Why the Global Importance of the African Union (AU) is Growing

The African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: Ulf Engel
The African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: Ulf Engel
What role do African countries want to play in the globalised world of the future? There has been a growing realisation among African countries over the past twenty years that issues such as the climate crisis, peace, security and trade can only be addressed together and within the African Union (AU). Its predecessor the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established sixty years ago on 25 May 1963 and was then replaced by the AU in 2002. Although it does not have the same role as the European Union (EU), the AU could play a much more important role in the future than it has to date, which would significantly reduce the economic dependency of African countries on other nations such as China. Opportunities could open up that would allow Africa’s integration into globalisation processes to be shaped more strongly from within Africa, says Professor Ulf Engel, professor for African politics at Leipzig University.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was the predecessor of the African Union (AU), was established 60 years ago. What was the goal of the organisation at that time?

The OAU pursued two central goals back then. The first of these was to strengthen the sovereignty of its then 32 member states and to help them find their place within the global situation of the 1960s and the bloc confrontation between East and West, and the second was to advance the decolonisation of the other African countries. Their efforts primarily focused on providing support for the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa and other settler colonies in southern Africa, but also included asserting a path of non-alignment in the Cold War in alliance with other postcolonial states (e.g. from Asia).
These goals shifted when the OAU became the AU in 2002 and also as a result of the global turning point at the end of the Cold War. Today, issues such as peace, security, trade and climate policy are at the centre of the African Union’s policies.

The individual interests of the states are presumably even more pronounced than those of the EU member states. What are the main areas of agreement (common ground) among the member states?

Well, on many issues, the AU member states have invoked their national sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Nevertheless, the 55 member states have been able to agree on a number of common positions over the past almost 20 years. These include the stance on UN Security Council reform, illicit financial flows and drugs, development aid, international migration and natural resource management. The AU Commission speaks for its member states on these issues, primarily to the United Nations and the European Union.
Compared with the European Union, for example, this community method still has a lot of potential. While there are about 310 community policy areas in Europe (that directly affect the member states), there are perhaps two dozen in the AU. In numerous policy areas of the AU, further common positions are not only conceivable, but are also currently being discussed. This process is sometimes laborious, but definitely forward-looking.

Africa has become more central in world politics since the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe has increased and, on the other hand, awareness has grown that Russia and China are massively expanding their influence on the continent, both militarily and economically. Is Africa still the -forgotten continent-?

From the point of view of Germany and the EU as well as other global powers, Africa has certainly long been an important player. For a number of reasons, the continent has become the target of major global governance projects - from China’s New Silk Road to Europe’s Global Gateway project. This has an economic dimension, but if we think about the effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine, it is of course also about geostrategic positioning.
Over the past 20 years, China has made considerable political and economic investments in Africa, which have been very successful in integrating African countries into its own goods and value chains. China has invested substantially in infrastructure projects, thus also creating dependencies (including a new debt spiral for numerous African states). After years of political abstinence, Russia initially acted eclectically and opportunistically on the African continent. In recent years, however, Russia has invested significantly in conflict hotspots (e.g. Libya, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic) with the aim to undermine the West’s political positions, build its own geostrategic influence and profit from illicit economies (e.g. in the gold trade).

Where do you see the African Union heading in the coming years?

The African Union is currently seeking to redefine its strategic partnerships with the United Nations and the European Union, but also with bilateral partners such as China, Japan, South Korea and Turkey. If these partnerships can be strategically aligned with fundamental AU interests, opportunities will open up for Africa’s integration into current globalisation processes to be shaped more strongly by Africa as well.
At the same time, the process of institutionalisation and professionalisation of the AU itself will undoubtedly proceed. However, the AU-s ability to represent the interests of its member states globally will depend largely on its ability to substantially reduce its dependence on international donors (currently, about 66 per cent of the AU budget comes from international partners).
The transformation of the OAU into the AU created important preconditions for the AU to take on an active global role, which must now be painstakingly expanded and then exploited.

Ulf Walther / Translation: Kerstin Gackle