by the AU Constitutive Act, the leaders of the AU Assembly, the Heads of States, are the ones who really dictate the AU’s foreign policy. Without their commitment to AU initiatives, the likelihood that they will be implemented is not high.
The AU’s ability to act is consistently undermined by member states that remain tied to their ideals of sovereignty and statehood. Though the AU has often set itself as a challenger to the West, when it has to work with its fellow member states, we observe varying levels of apprehension. Nigeria and South Africa, as big players on the continent with the most to lose, are the one refusing to commit. In a similar vein, Nigeria has refused to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement that would establish a free trade area between West Africa and the European Union. Buhari argued that “[Nigerian] industries cannot compete with the more efficient and highly technologically driven industries in Europe…” While one can agree that the economic disparity between these two regions is noticeable, I am more concerned with the fact that the regional giant is not using its position to negotiate a better deal for West African countries. What good does it do to simply abstain from signing? In a similar vein, how helpful is it to not participate in a continental agreement that embodies the expressed commitment to finding better ways to integrate and strengthen African economies?
Nigeria and South Africa’s refusal to sign the AfCFTA is representative of the challenges to the AU’s effectiveness as an organization. Having to constantly mediate between the interests of the regional powers risks deterring from issues that truly matter, for example, how this free trade agreement could help people on the continent or, if problematic, what are ways to make the agreement more effective? There is a need to reevaluate the organization’s priorities because, beyond this trade agreement, we continually observe the lack of commitment on the part of leaders in addressing important issue areas which completely discredits their apparent agenda of furthering continental development. Again, there exists a disjuncture between the African Union Assembly and its Commission. The former is focused on the policy objectives of the “Big Men” while the latter seeks to address the challenges facing the continent despite the structural and political hurdles.
When, now former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced his five-day tour to Africa, I was a little skeptical as to how this trip would go given the alleged comments made regarding Africa’s “shithole” countries. Little did I know that this trip would end with the African Union failing to address the statements that caused anger and hurt and Tillerson getting fired immediately upon his return to the U.S. Still, this trip raised several questions about the role of the U.S. and China in Africa along with the issue of accountability of African leaders. Whose opinion matters most? Read my thoughts on these issues here.
This year, over 20 African countries will hold presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. At a time where democracy is on the decline, these elections matter significantly insofar as what they mean for the consolidation of democracy in African countries. Each of these elections raise concerns as to whether the process will be peaceful or plagued by violence. Of these elections, eight (Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Mali, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya) have been highlighted as ones to watch as they mark critical political shifts in these countries.
In Libya’s case, the African Union (AU) has already expressed its concern regarding the country’s preparedness to hold elections this year. Despite also acknowledging the “complex political, security and legislative challenges to holding such a vote”, the United Nations (UN) expressed its willingness to assist with the process due to the “support for elections among Libyans”. For Zimbabwe, this will be the first election in 37 years in which Robert Mugabe will not be participating following his resignation in November 2017. Though his resignation was not considered a coup by the AU, Mugabe has claimed that his removal from the presidency was “unconstitutional” and that the upcoming election would not be free and fair. The irony of this escapes no one. Here is a man that sat in office for 37 years and systematically destroyed his opposition where the only one willing to stand up to him was, the now late, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe reiterated his claim that he was ousted by unconstitutional means when he met with AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in Harare. He called Mnangagwa’s government illegal and for the AU to help “restore normalcy and democracy in Zimbabwe” which he later reiterated at his 94th birthday party. According to Mugabe, the issues surrounding Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections, given the illegitimacy of the government, along with the presence of the military in politics, will undermine the freedom and fairness of the process. This is the tense political background against which the 2018 election will take place.
Still, the African Union (AU) remains firm in its position that what occurred in November was not a coup and has promised to provide assistance in preparation for Zimbabwe’s election. The AU has assured the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that it will “send a team to work with ZEC before and after the elections” and “mobilize partners to finance the process and give technical assistance to help prepare and run the elections between 30 and 45”. Mahamat stated that he was encouraged by the fact that the Mnangagwa has expressed the country’s commitment to holding ‘free and fair’ elections. Keeping in mind the AU’s role, it seeks to take the lead on this process indicating its continued commitment to rebuilding Zimbabwe’s democracy. However, the reliance on external partners harkens back to the question of the AU’s capacity to do so.
The AU’s Election Observation Manual establishes that all elections on the continent, in response to Kenya’s experience in 2008, would be subject to election monitoring, regardless of whether a formal invitation from the member state was received. Given this mandate, the continental body has regularly monitored elections in Zimbabwe. What makes this election even more unique is that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has welcomed the monitoring by Western election observers: The European Union, Commonwealth, and the United Nations. This position is a direct challenge to Mugabe’s longstanding ban of western election observers who he called “imperialists”. Concerns regarding Mugabe’s government were met with strong reactions by his regime where, in 2008, spokesperson George Charamba went as far to say that “[The Western countries] can go and hang a thousand times, they have no basis, they have no claim on Zimbabwe politics at all”. Last year, in reference to west-funded non-governmental organizations monitoring the 2018 elections, Mugabe told journalists: “We don’t need them. We are saying no. We are going have elections in 2018 and we are going to say no to the whites”. In addition to welcoming observers, Mnangagwa mentioned the country’s willingness to rejoin the Commonwealth following Mugabe’s departure in 2003 after the organization suspended Zimbabwe following its problematic elections in 2002.
What this situation calls into question is whether the AU will take a position on this after lauding Mugabe’s departure as “an act of statesmanship that can only bolster President Mugabe’s political legacy” and welcoming Mnangagwa as having been chosen by the people. For an organization that is clear on its position towards non-constitutional transitions of power, the lack of forthrightness on this issue raises many questions and reminds us to pay careful attention to the other elections being held in difficult states and how this reflects upon the AU’s expressed commitments. In preparation for the 2018 elections, there is considerable pressure on the AU to maintain an objective stance on Zimbabwe. The organization’s verdict on the election will be critical in establishing Zimbabwe’s democratic trajectory and as an indicator of the AU’s relevance and resilience.