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Ruto calls for urgent reforms in the African Union

President William Ruto is calling on African Union (AU) member states to cede certain powers to the continental bloc as part of reforms needed to make the body work.

President Ruto made the radical proposal at a summit of leaders of the regional trade bloc, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa), in the Zambian capital Lusaka, on Thursday.

He urged the audience to consider reforms of the African Union as a “priority”, warning that without such sacrifices, the AU’s vision, including Agenda 2063 and mantras such as “African solutions to African problems”, will never be realised.

“Member states must consider donating power to AU on matters trade, regional and global security as well as other areas that Africa can benefit from engaging together rather than individually,” he said in a speech at the 22nd Summit of leaders of Comesa, a 14-member bloc of countries mainly in the East, Central and Southern regions of Africa but also includes Egypt and Tunisia in the north.

“We should merge the position of chair of the AU Summit and that of the AU Commission into one so as to give it sufficient leverage to engage on behalf of Africa,” the president added.

There were no immediate indications this proposal could gain traction yet, even though other African leaders have often admitted the continental bloc needs a rejig.

The proposal to donate these powers, if it goes through, could mimic the European Union, which traditionally negotiates trade and global security policies jointly.

For instance, the European Union has been negotiating trade pacts with the East African Community which the EU wants to sign on those deals as a bloc too.

The EU also has a policy head for foreign policy and security issues.

Speaks for the bloc

And even though individual countries have their respective foreign ministers, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy generally speaks for the bloc as its top diplomat.

The EU has generally been opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The AU, on the other hand, has been unable to rally a common position for members.

Dr Ruto’s proposal to merge the AU Summit Chair with that of the Commission’s Chairperson means one of the two may end.

The Summit chair is a rotational, ceremonial role, shared annually among heads of state and government.

The Commission Chairperson, currently held by Chadian diplomat Moussa Faki Mahamat, is an electable position every four years and the winner runs the secretariat of the AU.

So far, the Commission chairperson has acted as the official spokesperson of the continental bloc but is often dragged by slow decision-making by the Summit.

Dr Ruto spoke generally on trade and other development issues which the AU should be leading but lacks the capacity for, something he had recently suggested at a speech to the Pan African Parliament in Pretoria.

“To ensure that the African Union performs at the level of its aspirations, it will be necessary to make sure that it empowers itself with sufficient capacity. Otherwise, African Solutions, Agenda 2063, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area and the Young, Clean Green Continent of the Future will never be a reality,” he said then.

“The AU Reform Agenda must therefore be a priority and we must interrogate and conduct the process to ensure that structurally, the roles of the Bureau, Summits, Committees, Regional Caucuses, Secretariat and Commission are duly rationalised to give Africa a fit-for-purpose continental governance body with the capacity to engage globally.”

Looked into the AU’s processes

Talk to reform the AU started in 2016 when Rwandan President Paul Kagame was chosen to champion the reforms. After a team of nine other experts he led looked into the AU’s processes, they identified 19 areas of improvement including narrowing priorities, ensuring a clear division of roles between its structures, making the AU Commission more efficient and effective, strengthening the current sanctions regime of the AU, improving decision-making and sustainable financing.

“The reforms advisory team concluded that in order to realise the ambitions of Agenda 2063 and to ensure an impactful and effective manner in delivering on its mandate, the AU needs to reposition itself and ensure it has the requisite institutional capacity and capabilities given the evolving economic, political, and social needs of the continent,” they suggested.

There has been some movement since, including giving the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa-CDC) more autonomy, merging departments and making the election of officeholders more linked to candidates’ qualifications. The money part is still problematic, however.

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