The African Union’s 20 years: Record and new challenges

The AU has scored some progress toward making Africa a peaceful and developing continent. However, serious problems remain, and new ones are rising.

The AU police in Somalia
Mogadishu, November 11, 2022: An armored African Union police vehicle patrols the streets of the Somali capital, threatened by Islamist group al-Shabaab’s terror campaign. Double car bomb explosions on October 29 killed more than 100 and injured some 300 Somalis near a downtown ministry building. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The AU provides a negotiation forum for dealing with Africa’s problems
  • Its big success is the development of a free trade area in the continent
  • Over the next decade, the AU will consider integration options

Inspired by Pan-Africanism and the architecture of the European Union, the African Union (AU) recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Dramatic events of the 21st century – from the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, to the Great Recession 2008-2009, from the migration crisis to rising popular grievances, from Covid-19 to the war in Ukraine – show that the world is in a period of deglobalization, uncertainty and generalized anxiety. For an organization like the AU, this produces stiff challenges amid old and new threats and the repositioning of crucial allies. 

The past two decades have also been eventful in Africa. The continent has been the stage of armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, and Somalia. A new state of South Sudan came into existence, and Morocco rejoined the AU. A free trade continental area has been established, and many long-standing leaders “for life” have been toppled. 

Africa faces multiple security and political challenges, including ongoing conflicts in the DRC and Ethiopia, terrorism in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, military coups in ChadGuineaMali and Sudan, popular uprisings, refugee flows and rising food insecurity. 

Flagship AU reforms 

Two developments were particularly relevant in shaping the AU. The first was the adoption in 2015 of Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for the organization outlining flagship projects and its main goals (including peace and stability, eradicating poverty, and establishing a federate or confederate United Africa). Some of these projects, such as the free trade area or a single air transport market, are being implemented. Others – like the African Union Passport – have been delayed, while some, like ending all armed conflicts by 2020, have fallen short.

The AU provided an effective negotiation forum for resolving internal conflicts in Africa.

Also noteworthy was the reform process launched in 2016 under the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. After identifying the organization’s weaknesses (including fragmentation and dispersion, an inefficient structure, financial dependency and limited coordination between the organization and regional economic communities), a reform plan was designed. The aim was to reduce the number of priorities of the AU, review the structure of operations, reconnect with African citizens, increase efficiency and achieve financial independence. 

Free trade breakthrough

Besides setting an agenda and institutional reforms, the AU made two significant advances. It provided an effective negotiation forum for resolving internal conflicts and a platform from which African countries can voice their interests and concerns in the wider international arena. That does not mean that African countries speak with one voice on every matter, as evidenced by the different positions adopted regarding the war in Ukraine. 

The second accomplishment was the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an Agenda 2063 project. Except for Eritrea, all the AU states have signed the agreement, and 43 countries have deposited their instruments of ratification. 

That there is a near-consensus on the very ambitious free trade deal with significant implications for state-level economic policies counts as a major diplomatic triumph. It is also a strong indicator of rising trade and economic integration, which will impact production structures, infrastructure, and rules for the movement of people within the African space. 

The AU Commission chairman
Veteran Chadian politician and diplomat Moussa Faki Mahamat heads the AU Commission since 2017. He has been reelected for another term ending in 2024. © Getty Images

Arm in arm with the UN

The AU has been less successful in promoting peace, security and stability on the continent. In 2013, the AU Assembly committed to ending violent conflicts in Africa by 2020 with its “Silencing the Guns” initiative, part of the Agenda 2063. However, old and new armed conflicts continue in the DRC, Libya, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. A fragile peace hangs on by a thread in Sudan and Somalia, and communal violence has increased in many areas of Africa, as has the proliferation of armed groups.

The AU’s focus on managing and mediating political crises is essential.

While violence and its root causes remain, the AU has assumed a vital role in peacekeeping operations across the continent, under the principle of “African solutions to African problems,” in close cooperation with the United Nations. Results have been mixed, but the AU seems to be considered more legitimate in operational theatres. The reason lies in recent history. On a continent where the memory of the struggle for independence is still vivid, mediation and peacebuilding efforts by actors from the outside world are not trusted and usually fail. 

Read how the EU alters its Africa policy 

Unlike its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, for which state sovereignty was an absolute principle, the AU operates with the rule of non-indifference. It says the organization must intervene in cases of war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity. With many leadership changes still resulting from irregular (and sometimes violent) processes, the AU’s focus on managing and mediating political crises is essential. That is done with mediation teams and, more rarely, sanction regimes. 

Hard test in Sudan

Following military coups, the AU has suspended membership for Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan. Given its political and diplomatic weight, Sudan is a crucial test of the AU’s “zero tolerance” stand on the issue. After fruitless negotiations, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) suspended Sudan’s activities in the organization until the restoration of the civilian government that was overthrown by the military in 2019. 

However, in the case of Chad­ – where Mahamat Deby Itno, son of the former president and leader of the transitional military council, has been delaying elections – the AU is more reluctant to act. Chad remains a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism and hosts the headquarters of French military operations in the region. In other cases, like in the Ethiopian civil war or the insurgence in Cabo Delgado, the AU has failed in its stabilization efforts.

The Agenda 2063 envisions an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law. However, the AU’s inconsistent approach to coups and tolerance of the practice of “constitutional engineering” by incumbents may weaken its legitimacy. Some critics say the organization resembles a “club of incumbents.” 

However, despite its shortcomings thus far, the AU’s pragmatic approach to political upheavals and conflict – based on dialogue, mediation and a certain flexibility – has contributed to stabilization. 

Striving for self-reliance

The AU will face no shortage of challenges to tackle over the next decade. One of them is its dependency on external funding. It limits its agency by making the AU more vulnerable to the interests and agendas of other bodies, such as the UN. The Agenda 2063 reformers sought to address the funding shortages with the “Financing of the Union” scheme. AU member states were supposed to impose a 0.2 percent levy on eligible imports to support the organization. However, fewer than 40 percent of the member states make yearly contributions. “As long as these shortfalls persist, the AU’s financial independence will remain a pipe dream,” stated the PSC in its March 2021 report.

The AU will also have to adapt to a fast-changing global landscape amid a worldwide recession, the war in Ukraine and the world’s evolving balance of power.

In 2021, all the expenses of peacemaking operations were funded by external actors, mainly the European Union. As for 2022, external partners financed 66 percent of the $650 million AU budget. The funds from donors covered the operations, programs and peace support. The goal of self-financing 75 percent of the budget remains out of reach. At the same time, the coming decade will likely bring more urgent financial demands amid the continent’s security, economic, political, and humanitarian challenges.

AU’s crucial security role

Another difficult challenge is security, a necessary and fundamental condition for Africa to be prosperous and peaceful. The AU has become a crucial actor in the continental security landscape. However, its security operations are funded externally and carried out by a limited number of states, including Rwanda, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Two of them are involved in conflicts: a civil war has resumed in Ethiopia, while tensions between Rwanda and the DRC have escalated. 

The AU will also have to adapt to a fast-changing global landscape amid a worldwide recession, the war in Ukraine and the world’s evolving balance of power. 

Countries across the continent will face high debt levels, rising food prices and popular discontent. The AU will need to accommodate the strategic changes of partners and donors. An example is the EU’s changing approach to African security, as the European Peace Facility (EPF) replaces the African Peace Facility (APF). 

The APF was established in 2003 by the EU in the wake of the Cotonou Agreement to finance African-led peacekeeping operations and conflict prevention initiatives. While funds could not be used to procure military equipment, under the rules of the APF, the funding was vital to cover operational costs, including salaries. Between 2004 and 2021, European countries supported with 2.68 billion euros as many as 16 peace and security operations deployed in 19 African countries. 

African stability and security projects will remain a priority for the EU, given the fears over uncontrolled migration and a potential new refugee crisis.

Under the EPF, which has a budget of 5.7 billion euros for six years (2021-27), EU countries can provide financial assistance to international and regional organizations and third states involved in peace support operations. Unlike the APF, the EPF also allows for the provision of military equipment. 

Africa’s security now needs to be considered in a broader framework of European security interests on the global stage. In practice, considering that the EU was the leading funder of AU peacekeeping operations, this may decrease the operational capacity and leverage of African countries and pave the way for a more substantial presence of European countries in the African security landscape. In any case, African stability and security projects will remain a priority for the EU, given the fears over uncontrolled migration and a potential new refugee crisis.



Over the next decade, the AU will consider integration options. Because integration can take different forms, two scenarios emerge.

Developing the AfCFTA

Under the first and most likely scenario, the union will deepen economic integration without venturing into the political sphere. On the economic front, the AU has advanced decisively through the AfCFTA. Under this scenario, the AU will concentrate on developing the AfCFTA by improving connectivity, promoting critical infrastructure and creating legal frameworks for the free movement of people, goods, and services across the continent. Regional economic communities will play a crucial role as building blocks of economic integration on the continental scale. 

Rising levels of intra-African trade will likely spurn economic development across countries. Over the next decade, the AU may focus on economic integration and security issues. Considering the organization’s financial dependency and the recent changes in the EU security strategy, it may struggle to maintain its autonomy and agency vis a vis the UN and the EU. 

‘Federalized Africa’

However, it cannot be excluded that, as in the case of Europe and in line with the goal of a “federalized Africa,” the AU will be tempted to push for political integration. Such a project would likely fail; sovereignty is a sensitive issue in Africa, and fragile or failed states remain the main obstacle to security and prosperity. 

Moreover, as the world enters a period of waning trust in institutions, it would be hard for the AU to legitimize a process of political integration between countries with different regimes, demographic profiles and interests. The deepening cleavage in the EU between federalists and proponents of Europe as a collection of cooperating but sovereign nations may be a cautionary tale for African elites. 

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