A force for unity or simply toothless? The African Union at 60

The African Union is celebrating 60 years of unity in 2023. The organization has achieved much since its creation, but ongoing conflicts have exposed the difficulties it faces in bringing peace and prosperity to the continent.


The African Union is often criticized as an institution without real power, but for political analysts, the simple fact that it exists is a huge achievement.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) came about in 1963, to drive forward the decolonialization movement started in 1957 with the independence of Ghana. The organization supported independence movements in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Angola and Mozambique, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In 2002, the African Union (AU) replaced the OAU, keeping its headquarters in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

Since then, the union has reached a membership of 55, with the two most recent states joining in the past 12 years: South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July 2011, and Morocco, which joined in January 2017 after years of isolation. But in 60 years, and especially the past two decades, the AU has faced many challenges, especially with the rise of new conflicts.

Rise of strongmen

“In 60 years, the organization has surely given Africans a sense of unity and a place to rally,” says Thomas Kwasi Tieku, a Ghanaian researcher and associate professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who focuses on international organizations, mediation and African politics. “But in 60 years, it should be further [along]. So, to me, the glass is half full, half empty,” he told RFI. Governance has improved, Tieku said, but in terms of security, “we’re in a backsliding position”.

“Africa has known too many military coups,” he said. “Strongmen are still seen as the best way to govern, which led to more authoritarian leaders. This is backward thinking.” More than 200 coups have occurred across the continent since the 1960s.

Terror threats

Senegalese diplomat Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, head of Dakar-based think tank the Institute for Pan-African Strategies, Peace-Security-Governance, told RFI’s Christophe Boisbouvier that the AU has failed to fight the rise of extremist terrorism. “On that issue, we’re going backwards,” he said. He deplores the “hyper-balkanization” of Africa, and the lack of intervention by the AU as well as other African regional bodies. He argues that the problem lies with the AU’s aversion to military intervention in conflicts, which means that those who instigate coups are rarely punished.

Border issues

A driver of conflict lies in the continent’s borders themselves, designed by European powers at the time of colonial conquest. Attempts to redraw them only led to more conflicts, like in South Sudan. Some older borders have also created divisions, like in the Horn of Africa or in the Sahara. “For the political elite and the African Union, it is important to maintain the inherited colonial borders,” Tieku explains. “But not for the Africans themselves, I think. Surveys show that some believe in a softening of this approach.”

According to him, they want fewer cross-border restrictions, for the purposes of work and trade. “Green borders and border towns could benefit from that,” Tieku said, pointing to the example of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

‘Better technocrats’

Many African analysts also point out that the AU’s budget remains small, and member states often neglect their annual dues. Despite this, the AU has never toughened the penalties. But more than money, Tieku says, the AU needs to improve its structures, methods and bureaucracy. “Africa in general needs resources, yes, but it mostly needs better technocrats,” he said.

“And it needs more support and appreciation – by the regional bodies, like Ecowas, as much as the international community, because it is a very useful institution. “It supports African unity, and this is needed for the whole world order,” he concluded.


Posted by on Jun 26 2023. Filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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