Commission to Authority: Shifting the African Union balance of power

3 March 2009

The long-standing debate on the creation of a Union Government in Africa, spearheaded by the Libyan leader Moammar Qadaffi, seems to have been given an impetus by the African Union (AU): the AU replaced its executing agency, the AU Commission, with an “Authority,” during its latest Summit of Heads of States and Governments in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 4-5 February 2009.

The establishment of the AU Authority with possibly more executive powers is, for some, a step closer to a Union Government given its potential to create a pan-African body with enough executive power to accelerate continental integration. Now the question is whether the decision to transform the AU Commission into an Authority begins the process of re-aligning the balance of power between member states and the AU.

When the African Union replaced the forty-nine year-old Organisation for African Unity (OAU) in 2002 it was hoped that the then newly-established AU Commission (AUC) would be given a stronger mandate to lead on continental matters. Yet, the same vague powers and organisational inefficiencies from the OAU Secretariat plagued the AUC, leading to its call for more executive powers and resources. (1) Challenges were further exasperated by Qadaffi’s proposal, which provoked intense debates within the AU.

How the Executive Council of Ministers will define the mandate, powers, responsibilities, and size of the new AU Authority will determine how well it will function. To this end, there are a number of points to consider.

First, demonstrable, strong political commitment to empower the Authority is required if it is to be truly stronger than the Commission. Yet, ambiguity exists over whether the recent Summit decision was the result of a ‘natural convergence of ideas’ on the need to move forward gradually, or a compromise to please Qadaffi as the new AU Chairman. The two are not mutually exclusive but the balance between them is crucial. If the decision is a result of Qadaffi’s pressure, then the Authority is undermined.

Second, the creation of a strong Authority entails shifting power between the periphery and the centre. Ironically, the February decision deferred to the Executive Council—a crucial source of authority for member states— to decide the exact amount of power to be ceded from members. Given the reluctance to delegate control to the inter-state institutions in Africa, whether member states will relinquish some of their executive clout to the Authority is uncertain.

Third, for the Authority to function fully capacitated, delegated political powers are not sufficient; financial commitments from member states are also necessary, which raises the related issue of membership fees currently unpaid by many African states.

Fourth, a powerful executive organ at the centre of the AU is inextricably dependent on the model of integration the organisation adopts. This project must be linked to the overhaul of the entire continental governance architecture towards a supra-national organisation with a distinct institutional mandate to act on behalf of Africa, rather than an intergovernmental institution that shares its powers with member governments. Should it not function as such, a strong Authority runs the risk of engaging in a power struggle with member governments accustomed to having excessive influence over the AUC.

Fifth, given that the AU makes decisions by consensus, a powerful Authority requires a significant meeting of the minds; consent among member states is necessary for proposals to pass. Yet, given the ambiguity over the motivation for the recent Summit decision, how much consensus there is remains unclear.

Sixth, the success of the Authority may affect other AU organs, including the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Similarly, the Pan-African Parliament, which brings national parliaments closer to continental structures, should be clarified. If Authority powers are not neatly carved, the effects on such initiatives may be negative. However, if this initiative generates a better resourced and more efficient centre, the impact will be positive. The challenge is to define how the Authority will enable AU organs to work coherently and effectively to achieve common goals.

Seventh, participatory governance must be enhanced by involving civil society in the creation, transition, and functioning of the Authority. The transition envisaged provides an opportunity for Africa to improve the legitimacy and credibility of continental governance systems.

Finally, the ultimate utility of the Authority will be in how it generates better delivery on poverty reduction, free movement of people and goods, regional and continental infrastructure development, climate change, AIDS, research, centres of excellence, international trade negotiations, and peace and security.

Faten Aggad is a Programme Officer at ECDPM. Siphamandla Zondi is the Programme Director for Africa at the South African-based Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD).

1. See page 7 of the Strategic Plan for 2004-2007 of the Commission of the AU,

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