With the end of the colonial era, the African continent and its resident nation-states were introduced to a number of complex and interconnected challenges. The disparate climates, ethnic groups, economic systems and social hierarchies present on the continent make regional cooperation between neighboring states a difficult proposition.
Considering the far-reaching effects of colonialism and the instability these effects left in their wake, the task of creating a political and economic institution at a regional level is a task that even the boldest policy-maker would be overwhelmed by. There are those, however, who stand resolute in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; such are the men and women who formed the institution that is today the African Union.
The benefits of an economic and political union such as this are compelling to say the least. Other similar institutions such as the EU have been immensely successful in fostering stability, trade, political transparency and social progress all within the space of a few short decades. A similar institution on the African continent, in theory at least, would have much the same effect.
While it remains to be seen to what degree the relatively young African Union will be successful in accomplishing these goals, its very establishment under these conditions merits applause. Already, a number of small but promising advancements have been made towards many of the AU’s stated goals, inspiring a great deal of optimism in many international observers. We’ll explore these advancements presently, but first let’s take a look at the history of the AU.
A short history of the African Union
In 1958, the political and social landscape of Africa was thoroughly different from that of Western Europe, the region where the EU was born. Instead of highly developed, politically stable democracies, the vast majority of African states were unstable fledgling republics or autocratic militaristic regimes. Most of these were in turn plagued by internal instability, political infighting, corruption, economic collapse and outright anarchy.
It was under these dire circumstances that the first attempt at an organization of this nature was made in 1963. With 33 signatory states (all of which had recently freed themselves from colonial rule), the Organization for African Unity was established. While this organization made some progress towards continental cohesion and international commerce, it has a less than illustrious reputation thanks to its failure to adequately protect African citizens from the excesses of their own governments.
Although the OAU failed to make meaningful advancements towards a more developed and prosperous Africa, the idea of a pan-African organization for trade and political integration did not die. After decades of being effectively defunct, the OAU was disbanded and replaced soon after by the newly formed African Union.
June 9th of 2022 will mark 20 years of existence for the relatively young international organization. While it has yet to make much meaningful progress towards curbing corruption and fostering democracy, it has made notable advances towards other admirable goals. Only time will tell whether or not it will ever reach its full potential.
What is the African Union, more exactly?
Unless you have a background in political science or international relations, international governing bodies like the African Union can be a bit of a confusing topic. The relationship between state governments and regional governments is often quite a bit more intricate than simple diplomacy between individual states.
In layman’s terms, the African Union is simply a government that works above the level of the governments of its member countries. Each member state has a say in how the Union is run, but must also abide by the laws of the Union and pay any dues exacted by it. If they fail to do so, they risk being removed from the AU altogether, or even becoming the target of economic sanctions and/or embargoes.
For member countries who abide by the guidelines established in the legislative bodies of the Union, there are a number of benefits to be reaped. The African Union is primarily an economic organization in practice, so member states can take advantage of trade agreements and international treaties that enhance domestic and international commerce.
The AU has also made notable advances in improving the infrastructure and education systems of its member states, significantly elevating the quality of both over the course of its administration. While many advances have yet to be made, there are those that are brightly optimistic about the future of the African Union.
The future of the African Union
Going forward, there’s a fair degree of uncertainty when it comes to predicting the future of the African Union. Many of the member countries of the African Union continue to struggle with the issues that they have faced for decades, calling into question the ability of the organization to adequately address these issues.
As is the case with many organizations of this nature, enforcing the rule of law at a regional or international level is difficult under the best of circumstances. Without a standing army or any reliable means of exerting hard power, the only reliable means of enforcement for regional legislation are sanctions and revoking membership.
Due to the fact that this organization requires the majority of continental African countries to hold membership in order to maintain any efficacy or bargaining power, the latter means of exerting power is virtually impossible. Trade sanctions also present substantial difficulty, as trade negotiations are predicated almost entirely on the AU’s ability to leverage the intent and will of the African continent as a cohesive unit.
In spite of these difficulties, the African Union has been able to make promising advances in trade and commerce, all while maintaining near-complete membership of African countries. The organization has failed or underperformed at many points throughout its short history, but it has also made significant progress towards its goals. Will it be successful, when all is said and done? Only time will truly tell.
With its dark and bloody history of imperialist occupations, European exploitation and neocolonialism, the countries on the African continent are far from the ideal place to build a cohesive economic and political union. Simultaneously, these factors also dictate that it is a place where an organization such as this is more crucial than anywhere else.
Citizens of the world can take comfort in the fact that, at the very least, the very existence of the African Union signals development and further progress for these countries. The organization itself is far from perfect, of course, but with time we are confident that its issues can be addressed and its obstacles overcome.