Inception of the African Union

The Paradox of National Sovereignty and Unity in Search for Global Parity

By Vistra Greenaway-Harvey - 10th January 2017


The African Union. Three simple words that connote so much, but what do they actually mean? Quite simply the African Union is the African equivalent to the European Union- a political, social and humanitarian organization formed for the furtherance of rights and freedoms for all Africans (Phillips, 2000). But most importantly, it is an institutional manifestation of the ongoing co-operation and unity between African States. Really, it is Pan-Africanism.

Or rather, it is supposed to be.

From the very outset, the concept of African unity has been awkwardly juxtaposed with burgeoning state sovereignty (BBC, 2013). Formed on 25 May 1963, the newly formed African nations were unwilling to surrender their autonomy to the whims of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). An unwillingness that was ingrained in the fabric of the organization itself. The OAU propagated the conflicting visions to unify Africa, but also to “safeguard and consolidate hard fought independence along with the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of each nation state (OAU Charter, 1963: Preamble). Therefore borderlines were prioritised over geographical unity. Arguably, in any international institution, and certainly in the European Union, one of the greatest benefits of unification is the free movement of people between nation states (Sodha, 2015). But for Africa, not only has free movement not been guaranteed within the continent; as Africans continue to rely on expensive – and as Duodu notes “time-wasting” visas to visit each other’s countries (BBC, 2013), the OAU’s determination to protect the new and arbitrary territory lines drawn throughout the continent, and its deference towards strong sovereignty, ensured the organization tied its own hands.

Binding itself into knots of bureaucracy, privilege and self-interest that have been best described as corruption (Oakley, 2001). The OAU’s “central belief” that “nobody should interfere in anyone else’s business” created a paradox of unity where it was consistently praised in its language, but avoided in its practice (Reynolds, 2002). A paradox that guaranteed there was no unity at all: just a collective of dictators.

So,by 1999 the “dictator’s club,” (ibid) sought to reform itself,and the Union that has emerged has undeniably departed from its predecessors “default position of reticence and non-disclosure” (BBC, 2013). However, this transition speaks more to the union’s weaknesses than to its strengths. In the battle between unity and sovereignty the OAU chose sovereignty, and understandably so. With the traumas of colonialism behind them, the OAU were trepid about the threat of neo-colonialism; even their founding charter outlined their resolve “to fight against neocolonialism in all its forms” (OAU Charter, 1963: Preamble).Yet, the modern African Union appears to have chosen a different battle, one which was predominantly concerned with recognition. As the world economy became globalised, their reputation for corruption and dictatorship prevented African states from asserting their “rightful” position. To gain serious trading partners the AU sought to free itself from its chequered past; to become a bona fide European style union.

It cannot be overstated that a primary factor in the transition from the OAU to the AU was to increase and improve international trade (AU, n.d.). Continued African unity was seen to be inextricably linked to the Union’s ability to gain and retain financial links within and beyond the continent. On a common sense view this is incredibly logical, as it is consistently argued that financial control of a region determines its political control (Nkrumah, 1974). Yet the trading relationship that has unfolded between African nations and the international trading partners is markedly uneven (Tull, 2006). As in colonialism, African nations continue to supply corporations with the raw materials they use to further their own extortion, and unsurprisingly, the development is yet to trickle down into the region (The World Bank, 2010). Therefore, one could argue, the move from the isolationism of the OAU has not truly benefited African people. Really, the AU has minimized the extent to which African resilience lines the pockets of corrupt African leaders, and ensured it lines the pockets of external corporations (and in the case of China, nation states). Sadly, the unity that the new union craves remains a lofty ideal.

Presumably because the OAU, despite all its flaws, recognized that it is the “link between states” made “by establishing and strengthening common institutions” that secures authentic unity (OAU Charter, 1963: Preamble). But like the OAU, the African Union remains institutionally weak. The key organs of the AU have little real power. For example, the AU’s new Pan-African Parliament- which was heralded as one of the organization’s great inventions – is of limited use. Shackled by its position as an advisory body, the Pan-African Parliament has no legislative powers, and, as is common with the AU, plans to create such powers are yet to be realized (Hanson, 2009).

However, the greatest institutional weakness of the AU is its complete absence of financial bodies. Article 19 of the Union’s founding charter articulates three financial bodies necessary to support the union: the African Central Bank “to build a common monetary policy and single African currency as a way to accelerate economic integration”; the African Monetary Fund “to serve as a pool for central bank reserves and AU Member States’ national currencies” and the African Investment Bank “to foster economic growth and accelerate economic integration in Africa” (AU, n.d.). Of these, only the African Investment Bank has been formally established, but it is not functional (Union, 2014). Ironically, the impetus for the Investment Bank came in 2007 as the AU grew “increasingly frustrated over wealthy countries’ failure to live up to pledges to double aid for Africa by 2010” (Mangwiro, 2007) yet, the Investment Bank and the African Monetary Fund had the power to “supplant the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and undermine Western economic hegemony in Africa” (Saka, 2012). These organs could have gone a long way to bring Africa the self-reliance they desired.

But perhaps, the AU’s failures symbolise their pragmatism more than their weakness. To formally create a unified Africa poses a substantial threat to the global economic system and capitalism altogether (Brown, 2011). As Marx identifies Capitalism operates when the means of production (materials, factories and labour forces) are privately owned for the benefit of the bourgeoisie (Marx & Engels, 1969). This is a system that is essential for the survival of the Western world, a region with minimal natural resources and an increasingly ageing workforce. Africa, on the other hand, is abundant in natural resources and labourers. It does not need capitalism to survive, yet it relies on it. Attempts to offset the global economic disparities by creating an investment bank; or a single African Currency; trading in Gold as opposed to fiat money or US dollars poses a “threat to the financial security of mankind” and have been recognised as such (Newman, 2011). That these bold steps have been linked to the death of key Pan-African leaders, such as Gaddafi, and the destruction of the countries is beyond the scope of this essay (ibid: Brown, 2011) – but one thing is clear, the AU remain unwilling to unleash this threat.

Alas, in a strange turn of events, African unity has completely turned on its head. The OAU’s regressive penchant for strong sovereignty prevented its member states from submitting to its will, and consequently to true African unity. However, through all the corruption and stigma the OAU were conscious not to surrender their will to foreign desires. Unfortunately, the AU have not carried out this mantle. Their aim to “enable the continent to play its rightful role in the global economy and in international negotiations” (Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa, 2002) is perhaps a slippery slope to neo-colonialism. To prevent further descent, the AU would do well to remember their founding fathers guidance that institutional strength is the key to unity, cast aside fears over disrupting capitalism and emerge as the world-power their resources entitle them to be.

Vistra Greenaway-Harvey

Vistra Greenaway-Harvey is an academic copywriter and legal researcher. As well as African commentary, she drafts consultations and legal submissions for local councils and Fortune 500 companies.

Close Menu