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The African Union (AU) held its 28th Summit in Addis Ababa recently. The meeting was markedly different to previous ones because the organisation showed it was serious about finding practical, lasting solutions to contemporary continental problems.
Specifically the decision to “deeply” reform the continental body was given new life and uniquely, a report to bring this about was drafted by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. This formed part of a process that kicked off at the mid-2016 summit. Then Kagame – supported by a pan-African advisory team – was given the task of coming up with reform proposals. Importantly, it was recognised that previous attempts at institutional reform had been ineffective.
The report’s recommendations can be summed up as “less is more”. They include the need for fewer strategic priorities and addressing bureaucratic bottlenecks. They also call for a better division of labour between the AU and member states, regional economic organisations and continental organs and institutions. The need to lessen the AU’s dependence on external funding also featured prominently.
In relation to Africa’s external relations – and in the interest of political and operational efficiency – it was recommended that partnership summits such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development convened by external parties should be reviewed “with a view to providing an effective framework” for AU relations.
Besides partnership summits, external engagement in Africa is mainly carried out at the country level. To make sure that the African agenda isn’t externally driven, the report recommended that a central body be created to map, monitor and implement projects. And it recommends a change to Africa’s bilateral engagements.
What remains to be seen are whether the factors that prompted the reform of Africa’s partnerships have been addressed and how and when the changes will be implemented.
Changes to forum meetings
Normally partnership summits are attended by a host of African leaders. At the sixth China-Africa forum meeting in South Africa in December 2015, 48 African leaders were in attendance.
The Kagame report proposes a much smaller delegation made up of the troika (the current, former and incoming AU chairs), the chairperson of the AU Commission and the chairperson of the regional economic communities.
These changes may have implications for Africa’s relations with China. Since 2000 China and African state representatives have been meeting on a triennial basis through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Importantly in 2018 the seventh forum is expected to take place in Beijing.
A handful of representatives meeting China on behalf of the continent is a commendable approach. For years commentators have been advocating for a more unified African voice in engaging external partners, who were at an advantage, as the African side scrambled to forge a common position. Arguably, more can be achieved with fewer voices and with greater consistency and continuity.
The AU and China have already been collaborating more closely. The former became a full forum member in 2011 and China deployed a permanent mission to the AU in early 2015. China also built the impressive new headquarters for the AU in Addis Ababa and has also committed to supporting the body’s Agenda 2063.
It’s still not entirely clear what the impact of the new format on the actual forum ministerial meetings and summits will be. Will it replace the consultation with the African ambassadors in Beijing and host country of the forum ministerial or summit, who together with the Chinese forum secretariat have traditionally managed the forum process?
If so, would this effectively create joint secretariat based in Addis Ababa? This might be a much more appropriate forum given that the city is also the seat of Africa’s key summits and meetings. Consultations with heads of state – or internal African canvassing of views on what Africa wants from China – would also be much easier.
But to realise any of this the chronic failures of the lack of capacity, poor accountability, fragmentation and low levels of trust need to be addressed urgently. Whether this proposal will be ready for 2018 is another issue. For now, forum activities and projects remain funded – and thus largely driven – by China.
Until the details of how this new type of partnership would operate are known, some outstanding nuances should be considered.
First is the symbolic use of summitry. Platforms like the forum are stages where actors showcase their identities, affiliations and role in the world. The symbolism of the long-standing China-Africa friendship, reflected by images of China’s President Xi Jinping brushing shoulders with several African heads of state at the sixth forum, could be potentially scrapped.
Second are China’s bilateral relations with African states. Some nations hold a longer history of relations with China, than the AU. Summits also double up as a reason to make bilateral visits where an impressive laundry list of agreements are often signed. It remains to be seen how bilateral relations (the level at which forum agreements are actually implemented), will be affected by such a new arrangement.
Certainly a better organised AU would fill an important gap in the region’s relations with China. The question is whether the changes will be put into effect. In Kagame’s words:
to fail Africa again would be unforgivable.