What place does democracy have in the African Union?



On 28 January this year, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected as the Chairperson of the African Union’s (AU) 31st session, due to commence in January of next year. This decision was undoubtedly viewed as a major coup for the leader, whose regime has led Egypt into what has been labelled its ‘worst rights and political crisis in decades’. For an organisation that was established on the premise of modernising African governments, reducing poverty, stimulating economic growth and promoting peace and security within the continent, the election of Sisi is inherently problematic. In light of the organisation’s history, however, the decision to vest such authority in a controversial leader is not surprising.

At an operational level, the AU satisfactorily meets the expectations of a democratic body, in publishing its decisions, declarations and press releases. There is also evidence of systemic change, with importance being placed towards integrating member states, promoting trade within and outside the continent and empowering women. But since it replaced the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 2002, the presidency of the AU has typically been assumed by African strongmen who promote patriarchal and conservative values and maintain tyrannical administrations. As a result, the continental body has struggled to successfully enforce the visions for democracy within the continent, enshrined in a number of its documents and charters.

Within just the last, the presidential elections within Egypt and Burundi have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the AU in upholding its founding desire to ‘promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance.’

On 2 April 2018, Sisi secured another four-year term after winning with a questionable 97 per cent of the vote. The ‘election’ was deemed far from fair and ethical. Yet, there was no attempt made by the AU leadership to denounce the Egyptian leader or question the legitimacy of the democratic processes conducted within its ranks. Such inaction came despite the Sisi administration’s notorious violations of universal rights, as evidenced through its consistent attacks against human rights organisations and democracy advocates who voice criticism.

Similarly, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was elected for a third term in 2015, in the midst of an electoral boycott by opposition leaders and widespread violence as a result of his regime, which resulted in over 1,200 deaths. In May, constitutional amendments that have the potential to enable Nkurunziza to retain power until 2034 were approved. This victory was secured after the banning of the BBC and Voice of America prior to the controversial referendum and silencing of those who were perceived to or explicitly opposed the referendum. Yet again, the AU did not display any effort to oppose the anti-democratic actions being authorised by an African leader.

Principally, the AU has seemingly failed to harness the stronger administrative mechanisms and power to intervene in the manner in which its member states operated, that it garnered from the OAU, as evidenced by the scarcity of valid democracies in the continent. Rather, the AU has evolved into a mechanism through which undemocratic leaders can continue to exercise profoundly weak, corrupt and divisive leadership. Ultimately, the AU’s mollycoddling of such leaders threatens African aspirations of social and economic freedom and prevents democracy from prevailing throughout the continent.

Maneesha Gopalan is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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