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The African Union: Real power or just a dictators’ club?

The African Union represents over one billion people, with all but one African state being a member. It’s a big organization with big ambitions. In 2023 they plan to establish an economic union with a common currency on the whole continent. But what is the union all about and what has it achieved so far?

The current African Union (AU) was formed in 2002, after succeeding the Organization for African Unity. The AU aims to promote political and economical unity among its members. The goal is to promote good governance and democracy within the union. The headquarters is situated in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia and the $200 million complex was built by China, inaugurated in 2012 and is the highest building in Addis Abeba. Morocco is the only African country that is not represented because they withdrew from the union as the union backs the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s freedom. The Central African Republic is suspended because of the civil war.

Perhaps even more important than what AU is today is what it might become. Inspired by the European Union, the AU is looking to become a global player. With Africa being the world’s fastest growing region economically, the AU could make Africa a big political power in the world, A new position for the continent. With plans on introducing a common currency, the afro, the AU could transform the African market.

Current AU chairman Robert Mugabe
Current AU chairman Robert Mugabe

But how is it going so far?

There has been much criticism of the union, as its predecessor OAU, has been blamed for being disconnected from the African people. Sometimes being dubbed “The Dictator’s Club”, many have said that it is a place where politicians go to meet and greet before going back to their under-developed nations. Despite being meant to promote democracy and good governance, the AU has shown to be lacking force when observing elections. They haven’t been intervening when there are clear signs of rigged elections. Electing the critizised Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, (Zimbabwe’s leader since 1980) as chairman of the union in January did not help the AU’s reputation. When comparing the charter of the AU with the charter of the UN, critics state that the basic problem is already found in the first sentence. The UN charter starts off by saying: “We the people of the United Nations…” and the AU: ” We the heads of the state and government…”.

Even though the union has faced a lot of criticism, good things are being said about the AU as well. Being the primary place where African top leaders meet, it provides a great opportunity to lay down a common direction of progress for the continent. Even though the union by many is seen as a toothless dictators’ club, underneath the top level of leaders, good work is done. For example, it is currently trying to solve the migrations crisis that causes trouble for a lot of African states. It has also strengthened the African voice in global politics. It has a strong presence in the United Nations, and a unified African voice could have a strong impact on a global scale. Also, the union has a strong symbolic value. The sole fact that Africa has a unifying organization like the AU is seen as an important contrast to the days of colonialism. However, this idea is stained by the fact that the AU still relies strongly on foreign aid. Many view a change of this as a vital part of further legitimizing the union.

The AU has also played an important part in Somalia, where they have deployed a peacekeeping mission since 2007. Somalia today is much more stable than before the AU’s intervention. Al-Shabab has lost almost all of the key towns they had seized in Somalia. Somalia today has a formal government and elections were held in 2012, the first elections since 1967. The government even launched postal services in 2014, which had not existed for more than two decades. The presence of AU troops is seen as a big contribution to this progress.

Despite these positive achievements, the African Union still has a long way to go if it aims to become the progressive organization that many Africans dream of. To break free from “the dictator’s club” it needs to show the people of Africa that it can achieve hands-on progress for the continent. Even though much criticism has been aimed at the union one should not underestimate the potential power that the African Union could have. If the AU managed to lay down a common strategy for Africa economically, and help to strengthen the democracy in African states, it could help the development of Africa and also become a huge global player in the future. Some positives signs can be seen today, but much more work is needed if the union succeed in its goal of promoting good governance, democracy and economic progress in Africa.

Vilhelm Fritzon

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