The African Union’s 25th summit could hardly have got off to a worse start.
It opened more than four hours late, hosts South Africa became embroiled in a legal dispute over whether to arrest Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir for war crimes and genocide while Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who’s been in power since 1980, railed against presidential term limits.
The organizational glitches and presence of some of Africa’s most controversial leaders overshadowed two days of talks in Johannesburg on how the continent can reduce conflict, boost trade and give women a bigger stake in economies. They also underscore the difficulties the group has encountered in forging common ground among the AU’s 54 member nations.
“The AU will continue to struggle going forward because it’s a very complex, diverse, heterogeneous continent,” Jakkie Cilliers, executive director at the Institute for Security Studies, said by phone on Sunday from Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. “Efforts to move toward political and economic integration are often extremely ambitious.”
In his opening address to the summit, President Jacob Zuma said while the AU has made huge strides since it supplanted the Organization of African Unity in 2002, it still had some way to go before it achieves its developmental goals. About 585 million people, or 72 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, still live in or at the brink of poverty, according to the United Nations Development Programme. It didn’t define a poverty measure.
“Africa has taken its destiny, specifically its socio-economic development and integration, in its own hands,” Zuma said. “Africa is thus on a new path of development and growth that will enable it to take its rightful place in global affairs.”
The organization points to a tripling of the size of Africa’s economy since 2002 and a doubling of trade within the continent between 2005 and 2011 as evidence of the advances it has made. It also claims part of the credit for initiating discussions aimed at creating a free-trade zone with a combined size of $2 trillion.
The group is helping advance the continent’s economic agenda, yet still lacks capacity to implement, coordinate and monitor projects, struggles to reconcile regional and national interests and lacks skilled personnel, said Ola Bello, a researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs.
“It’s a vast improvement from where we were 20 years ago,” he said by phone from Cape Town on Sunday. “Africa is broadly moving in the right direction.”
The agency employs about 1,500 full-time staff and has offices in 35 member countries and in Washington, New York, Geneva and Brussels, Idriss Adoum, the group’s administration and human resources director, told reporters in Johannesburg on Monday. The AU stages two summits a year, with a January gathering always held at its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
The AU’s budget for 2015 is about $430 million. About $109 million goes toward salaries and other operational expenses and the balance to funding peacekeeping and other programs. While member states fund the entire operational budget, they cover less than 5 percent of the programs’ budget with the remainder paid for by the European Commission, World Bank, developed countries and other partners.
Its biggest success has been in the arena of advancing peace and security, Cilliers said.
“If you look at the conflicts in Sudan or Burundi or Somalia, today the situation is that African negotiators and leaders and troops are really in the forefront,” he said. “Five or ten years ago it was all European and UN troops and mediators.”
The AU’s most important peace mission is Somalia, where it has deployed 22,000 troops, Smail Chergui, the group’s commissioner for peace and security, told reporters in Johannesburg on Monday. It’s also working with the UN to maintain peace in the Central African Republic, northern Mali and Sudan’s Darfur region, he said.
The organization has demonstrated ambivalence when it comes to promoting good governance. While it urged Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza to step down after a constitutionally mandated two terms and condemned coups in Mali and the Ivory Coast, it appointed Mugabe as its rotating chairman and did nothing to probe allegations that elections he won were marred by violence and irregularities. On June 14 Mugabe said African leaders were expected to apologize for running for a third term while in Europe the practice is accepted.
The group also took no action to investigate or sanction al-Bashir, who the International Criminal Court has indicted twice for war crimes for alleged atrocities in Darfur.
While South Africa, which is a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, granted al-Bashir immunity to attend the AU summit, a court ruled on Sunday that he shouldn’t be allowed to leave the country until it determined whether he should be arrested. He left the country on Monday, State Advocate William Mokhari told the court. The departure violated the court order, Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo said.
“We are seeing discontinuity in terms of the AU and its performance,” Daniel Silke, director of Cape Town-based Political Futures Consultancy, said by phone. “There is a disconnect between the AU’s lofty rhetoric of good governance and the actual performance of individual leaders in Africa.”