African Union leaders. Photo: PressTV

This year, the AU enters its fifteenth year of existence, it is also the year in which the AU elected the fifth chairperson of the AUC, Chadian foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat. Former chairpersons of the AUC have been perceived as ineffectual in resolving conflicts, ensuring accountability for human rights violations and being uncritical of the autocratic rulers that constitute its member states. Arguably the AU’s Constitutive Act, gives little room for initiative by the AUC, article 20(3) of the Act, outlines that the “structure, functions and regulations” are to be determined by the Assembly of the AU.

The Assembly of the AU is comprised of the heads of state of the 54 member states of the AU, of these states only around 10% are ranked as free or democratic by a number of datasets. Four African heads of state have been indicted by the ICC, two of them incumbent presidents. Many others have been accused of rights violations by their citizens.

In 2016 alone, Africa saw elections that returned many long-standing presidents to power in Sao Tome and Principe, Djibouti, the Congo and in Equatorial Guinea where Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who has ruled the country from 1979, won the presidential election by an overwhelming 93.7% of the vote. In Zambia and Gabon, electoral violence surrounded the 2016 elections. Opposition intimidation was used in the Ugandan elections which saw another long-standing president, Yoweri Museveni, return to power. With vote rigging and opposition intimidation now no longer proving enough, last minute gambits to alter constitutions to ensure longer presidential terms are becoming common place in Africa, as seen with Joseph Kabila’s attempts to maintain power.  In many ways the AU is living up to its epithet of an autocrats cohort leaving the AU’s goal of achieving an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa” in the hands of very few democratic states.

This is the Assembly from which the AUC gets it authority, thus can we trust that the AU can fulfil its goals? Arguably, the AU has managed to make some advances towards achieving its mission in the last few years. The initiation of Agenda 2063, paves a way for the socio-economic transformation of the continent. The year 2017 in particular, started off on a high note with the ECOWAS led and AU backed, successful handover of power from Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow in the Gambia. Under Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the years of 2015 and 2016 saw the acceleration of gender mainstreaming. The conviction of former Chadian president, Hissene Habre in May 2016 for crimes against humanity, sexual slavery, war crimes and torture, is a step towards ending impunity on the continent. Lastly, the administering of the first Africa passports to diplomats and heads of state is a step towards the integration of the African continent. 2017 also marks the year in which the AU seeks to focus on the youth who make up 65% of Africa’s population. It seems that in spite of its Assembly, the Union is making some advances, going with the grain rather than against it.

There are however significant challenges ahead for the new chairperson: “Silencing the guns of conflict” by 2020 seems ever more elusive as violent extremism grows on the continent and decades long conflicts continue. Furthermore, the AU’s decision to ensure head of state immunity in the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, cannot be distanced from the AU’s proclivity to accommodating dictatorships and can further enable impunity for human rights violations. Gender-based violence, particularly in conflict continues to be an issue of concern. The readmission of Morocco into the AU proves ideologically contradictory for an organisation that has its roots in the decolonisation of the African continent, given Morocco’s continuing dominion over Western Sahara.  It is furthermore ironic that an ageing AU assembly leadership, whose average member is 65 years, will preside over “the year of the youth” as styled by the outgoing AUC chairperson.

It is thus imperative that Moussa Faki Mahamat transforms the role of the chairperson from mere senior level bureaucrat to one committed to achieving the goals of Agenda 2063, gender mainstreaming and prioritising the youth. Mahamat should play a decisive role in initiating AU agenda and in ending conflict by mainstreaming redress for past violations and prioritising justice and peacebuilding. Elections in 2017 also present an opportunity for the AUC chairperson to encourage peaceful, fair and democratic processes, perhaps a repeat of the Jammeh-Barrow saga. Which can hopefully result in the regional diffusion of peacebuilding and democracy.  The AUC chairperson thus has to continue working with the grain, making progress while containing the autocrats club.

Mamello Mosiana is an intern in the Justice and Peacebuilding Programme at IJR