How will AU reforms impact on relationships with key partners?

Cedric de Coning, How will AU reforms impact on relationships with key partners?, 2018 Tana Papers, Addis Ababa: IPSS, available at:


Executive summary

The African Union functions in an international global governance system that includes the United Nations and regional organisations such as the European Union or the League of Arab States, but also the Regional Economic Communities. At the same time, the AU has several bilateral partnership arrangements, for example with China, Japan, the Nordic group and Turkey. The AU also increasingly has formal relationships with African and international civil society organisations. It is thus not possible for the AU to reform itself without  considering how its reforms may impact on its relations with these partners. In fact, some of the proposed reforms are explicitly aimed at reducing the transaction costs associated with maintaining these partnership arrangements. In this paper, the focus is on the implications of the AU reforms for the relations between the AU and its partners. We argue that whilst the reform process is necessary, and broadly supported by the partners, some of the partnership related reforms are unrealistic, others lack nuance, and a few may end-up undermining the very efficiencies the reforms are meant to achieve.


Key points

  • The AU exist within an international system, and in relation to other international and regional organisations, states and CSOs. The AU reforms cannot be assessed in isolation from these relationships.
  • Some of the proposed reforms are aimed at making these relationships more efficient, by reducing the transaction costs associated with maintaining these networks. Others may have an indirect effect on AU-partner relations.
  • Each of the AU’s relationships with its partners is unique and have to be considered within its specific context. One-size-fits-all proposals lack the specificity needed to improve the efficiencies the AU wants to achieve. The AU would need to engage with each set of partners, and seek mutually agreed solutions so that the AU’s partners co-own and conjointly reinforce the AU’s reform efforts.



The African philosophy of Ubuntu holds that one can only have meaning in the context of your relationship to others and your embeddedness in a social system.[i] If one were to analyse the African Union (AU) from an Ubuntu perspective, we could argue that its purpose, role and added value is revealed through the prism of its relations with others. For the AU this would include its relationship with Member States, the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and Regional Mechanisms (RMs), the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) and other regional organisations, as well as its bilateral partners, for instance, countries like China, India, France, Japan, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA). Increasingly the AU also has formal relationships with African and international civil society organisations (CSOs).

In this paper, the focus is on the implications of the AU reform process for the relations between the AU and its key partners. We explore how the proposed reforms may impact on these relationships, and what the implications may be for the state of peace and security in Africa.



Two sets of AU reforms are of particular importance, namely the institutional and the financial. The institutional reforms have several elements that may impact on the AU’s partnerships.[ii] The first is to get the AU to focus on fewer priorities, namely political affairs, peace and security, economic integration and Africa’s global representation. The second is to clarify the division of labour and to enhance the collaboration between the AU and RECs. The third is to realign the AU’s institutions so that they can deliver on key priorities. The fourth is to better connect the AU to its citizens. The last element is the efficient functioning and management of AU, both at the political and operational levels. The political level refers to the inter-state level, and here the focus is on improving the effectiveness of the AU summits. The proposal is that there should be no more than three strategic issues per summit and only one summit per year.

The financial reform package is aimed at addressing the dependence on international partners by introducing an alternative financing model that is meant to generate self-sustainable funding for the Union and increase the ownership of its Member States. The AU has become reliant on the EU and its bilateral partners for its programme and peace support operations expenditure.[iii] In 2015, AU Member States committed to self-finance 100 percent of the AU’s regular budget, 75 percent of its programme budget, and 25 percent of its peace support operations (PSOs) by the year 2020.[iv]

This commitment was followed up at the AU Assembly in Kigali in July 2016, where a decision was taken to implement a 0.2 percent levy on eligible imports to Africa, and to institute a new governance regime for the AU Peace Fund that would enable it to serve as the single account for AU peace and security activities.[v]

Both the institutional and financial reforms may have significant implications for the relations between the AU and her various partners. In the following sections, we will consider each of these relationships separately, before concluding with some overall observations and recommendations.


Relationship with the RECs/RMs

The relationship between the AU and the RECs/RMs is in a different class than those between the AU and her international partners. The RECs/RMs are located within the continent and are the building blocks of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and its pillars, such as the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) or the African Standby Force (ASF). In other contexts, they are recognised as separate legal entities, several predating the AU, with whom the AU needs to have formal, including legally defined, relationships.[vi]

The AU reform proposals recognise that addressing the AU-REC/RM relationships, and trying to resolve some of these long-standing tensions, is critically important for the efficient and effective function of the AU. Towards this goal, the reform package has a number of proposals that specifically address the AU-REC/RM relationship.

Firstly, it proposes that the second annual AU Assembly should be repurposed and dedicated to a coordination meeting between AU-RECs[vii]: this could be a meaningful step towards a much closer relationship between the AU and RECs/RMs, and we recommend that the logic of this approach should be followed through to include regular and institutionalised meetings between the PSC and its REC counterparts, and joint missions to continental trouble-spots.

We would recommend that this kind of cooperation at the political level should be underpinned by regular and institutionalised meetings between the senior leadership of the AU and the RECs/RMs, and desk-to-desk information sharing exchanges. The practice of exchanging liaison officers has improved coordination, and the role of the liaison offices should be further strengthened.[viii]

We also recommend that the AU and RECs pursue much closer cooperation in the field. For example, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) could more closely coordinate their support to a country like The Gambia, and consider the degree to which their deployments and offices in the country can be integrated and co-located. In future, hybrid AU-REC PSOs, similar to the AU-UN hybrid operation in Darfur, could address the tensions that have emerged between the AU and RECs in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, around the question of who is best placed to lead a specific mission.

Secondly, the reforms propose that there should be a clear division of labour and effective collaboration between the AU and RECs/RMs, member states and other African institutions in line with the principle of subsidiarity and the Abuja Treaty. These proposals have been further elaborated to suggest the development of a continental medium-term plan to align AU-REC priorities, with an accompanying financial plan and robust coordination mechanisms. Whilst some hold out the possibility of a clear division of labour in line with the principle of subsidiarity, we are sceptical that such a clear division of labour is possible or even desirable. The AU-REC/RM experiences in Burundi, CAR, Mali and Somalia, to name a few recent examples, have shown that each situation is unique and that no one model of subsidiarity can accommodate each situation. Instead, in each case, a particular division of work emerged based on the actual relations and comparative advantages of the different actors on the ground.[ix]

Each of the RECs/RMs has different capabilities, and each has its own unique political and bureaucratic structures and histories. We argue that a one-size-fits-all solution is likely to lack the specificities necessary to enable the AU and RECs/RMs to identify each other’s comparative advantages in relation to a specific crisis. Even if it is possible to negotiate and agree on a clear division of labour between the AU and the RECs/RMs, such an agreement is likely to trap the AU-REC/RM relationship into an overly rigid model, and that could result in a security arrangement that is even less effective than the current situation.

The alternative we would recommend is to invest in a flexible framework agreement where the division of labour is agreed on the basis of who has the comparative advantage in a particular context: this will enable the AU and the RECs/RMs to find pragmatic context-specific solutions. The transaction costs involved in such an arrangement can be reduced by institutionalising predictable coordination and cooperation mechanisms and processes, including regular information exchanges, joint assessment missions, joint analysis, joint planning, joint deployments, co-location, and joint evaluations.

Thirdly, the reforms propose that the number of RECs and RMs should be reduced, rationalized and harmonized, because currently there is overlap and duplication amongst RECs/RMs, and this results in a waste of resources and dispersed impact.[x] Whilst that may be an accurate assessment, it is difficult to see a scenario in which any of the RECs would voluntary disband. Perhaps a more likely scenario is that some of the RECs and RMs could merge, for instance in East Africa and the Horn, or that the member states of a REC like the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) could agree, in order to avoid duplication, not to pursue a peace and security role. There may also be a need for new RECs or RMs, for instance in the Sahel, where the absence of a functioning REC or RM in the North has left a gaping hole in the AU’s regional building-block model.

It is concerning that a REC like SADC has expressed reservations about the AU reform process at the January 2018 AU Assembly, which seems to stem mainly from concerns with the process, and feelings of lack of consultation and transparency.[xi] We recommend that those leading the AU reform process significantly increase their engagement with the RECs/RMs so that they feel they co-own and co-shape the process that will determine how the AU and REC/RM relate to each other in future.


Relationship with the United Nations

The relationship between the AU and the UN is not directly affected by the AU reform proposals. None of the proposals has a direct impact on the specific elements of the relationship, partly because the UN is not seen as a ‘partner’ in the same way the EU or bilateral partners relate to the AU, in that there are no AU-UN joint summit arrangements.

The AU-UN relationship used to be more like a donor-recipient relationship where the UN’s role was to build the capacity of the AU. The AU took a conscious decision to change that a decade and a half ago, and have since succeeded in transforming the AU-UN relationship into a functioning strategic partnership.

One area that is still unresolved relates to the financing of AU peace support operations authorised by the UN under chapter VIII of the UN Charter. The AU argues that when the UN tasks it with such operations it should also provide the AU with the resources needed to achieve its mandate. The UNSG and several UN Member States support the AU position.[xii] However, to date, the prevailing view in the UNSC is that the UN should assist the AU to mobilize resources by encouraging partners and by facilitating the establishment of Trust Fund arrangements, but that its obligation does not extend to directly financing AU operations. However, in Sudan, Mali, CAR and Somalia the UNSC has authorized, on a case-by-case basis, the UN to assist AU PSOs with various form of direct and indirect support, utilising the UN’s assessed contribution budget. The issue that is currently being considered is whether the UNSC should make an in-principle commitment to finance AU PSOs.

In this debate a number of pre-conditions have been identified, namely that the AU take steps to ensure that its PSOs adhere to international human rights, international humanitarian law, and related conduct and discipline standards, that the AU provide access to UN auditors, and that the AU finances at least 25% of the cost of its PSOs itself.[xiii] The AU has taken steps towards meeting these pre-conditions, and the UN Secretariat and a number of UN Member States have expressed satisfaction with the progress made. It is likely that the AU, the UNSG and the several UN Member States will keep this issue on the agenda of the UNSC, but it is unlikely that the Council will, in the next 12 to 24 months, commit itself in-principle, to directly financing AU PSOs authorised by the UNSC.

At the UN a number of reforms are also underway, and there is thus a need for the AU and UN to remain closely coordinated, at all levels, to ensure that both can adapt their relations to their respective reform processes, as well as in response to the existing and emerging operational challenges they face.


Relationship with the European Union

The EU is the AU’s largest and most important financial partner. Both the AU and the EU would like their relationship to become more strategic, but currently, the scope and associated transaction costs of the financial dimension of their relationship dominate the dynamics between them.

The AU/Africa-EU relationship has several dimensions. One dimension of the EU-Africa relationship has been informed by the Lomé and Cotonou Agreements between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states, which is up for renegotiation later this year. Another dimension is informed by the Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) that was adopted at the Lisbon Summit in 2007. The EU has signalled its intention to upgrade the JAES with an EU-Africa Protocol.[xiv]

The AU-EU relationship will be affected by both the proposal to limit partner presence at AU summits, as well as to reduce the participation of African Heads of State and Government (AHSG) at AU-partner summits to the Troika. More importantly, the AU-EU relations will be indirectly affected by the rest of the AU reform package, especially the financial reforms. The more successful the AU’s attempts at increasing Member State contributions are, the less direct budget support the AU would need from the EU, and the more the EU would be able to utilise that support for the capacity building or other purposes. It is thus not surprising that the EU has been a strong supporter of the AU’s financial reforms.

With regard to limiting partner presence at AU summits, the EU has the same concerns as the bilateral partners and aligns itself with the proposals made by the partners, that is discussed in the next section. With regard to reducing the participation of AHSG at partner summits, the EU would argue that it is in a special category because AU-EU summits are meetings where several heads of state and government of both the AU and the EU gather. These types of summits differ from those where several AHSG meet with one partner. The AU-EU summits are likely to continue in their present form.

Another issue was the frequency of these summits. To reduce transaction cost, the AU proposed to reduce the frequency of AU-EU summits from three to five-year cycles. No decision has been taken yet on this aspect, but the 2017 AU-EU summit in Abidjan closed without agreement on the date of the next meeting.

There are also calls to better incorporate the EU into the good working relationship that has emerged between the AU and the UN. At the 2017 AU-EU summit the AUC Chairperson, the UNSG and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, agreed to further strengthen this trilateral cooperation.


Relations with bilateral partners

The AU has a large number of bilateral relationships and partnership arrangements, ranging from relationships with individual states, such as for instance the formalised relationship between Norway and the AU Commission, to partnership arrangements between African states and specific countries, such as the relationships with China, India, Japan, the Nordic Group and Turkey.

Two aspects of the AU reform package will have a direct influence on these partnership arrangements, namely the proposal to reduce the number of African countries that participate in Africa-partner summits, and the proposal to limit the participation of partners at AU Assemblies.

The first proposal was that instead of all the African countries meeting regularly with partners, such as during the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC), or the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), only the Troika, the AUC Chairperson, the Chairpersons of the RECs and the Chairperson of NEPAD, should represent Africa at these bilateral summits. Such a proposal intends to reduce the transaction costs, both in terms of time and costs, associated with these summits. However, some of these partners, as well as some African countries, have expressed doubt that this proposal will achieve its aim, as the summits also provide both individual African countries and their counterparts the opportunity to discuss bilateral relations.[xv] A more likely outcome is that the reforms result in a reducing the frequency of the partner summits.


The second proposal is aimed at reducing the presence of partners at the AU Assemblies. The AU decision of January 2017 stipulated that “external parties shall only be invited to Summits on an exceptional basis and for a specific purpose determined by the interests of the African Union.”[xvi] In fact, this has been the practice since 2016, when only the heads of mission of AU partner missions have been invited to the opening and closing sessions of the Executive Council and the Assembly. The practice arose because of a concern that the participation of high-level partner delegations became disruptive when they drew high-level African officials away from Summit meetings to attend bilateral meetings on the margins.

In response to this proposal, some of the partners have submitted a non-paper to the AU that contains a range of possible models for a structured and predictable engagement of partners at the annual January AU Summits.[xvii] Overall these partners argue that whilst they recognise the AU’s concerns, they believe modalities can be found that that mitigates the concerns of the AU Commission and preserve the African focus of the AU summits, whilst at the same time providing opportunities for high-level strategic dialogue with AU partners. The partners argue that convening such a large number of heads of state and ministers at AU Assemblies presents a unique opportunity for partners to engage with African counterparts. The proposals of the partners are aimed at creating opportunities for exchanges at the political level, i.e. Ministers of Foreign Affairs.

The proposal by the partners states that they would welcome the establishment of dedicated time for bilateral meetings with their African counterparts.[xviii] To do so in the most time efficient manner, hence minimising disruption to Assembly proceedings, this would ideally take place onsite at the AU compound. They then proceed to highlight a few options. The first is for a half-day partner dialogue event during the annual January Executive Council session before the Assembly. The second and third is to provide access for meetings on the margins of the Executive Council, and eventually on the margins of the summit. The fourth is for a combination of the first three, and the fifth option is the addition of a day or half-day for dialogue with partners following the summit.


This aspect of the reforms is intended to reduce the transaction costs of partnership summits as well as the impact of partner delegations at AU Assemblies. However, it appears that both some African states and partners find that these summits provide valuable opportunities to meet several partners in one location and that, compared to the need to otherwise travel to each partner for separate bilateral meetings, the summits help all the parties to reduce transaction costs. It is thus likely that the AU Commission and partners will find a more nuanced formula to allow for some form of partner engagements on the margins on the Executive Council and Assemblies.



Relations with civil society


The AU has increasingly, in line with the Livingstone Formula, entered into formal relationships with African and international CSOs, and several African and international CSOs now have liaison offices at the AU Commission. These engagements recognise that CSOs play a critically important role in several specialised areas on the continent and that states and multilateral organisations like the AU function more effectively and efficiently when they engage constructively with civil society.


The AU reform package includes the goal to better connect the AU to its citizens. The focus of this aspect of the reform proposals is to enhance the recruitment, participation and engagement of women and youth in the work of the AUC. The focus on women and youth indirectly imply closer cooperation with CSOs that represent women and youth. However, the reforms are focused on recruiting more women and youth: this is an unfortunate missed opportunity, as much more could have been done in the current reform package to enhance the relationship between the AU and African and international CSOs.



One cannot analyse the AU’s reform process without also taking into account what the implications are of these reforms for the AU’s relations with its key partners.

The relationship with the RECs and RMs feature prominently in the reform proposals; however, consultations with the RECs and RMs would have to be significantly intensified before the reforms will be co-owned and co-shaped by the RECS/RMs.

In contrast, the AU-UN relationship has significantly improved over the last decade and has transformed into a meaningful strategic partnership. There is much the AU, and RECs/RMs can learn from this experience, including especially the degree to which practical coordination and cooperation, at the political, policy and operational levels, have resulted in strengthening this strategic relationship.

The relationship with the EU is significant for the AU, but it is overshadowed by the AU’s financial dependency on the EU. This relationship will not become as strategic as both partners desire until this imbalance is addressed. The AU also has relationships with other regional organisations, like the League of Arab States, but these are not likely to be notably influenced by or have an impact on, the AU reforms.

The AU has multiple partnership arrangements with specific countries or groupings, such as the Nordic group. Some of the AU reforms are aimed at reducing the transactions costs associated with managing such a large portfolio of relationships. The early reactions to many of the proposed reforms reflect that partners recognize the AU’s need to improve the efficiency of how it manages these relations and that they are willing to work with the AU to find more nuanced ways of reducing transaction costs.

The AU reform package includes the goal to better connect the AU to its citizens. The focus of this aspect of the reform proposals is to increase the recruitment of women and youth: this is an unfortunate missed opportunity, as much more could have been done through this reform process to enhance the relationship between the AU and African and international CSOs.


The AU has a legitimate goal to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Union and the Commission. The rest of the international system will welcome a stronger AU that can take an even greater role in co-managing international peace and security. However, an overarching observation that emerges from the analysis in this paper is that the AU needs to invest significantly more effort into engaging with its partners if it wants them to co-own and support the AU’s reform package.

[i] See Gibson, J.M. 2002. Truth, justice and reconciliation: Judging the fairness of amnesty in South Africa, American Journal of Political Science, 46(3): 540-556, p. 543.

[ii] Progress Report on the Implementation of the Decision Assembly/AU/Dec.635 (XXVIII) on the African Union (AU) Reform, Assembly of the African Union, 30th Ordinary Session, 28-29 January 2018, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[iii] African Union. 2016. Securing Predictable and Sustainable Financing for Peace and Security in Africa, Addis Ababa: African Union.

[iv] Okeke, J.M. 2017. In pursuit of pragmatism: the Peace and Security Council of the African Union and regional peace support operations, New York: Social Science Research Council.

[v] Securing Predictable and Sustainable Financing for Peace and Security in Africa. 2016, p. 3.

[vi] See for instance the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the AU and the RECs.

[vii] From its inception until 2018, the AU have had two summits per year, one in January in Addis Ababa, and one hosted by a Member State.

[viii] Momodu, R. 2017. African Integration: Re-setting the AU-REC Relationship – Policy Options Beyond Kagame Reform, New York: Social Science Research Council.

[ix] de Coning, C. 2016. ‘Adapting the African Standby Force to a just in time model’, in de Coning, C. Gelot, L. & Karlsrud, R. 2016. The Future of African Peace Operations: From the Janjaweed to Boko Haram, Zed Books: London.

[x] Progress Report on the Implementation of AU Reform, 2018, p. 4.

[xi] Okeke, J.M. 2018. Ambition versus Realism: Evaluating the Prospects of Success of the African Union Institutional Reform Agenda, Addis Ababa: Tana Forum, p. 14

[xii] Speech delivered by UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 30th AU Summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 28 January 2018.

[xiii] African Union. 2015. Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on follow-up steps on the Common African Position on the Review of United Nations Peace Operations, Addis Ababa: African Union.

[xiv] Mackie, J. Ronceray, M. and Tadese, L. 2018. Challenges for Africa-Europe Relations: A chance to get it right, Maastricht: ECDPM.

[xv] Non-paper on stronger partner engagement at African Union summits, January 2018.

[xvi] African Union. 2017. The Imperative to Strengthen Our Union: Report on the Proposed Recommendations for the Institutional Reform of the African Union, Addis Ababa: African Union.

[xvii] Non-paper on stronger partner engagement at African Union summits, 2018.

[xviii] Non-paper on stronger partner engagement at African Union summits, 2018.

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