7 Jun 2013

Midlife crisis or peaceful future? The African Union at 50

by Isabelle Ramdoo.

The African Union (AU) turned 50 on 23rd May 2013. In a person’s life, that’s a major milestone. 
Just remember when you are over the hill, you begin to pick up speed
Charles M. Schulz.

The African Union (AU) turned 50 on 23rd May 2013. In a person’s life, that’s a major milestone. Generally at this age, some are either facing a middle-life crisis or looking back happily at their busy life’s accomplishments, hoping for a peaceful future, but that can be sobering and liberating. Sobering because you suddenly realise that there’s a finite span to accomplish all what you want. Liberating because you make the choice to drop non-essential concerns and to focus on the important things coming ahead.

So it goes for the AU: turning 50 is a milestone, although one can say that for an institution with 53 relatively young independent states, it is an early milestone. Looking back to the genesis of its creation as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), continental institutional building has made considerable strides and merit to be underscored. For instance, the AU Constitutive Act gave the right of intervention in member states, pursuant to a decision by the Assembly, to restore peace and security and prevent crimes against humanity; a significant political advancement from the former OAU Charter that had made State’s sovereignty inviolable. It was not an easy achievement and was even widely opposed by many. Yet it happened, although still on paper. The next 50 years will have to give the means and the political power to the AU to act effectively for Africa to be at peace itself.


At 50, the AU has got its share of political and economic crisis and many are yet to be resolved. For instance, on-going conflicts and tensions, notably in the Sahel region or around the Great Lakes, reveal the mounting challenges that are yet to be understood and resolved by Africans themselves. African politics are still in the making, with the newest born country, South Sudan, being only 2 years old. The economic transformation agenda is also under construction: good economic prospects of the past decade have given rise to promises and expectations.

Despite two lost decades, some countries shown strong resilience through the global economic crisis. However, they are yet to create jobs and competitive economic sectors, away from the excessive dependence on natural resources. More broadly, on the social front, despite much progress in some areas such as infant mortality or life expectancy, many countries will fall short of their Millennium Development Goals targets. Inequality is likely to lead to increasing tensions and the rising middle-class and the bulging youth are still waiting for productive and rewarding employment and quality education. Access to water, energy and functioning infrastructure are not yet up to the level of a rising continent that wants to affirm itself as a global power. In the next 50 years, the AU will have to convince its citizens of its relevance and of its capacity to deliver and lead the continent through a new era.

Today, Africa is experiencing shifting internal dynamics as new powers rise from within. Along with South Africa or Algeria, countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia or Ivory Coast are likely to weigh and count more, not only in their respective regions, but also in continental affairs, shaping the leadership and vision of the continent. Furthermore, fast-changing global geopolitics will open doors for new forms of external partnerships, expected to forge Africa’s voice in foreign policies.


At 50, time has come now to drop the non-essential and focus on the important things. This will certainly need strong vision and political leadership but also effective means and tools to find African solutions to its own challenges. At the same time, it has to maintain the political balance among strong national interests, regional ambitions and pan-African objectives. Getting the internal politics in order and navigating through the complex internal and external dynamics are therefore essential pillars to construct the ideals of pan-Africanism, bearing in mind that this unity will only materialise in recognition of diversity.

The AU will certainly have to make choices and fix priorities. It may require to put in place and use a principle of subsidiarity, where the AU will only focus on key political issues where as a continental institution, it has a clear value added and leave the rest to the regional economic communities or national governments to deal with.
Turning 50 for an institution fortunately does not ring the bell of the finite life span looming ahead. 

However, it calls for the need to step up all efforts to put the continent on the global stage, now and urgently. For example, the AU must become an actor of the global economic and political debates. Africa cannot afford to wait any longer if it wants to become an influential global player: the world is changing fast and only the early bird catches the worm. Navigating global politics through well designed foreign policies, strategic alliances and effective partnerships that work in and for the interests of Africa is therefore central to accomplish the objective that the Summit has set for the next fifty years.

Isabelle Ramdoo is a Policy Officer at ECDPM’s Economic Governance Programme.
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