African Union: Kagame takes the reins
Under the gaze of dozens of African heads of state, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame strode up to the main podium of the Nelson Mandela Plenary Hall in the African Union (AU)’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. After shaking hands with the body’s most senior officials, Kagame settled into his first speech as chairman of the AU’s assembly.
“Thank you for your double trust,” he told leaders including South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, who had gathered on 29 January for the AU summit. “First as the leader of the reform process, and now as the leader of our union.” Kagame is trying to sell his shopping list of reforms, which he says would make the AU a powerful institution.
This is no small task. Since its inception in 2002, the AU has been widely seen as an organisation with little to show for its efforts. Worse still, the bloc is heavily dependent on foreign donors. In 2012, member states footed the bill for just 3% of the AU budget, but that rose to 14% in 2017.
Kagame’s solution for the AU’s problems is to trim the fat and get member states to pay for more purposeful activities. In the year leading up to his appointment, Kagame headed a team of experts tasked with recommending institutional reforms. He suggested that the AU should dramatically limit its focus to “political affairs, peace and security, economic integration, and Africa’s global representation and voice”. He argues that if the focus of the AU is narrowed, it will be more effective and cheaper to run. He says that areas like education, domestic health issues and science and technology should be cut back, while trade and industry projects that do not have a continent-wide focus should be scrapped.
The bloc’s focus on peace and security will remain. There is an understanding between the AU and the United Nations (UN) that if African countries can fund 25% of peacekeeping operations on the continent, the UN will pay the remaining 75%.
Finance is also high on the agenda for the continental body. Donald Kaberuka, the former head of the African Development Bank, has led a team that has suggested policies that could help the bloc to meet its target of paying for its own budget by 2020. Kaberuka recommends that every member state adopt a 0.2% levy on most imports to fund the AU’s operations.
“We have made [the 0.2% levy on imports] a requirement for all member states to ensure the organisation’s survival, which is currently at stake,” the chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, told The Africa Report in November.
Twenty-one member states have signed up to impose the levy and pay the proceeds to the AU, according to Kagame. “There are more who are showing interest and [they] just want to understand the best way to implement the 0.2% levy on eligible imports,” he told reporters. “Now, more Africans are getting involved [in the reforms], more regions are represented. We have a committee of finance ministers,” he said, referring to a committee of 10 finance ministers that was set up in 2016 to oversee financial reforms of the AU.
But unless the continent’s biggest economies – Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa – sign up for the levy, financing for the bloc will be severely limited. “At the moment, 60% of the AU budget comes from the five biggest economies,” says Elissa Jobson, the International Crisis Group (ICG)’s adviser on AU relations. “So that means that even if you’ve got the other 50 countries on board, you still haven’t met even 50% of the budget.”
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s foreign minister and a member of the AU’s reform advisory team, is optimistic that the big five will support the measures to improve the AU. “Nigeria is on board with the reform in general and the self-paying,” she tells The Africa Report. “The other [big five countries] are not saying that they won’t pay. They are, for a number of reasons, slow and they’re asking questions.”
However, there are signs of strong resistance to the levy, particularly from Egypt and South Africa. South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, in his capacity as secretary general of the Southern African Development Community, sent a strongly worded letter to the AU Commission expressing disapproval of the reforms. ‘A majority of the member states have not been eager to implement the decision […] [which] is in direct conflict with constitutional provisions and national legislations of some member states, as well as global and regional trade obligations, such as those relating to the World Trade Organisation,’ the letter said. Mushikiwabo adds: “Egypt is a bit hesitant of the 0.2% levy but we’ve sent the teams there at least twice, and we will continue to talk to them.”
Some countries are eager to sign up. In his first remarks to the body, Angola’s President João Lourenço, whose country has the sixth-largest economy on the continent, said he wanted to “reiterate the need to allocate adequate means” to the AU, suggesting that Angola would commit to the 0.2% levy.
“We waited too long”
Kagame will need to engage in shuttle diplomacy and visit heads of state at home in his quest to unlock their financial commitments. In his maiden speech as chairman of the assembly, Kagame issued a stern warning to African leaders. “We are running out of time, and we must act now to save Africa from permanent deprivation,” he said. “The growth trajectory that transformed Asia is not necessarily any longer a viable option for Africa, simply because we waited too long to act.”
Instead of chasing the same manufacturing boom that catapulted many Asian countries into middle-income status in the second half of the twentieth century, Kagame urged African leaders to adopt policies that would band their economies together. This, he said, would increase trade and make African markets more attractive for foreign investors.
Kagame wants to show African leaders that they will get a bang for their buck. In January 2017, Kagame told the AU assembly: “The Assembly has adopted more than 1,500 resolutions, yet there is no easy way to determine how many of those have actually been implemented. By not following up to ensure that our decisions are implemented, we are effectively saying that they don’t matter.”
It could be that many governments do not want a strong organisation that will tell them how to run elections and how to be more democratic, says Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies. “Egypt, for example, is one of the countries that is against the reforms precisely for that reason,” she says.
But that inertia is showing signs of changing. One highlight of this year’s AU summit was an agreement between 23 African countries to launch a single market for air transport that will enable airspace to be shared without the imposition of fees. Such a deal, which ultimately aims for all the continent’s countries to agree, has been in the works since 1999.
More importantly, during January’s summit, a protocol was adopted towards creating an African economic community that could be used to establish free trade and movement of people in the long run. The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) is a central pillar of Kagame’s vision for the continent’s future.
The pact aims to “create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments,” according to the AU. The aim is also to establish a continent-wide customs union. An extraordinary summit is scheduled for 21 March in Kigali, where African heads of state are due to sign the agreement to establish the free trade zone.
A man who gets things done
Kagame’s ministerial cabinet members insist that his track record at home makes him the ideal leader to spearhead the AU reforms. Rwandan trade minister Jean de Dieu Uwihanganye trumpets the country’s impressive road network as evidence that Kagame can get things done. “We know he’s a man with many targets. We’ve seen it in our country because we work with him,” Uwihanganye tells The Africa Report. Foreign minister Mushikiwabo says: “I know him as my president and I know he pursues development and the wellbeing of his own citizens relentlessly […]. I can see the energy he puts into these reforms: the letters he writes to his colleagues, the phone calls, the consultations, the envoys he sends.”
In the corridors of Addis Ababa, some delegates are confident that Kagame is the right man for the job. “He’s seen as a man who can get things done, more so than any other chairperson,” says one diplomat. But others are wary of Kagame’s reputation as an unrelenting strongman with little regard for the convictions of his peers. South African politicians are particularly sceptical. Pretoria has a rocky relationship with Kigali because of the assassination of Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief, in an upmarket hotel in Johannesburg in 2013.
Kagame will have to act fast to pass his reform agenda. The AU has elected Egypt to take over as chair of the AU assembly next year. Egypt has a temperamental relationship with the AU after Cairo was briefly suspended in 2013, following the “overthrow” of former president Mohamed Morsi. Neither the UN, the European Union nor the United States publicly condemned Morsi’s ousting, making the AU the only bloc to speak out about the coup that brought President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. “Kagame’s got a year to move forward on the reforms because in 2019 Egypt will take over the chair of the AU assembly and it’s not clear how strong their commitment is to this process, especially on the financial side,” says the ICG’s Jobson.
As the January summit came to a close, Kagame remained optimistic that he would be able to push reforms through. “If you look at the level of organisation we are beginning to achieve with the AU Commission, the understanding of the leaders of Africa in driving the reforms, we are moving well,” he said. “But we also understand that it will take time, there will be resistance from within and from outside.”
This article first appeared in the March 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine