The Three Horsemen of the African Union Can the AU Chart a New Path after 60 years?

The African Union is a critical institution that represents the interests of Africans on the global stage. Originally the Organization of African Unity, the institution was a beacon of African progress through the sixties amidst independence struggles but unfortunately, it also faced many structural challenges that affected its effectiveness as an instrument of African unity.

May 1963 saw 32 leaders of newly independent African states come together in Ethiopia to establish the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Following the difficult period of widespread underdevelopment as a result of imperialism, there had been growing calls among African nations for a pan-African vision for development as well as the freedom to control their own destiny. The OAU was an organization that sought to drive Africans towards a unified position of collective development and cooperation. The pan-Africanist views of the OAU were also a reflection of the political consciousness that had blossomed through many African states that were freeing themselves from the vestiges of imperialist colonization. With the guiding philosophy of African socialism and the communal practices of African societies, the OAU sought to coordinate and intensify cooperation not only as a means of defending new-found sovereignty but to promote internationalism. African political leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Guinea’s Sékou Touré at the time held due regard for the charter of the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement meaning that, while the struggle for a new phase of self-determination had begun, it was also important to build upon diplomatic and economic relationships with countries that have similar development and geopolitical objectives. 

Throughout the 60s, the OAU was pivotal in eradicating the various forms of colonial exploitation such as European minority rule and indirect rule, where African indigenes carried out the dictates of colonizers. In this context, while African countries collectively sought independence and sovereignty, two blocs formed prior to the official establishment of the OAU based on differing strategies on how to achieve that goal. The Casablanca Group was led by Ghana and sought unity through a federation of all African countries. The Monrovian Group on the other hand was led by Senegal and did not support the strategy of unity through federation, instead preferring gradual unification through economic cooperation. This divide also reflected a pro-socialist leaning in the Casablanca Group versus a pro-capitalist bias in the Monrovia Group. This difference among African countries made the OAU inefficient because there was no consensus on how matters of peace, security and conflict resolution should be handled. The compounding effect of ideological differences on unity as well as no means of enforcing decisions, led to the dissolution of the OAU In September 1999 through a Declaration, which was followed by the founding of the African Union (AU). 

The AU in its current form, founded in a 2002 meeting in South Africa, has sought to refocus the attention of the organization away from decolonization and towards increased integration of African states, all with Africa’s growth and economic development as the prime objective. It can be argued that the OAU came into being at a period of economic and socio-political tumult, and on the other hand, the AU was established in the aftermath of the Cold War. With the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, during the Cold War, many African countries struggling for independence gained support from countries like the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China, and this influenced economic and political aspirations. Conversely, the AU promotes less ideological aspirations and more socio-economic/political development. Although both iterations of the organization overtly represent the will for African development and success, there are many structural mismatches that have hindered coherent progress in terms of continental governance and security. 

With the above as context, the AU sought institutional reforms in 2016 as a step towards promoting and achieving its Agenda 2063 strategy which is the running vision for inclusive economic growth and development. It is also within the need for institutional reform that the challenges to this desire, as well as solutions, can be explored. 2023 marks 60 years since the OAU came into being, and 20 years since it became the African Union. Since 2002, the AU has faced multiple issues ranging from funding to governance, and fragmented policy priorities and positions among its member states. Limited managerial capacity in decision-making offices like the AU Commission and overly complex organizational structure has caused much inefficiencies, which in turn brings runoff effects like lack of accountability and poor decision-making.  

Following the push for reform in 2016, the AU Commission argued that if pan-Africanism is the anchor for the AU’s reforms, instead of state-centrism, the organs therein would be empowered, with citizenry brought to the centre of the AU mission. Contrary to this position, it is also believed that such reforms would turn the AU into a technocratic organization much like the UN which then has an identity aside from its member states. These conflicting positions have prevented the AU from tackling poor governance, rampant corruption, and economic difficulties. These challenges become even more transparent when examining the AU’s position on peace and security, climate change, and African free trade. 


The security of countries and nations is critical to expressing any type of sovereignty or realizing development targets. This is especially true in Africa, but pervasive insecurity has so far prevented sustained development. Another important role of the AU’s involvement is helping to sustain or restore peace and stability in conflicted regions or among disparate parties. With armed and violent non-state actors terrorizing and displacing millions of Africans around the continent, the limitations of the AU are once again clear to see. The African Union Mission in Burundi (AMIB) was the AU’s first peacekeeping operation in April 2003. With a 3,500-strong force, the AMIB had the mandate of overseeing the implementation of the ceasefire agreement signed by the warring parties of the Burundi civil war. Financing was a major challenge the AMIB faced and recent times suggest that the bottleneck of financing peacekeeping operations has not been addressed.  

The majority of peacekeeping missions in Africa generally involve collaboration between the UN, AU, and the European Union (EU). These partnerships are meant to ease the sharing of information; facilitate training and logistics, as well as generate funding for operations. The AU within its mandate has set out a broad strategy to deal with insecurity using both military and non-military means, but just like the organizational challenges, the security mechanisms are also weak. This is mostly because of the AU’s fragmented funding structure which is dependent on foreign donors. According to a 2023 research by the Institute of Security Studies, ‘two-thirds of the AU’s 2023 budget comes from external sources’ and facts like this hinder the organization from setting its own priorities and agendas. This is because African governments that require assistance dealing with insecurity end up competing for funds instead of coordinating security strategies through the AU. 

Further, with its funding structure, the AU itself admits that high levels of donor dependence has led to low or weak ownership in its mandate, and this in turn leads to strategic misalignments when the interests of external donors are prioritized over that of Africans. This is evident in the fact that as the 60th anniversary of the OAU/AU is at hand, the ‘Silencing the guns by 2020’ initiative has not shown results, and unfortunately, new conflicts have sprung up instead. On the contrary, several countries like Mali, and Somalia have demanded that the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and AU Transition Mission in Somalia withdraw their peacekeeping forces because there has been no progress or lasting successes in addressing insecurity in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. 

The political stance of the AU has shown inconsistency when considering that funding for peace and security programmes within the Peace and Security Council is largely dependent on external donors. In 2021, the EU moved to overhaul its strategy for funding peace and security initiatives in Africa with the European Peace Facility. Research by the International Crisis Group suggests that in the past, the EU channelled most of the finances through AU funding structures, but the new tools allow the EU to bypass the AU and pay for the national and sub-regional military initiatives directly. Understandably, this new strategy comes with risks, meaning international efforts to address security-related challenges within Africa often lack political strategies that focus on the drivers of the conflicts or building trust among local populations. With this structural challenge in place, there is the increased risk that spending more money and investing in these military efforts without addressing core issues may only worsen already tense situations. In this context, the AU is at risk of having member states compete with each other for favourable funding conditions as opposed to collaborating to formulate a collective security strategy. 


Through the AU’s Agenda 2063, the organization has clarified its position that climate-resilient communities and economies are critical to the vision of an integrated, and prosperous Africa, which is driven by Africans representing a new and dynamic force on the global stage. The AU launched a climate change plan in 2022 that sets out principles for enhanced cooperation in climate and environmental protection strategies. The climate change plan includes harmonization strategies like coordinating and aligning climate change policies and implementation plans of African countries, supporting concerned institutions for effective policy implementation as well as enabling platforms for dialogue and knowledge sharing. Aside from harmonizing actions to respond to climate-based disasters, the AU climate plan also defines the priorities when it comes to building national resilience to risks related to climate change. Many of the aims within Agenda 2063 and the AU’s climate plan are also related to the UN’s sustainable development goals, which are practically targets that will facilitate sustained development globally. Africa accounts for the smallest share of global carbon emissions at 4 per cent while China and the United States stand at 23 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.  

The more industrialized areas of the world have higher levels of pollution and carbon emission but a disproportionate amount of pressure is put on African countries to adopt climate change strategies and funding even when certain levels of industrialization have not taken place. Studies show that roughly 600 million Africans as of 2022 do not have access to electricity meaning carbon emissions are not as high as mainstream media might lead one to assume about the continent. Regardless, the AU presses on with its ambitious climate plan. 


The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a landmark framework aimed at revolutionizing movement and trade within Africa. As another goal within Agenda 2063, the AfCFTA is intended to facilitate long-term economic development while improving intra-continental trade which is at 15.2 per cent of total trade according to the UN. The AfCFTA treaty was signed in Kigali, Rwanda and was officially established in May 2019. While the agreement has been ratified by 46 countries, the institutional success of the AfCFTA depends on the momentum of member states. A standing advantage for the AfCFTA is to utilize the existing customs unions to facilitate trade which according to research include; the East African Community, the Southern African Customs Union, the Central African Economic and Monetary Community and the Economic Community of West African States. 

It is also of note that challenges to the AfCFTA include poor infrastructure like road and rail networks as well as political instability and border bureaucracy. This is another aspect of AU governance that will require the governments of African countries and the AU to adopt coordinated strategies that enable effective implementation of the AfCFTA. Interestingly, the AU’s 5th Mid-Year Coordination Meeting held in Nairobi in July 2023 adopted a draft resolution. The leaders expressed support for initiatives that boost travel, as well as the ratification of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons which effectively bolstered the AfCFTA agenda. The Economic Commission for Africa predicts that proper implementation of the AfCFTA can improve intra-African trade by 52 per cent which inevitably develops African economies of scale, and increases diversification of African economies. 

Another point of impact the AU looks to develop is value-added manufacturing as well as regional value chains. As the AfCFTA fosters the integration of value chains, the AU can facilitate further industrialization so that Africa moves away from its economic reliance on exporting commodities to local manufacturing. For this to happen in any real and sustainable way, the AU and its member states must harmonize regulations, improve policy, and address infrastructure problems. The rise in support for the AfCFTA combined with the recent calls by different African leaders to commit to its implementation, are all positive indicators to be closely observed. 


As a result of the many armed conflicts taking place on the continent, such as the Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma insurgency in Mozambique, the Boko Haram/Islamic State insurgence in the Sahel, and the civil conflict in Sudan, the AU has faced a crisis of legitimacy because of its apparent inability to effectively facilitate conflict resolution. From the persistent problem of funding shortages to weakened operational mandates, the AU’s ability to guide African development has been questioned. While the AU has recently stepped up conflict mediation efforts around the continent, the many peacekeeping efforts have not yielded the expected results, which further demonstrates a weakness in mediating conflict or building peace. 

The AU seems to have more success in promoting Africa’s economic potential, with a recent example being the implementation of the AfCFTA which is geared to build true continental integration. On the other hand, this is where observation and critique are required the most. It is crucial at this time that leaders and representatives be held accountable by their respective populations as well as dedicated civil organizations. The reason is that for too long, the African people have been promised by their various politicians all sorts of sociopolitical and economic benefits, in exchange for support and these campaign promises have fallen short in almost every context. One only need to observe the economic conditions around African countries like Nigeria, where for instance, a haphazard monetary policy, the 2022 decision to redesign the Nigerian Naira in the short term led to cash hoarding by FX traders and thus a shortage for regular citizens, which in turn further raised food prices, further drove down the buying ability of average Nigerians. Inflation has also burdened local economies and Africans have seen multiple jumps in the prices of fuel and essential goods. 

Contemporary analysis of the AU has shown that there is a dire lack of institutional capabilities, but at the same time, noble initiatives like the AfCFTA and Agenda 2063 show that the AU is seeking to focus resources on achieving the goals therein. The 35th AU summit in January 2022 showed that African leaders had at least started aligning with AU’s priorities of addressing pressing security and governance issues. The summit also saw leaders deliberate the outcomes of the 2021 Glasgow Climate Conference and its implications for Africa. In collective action towards forging multilateral relations, the AU has decided to open a mission in Beijing clearly signalling intent to deepen ties with Africa’s largest trading partner. Moreover, in terms of governance and reform, the need to clarify the relationships between Regional Economic Communities and the AU has been identified as paramount. 

The recent development confronting the AU, in this era of its 60th anniversary, is the rise in calls to join the G20. The G20 is the forum where the most important geoeconomics conversations are taking place, conversely it can be considered as the economic equivalent to the United Nations Security Council within the UN. For a continent with 55 economies, the only representation within the G20 is South Africa which has its own economic priorities and interests which may or may not align to the context and realities of other African countries. Acknowledging the abnormality, it is crucial to understand that South Africa alone cannot represent the interests of the Africa. Moreover with Africa as a single market under the AfCFTA, a continent-wide representation at the G20 is an obvious action to realize. This should not be confused as the need for more African countries to join the G20, but for the AU specifically to join the forum as a representative of collective economic and sociopolitical interests of Africa, similar to the inclusion of the EU even as several European countries make up the core membership.  

With the AfCFTA forging an economic bloc ranked as the 8th largest in the world, AU’s inclusion in the G20 is critical for the promotion of structural solutions that benefit the entire continent. The AU in essence would serve as a vessel for other countries that do not have the same development targets as a country like South Africa. 

The AU and its predecessor the OAU were created as vessels to manifest Africa’s will for self-determination. With the many challenges and successes these organizations represent, the 60th anniversary should be considered as enough time spent taking stock and learning. It is time for the organization to execute its mandate for the benefit of Africans everywhere

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