Africa China Diplomacy & International Relations globalization History Policy Politics & Government Security Social Issues Sub-Saharan Africa Terrorism

Is the African Union Another Puppet Institution for China and the West?

The AU has made great strides towards its purpose, but lack of real political power and alarming dependency on foreign powers may well result in its own demise. 

We often hear about the European Union (EU), especially in relation to the Brexit deal in recent years. A rarity in the media, on the other hand, is the EU’s black counterpart, the African Union (AU). 

The AU began as a pan-African vision aimed at uniting Africans and fighting against colonization in the early ‘60s. This vision morphed into The Organization of African Unity (OAU), Africa’s first post-independence continental institution. In May of 1963, 33 independent African states met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to sign the OAU Charter with five main objectives: 1. Promote the unity and solidarity of the African States 2. Coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa 3. Defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and independence 4. Eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa 5. Promote international cooperation, having due regard to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A few decades later, having largely succeeded in their fight against colonialism, heads of state and the OAU agreed that there needed to be a shift in this charter’s objective from decolonization to increasing economic cooperation and integration among independent states. Therefore, in September of 1999, 54 independent states formed the African Union guided by the vision of “An Integrated, Prosperous and Peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena,” headquartered again in Addis Ababa.

Eleven organs support this prosperous and peaceful Africa ranging from the judicial wing to the economic development sector, the most prominent being the Economic, Social, and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC). In the last 20 years, these organizations have made significant progress towards the AU’s overall goal. 

For example, the AU has successfully integrated all 54 countries both at regional and international levels with regard to economic prosperity. These regional blocs divide the continent into three as the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States, and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), similar to the EU. While the AU has integrated these nations structurally, which has allowed them to be some of the fastest-growing countries in the world, there is still a lot of work to be done. 

The most prominent economic challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa is that nearly 60% of the population is less than 25 years old and are coming of age in a time of extreme job scarcity. A large youth population would be vital in driving the workforce and, in return, the economy, but the lack of employment opportunities has stifled the continent’s potential. And unfortunately, the AU has not been able to address that problem. 

Additionally, its lack of genuine political influence has also been a hindrance to pan-African peace. The sphere of influence an institution like the AU should have been occupying is slowly being weakened and replaced by other outside actors such as China. 

China-Africa relations can be traced back to when African states were beginning to gain their independence. Before the AU, China had already established good relationships with specific African countries, but with the founding of the AU in the late 90s, China got the opportunity to be more involved with Africa as a whole, including states who were wary of Beijing´s influence. According to the World Bank, China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner, with Chinese goods amounting to roughly 20% of Africa’s imports while also being the destination of over 15% of the continent´exports. In addition to trade, China is also one of the largest foreign investors in Africa, which has impeded the AU as much as it has benefitted it. 

As China’s investments go into infrastructure across the continent, a lot is also in the form of the African Union’s IT network, providing it access to high-level technology. In 2018, Le Monde’s investigative reporting discovered that China had been stealing confidential data from the AU on a daily basis from 2012 to 2017. Both parties (China and the AU) denied it vehemently even after multiple other investigations confirmed Beijing’s hacking. Under any other circumstance, there would have been severe consequences for China imposed not only by the AU but by the international community as a whole. Despite China’s clear abuse of power, the AU was held hostage by its suffocating dependence on China and its aid.

This development is reminiscent of European colonialism on the continent that demanded the formation of the OAU and the AU in the first place. There are many undeniable benefits to China’s involvement in Africa, but foreign interference of this caliber is the very reason institutions such as the AU were formed. And when even that institution is infiltrated by external forces such as China through illegal means, then the independent, pan-African vision chased for the last five decades is de facto meaningless. The African Union needs to reevaluate its relationship with China and regroup to affirm the AU’s ability to stand on its own first before reaching out to foreign actors for economic or political support. 

On the other hand, the AU has found more notable success in its peacekeeping mission by effectively assisting member countries in their fight against terrorism, an example being in Somalia. In 2004, a transitional Somalian government was formed while in exile in Nairobi, Kenya. In view of this development, with the support of al-Shabab, a terrorist group that later integrated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an armed political organization, took control of Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu. With the United Nations’ approval, the African Union formed a peacekeeping force known as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to help the government end the ICU´s and al-Shabab’s control of the capital. Even as al-Shabab continued to garner manpower and financial support from other terrorist organizations, the AMISOM successfully pushed al-Shabab out of the capital and safely reinstated the federal government. While the fight against al-Shabab has had its ups and downs, especially once it joined forces with al-Qaeda, the African Union and its allies have been able to slowly weaken the guerrilla group and even restored relations with the US in 2013, which had refused to recognize the government of Somalia for decades. Despite all these accomplishments, al-Shabab is still a powerful terrorist organization that continues to inflict harm on Somalia and neighboring states today. The future of East Africa, especially as it grapples with increasing terrorist activities, is unclear, but what is clear is that the African Union continues to be a powerful player in ridding the region of terrorist influence. 

The goal of fending off colonialism came to fruition under the OAU, but it seems that post-colonial economic development and peacekeeping form a more challenging plight. The AU has made great strides towards its purpose, but lack of real political power and alarming dependency on foreign powers may well result in its own demise. 

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By Kalkidan Alemayehu

Kalkidan is a Political Science major with an emphasis in International Relations at UCLA. She is pursuing a career in international development and poverty reduction.

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