A Look Back at 50 Years of the African Union

The organization has accomplished quite a bit in half a century.

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African heads of state pose for an official photograph at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Saturday, May 25, 2013. The African Union on Saturday marked 50 years since the founding of a continent-wide organization that helped liberate Africa from colonial masters and which now is trying to stay relevant on a continent regularly troubled by conflict.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and the author of "The Quest for African Unity: 50 Years of Independence and Interdependence". You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

This week, African heads of state and leaders from around the world celebrated 50 years of the African Union and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Laudatory speeches and toasts were given despite a widespread belief – both within and outside of Africa – that the organization is little more than a talk shop for Africa's political elite, and that it's done little to improve the lives of ordinary Africans.

Such criticism might be fairly applied to the Organization of African Unity. It aimed first and foremost to remove the scourge of colonialism from the continent and largely succeeded in that historic effort, but failed utterly in bringing about better governance, security and economic development for the people of Africa.

The African Union, however, has made slow but mostly steady progress in offering support for democratic processes, establishing a framework for a peace and security architecture across the continent and acknowledging that it can and must create economic opportunities for its one billion citizens, 65 percent of whom are under the age of 35.

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The Organization of African Unity was born in 1963, more than a decade after the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community that eventually became the European Union. Given its inclusive nature (54 of Africa's 55 countries are members) and the fact that more than half of the African Union budget comes from outside the continent, it's important to recognize the gradual gains that have been made over the past 50 years. It's also critical as President Obama prepares to visit the continent next month that the U.S. encourage the organization to reach its full potential by providing the same kind of moral, political and financial support it did to the European project.

Governance

"Good governance" has long been at the center of American foreign policy when it comes to Africa, and in this arena, the African Union has made perhaps its greatest gains. During the post-colonial days of the Organization of African Unity, African leaders cherished above all else their hard-won sovereignty. Leaders like Uganda's Idi Amin and others who committed gross human rights violations against their own people were allowed to chair the organization, and non-democratic transitions of government were tolerated, if not outright plotted, among leaders.

Since its inception in the late 1990s, though, the African Union has consistently suspended member states that experience coups and other non-democratic transitions of power, including most recently Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic and, temporarily, Mali. Of course, challenges remain across the continent, where the African Union has too often turned to an unsustainable power sharing model in places like Zimbabwe and Kenya when fraudulent and even violent elections take place.

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The U.S. should, bi-laterally, encourage African countries to sign on the African Union's 2007 Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance and participate in its African Peer Review Mechanism, a process by which countries are evaluated on democracy and political governance, economic governance, corporate governance and socio-economic development.

Peace and Security

The creation of the African Union's Peace and Security Council in 2004 as one of the organization's core components was an important step in addressing conflict across Africa, which between 1990 and 2005 cost the continent about $300 billion. Since its inception, the African Union has intervened with troops in Burundi, the Comoros Islands, Somalia and Sudan.

It, however, has a long way to go both in terms of capacity and political will when it comes to maintaining peace and security in Africa. The organization was largely sidelined during the international intervention in Libya in 2010, which it opposed largely because Moammar Gadhafi played an outsized role within the African Union and provided financial support for many African countries. In Mali, it was the Economic Community of West African States that provided the African contingent of troops to help French forces dispel Islamist rebels seeking an autonomous region, rather than the long-promised African Standby Force.

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Sadly, conflict continues in many parts of Africa today and a rapid reaction force of African troops is needed more than ever. For more than a decade, the African Union has promised that the creation of such a force was a top priority, but funding and political will have plagued the project. The U.S. and its European allies would do well to help shore up the Standby Force, which aims to have a brigade of 1,000 troops in five major regions of Africa by 2015.

Economic Growth and Development

Perhaps the most exciting development across Africa over the past five years has been the rate of economic growth, which financial analysts peg at about 5 percent for 2013 and 2014. Much of this lies in the extractive industries, where much of the revenue leaves the continent, and critics point out that such growth often stems from a low base.

Still, economic governance and, more importantly, regional economic integration are critical if the fruits of such economic growth are to reach ordinary Africans. That means more investment in infrastructure, the lowering of trade barriers through the existing Regional Economic Communities and shoring up of financial institutions like the African Development Bank, as well as moving forward on a proposed Africa Investment Bank and other Pan-African financial institutions.

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The U.S. has recently entered trade negotiations for both a Trans-Pacific Partnership with Asian countries and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. Given the success of the African Growth and Opportunity Act and Africa's increasing importance to the global economy, the U.S. could encourage the African Union to push forward on economic integration by offering a similar agreement down the line.

U.S. policy towards Africa has historically been framed either by external concerns (competition with the Soviet Union, European colonial powers and, more recently, China) or by the desire to put out "fires" that so-often flare up across the continent (the recent rise in terrorism, for example). A more holistic approach that emphasizes and supports African efforts to promote good governance, provide for continental peace and security and harness the continent's economic potential can and should start with the African Union. By conveying legitimacy, financial and moral support upon the organization, the African Union could, one day, become a critical regional organization on par with groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and even the European Union.

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