‘The African Union should take care of itself’: Moussa Faki Mahamat tries to remake the bloc

By Mark Anderson

Posted on January 15, 2018 10:28

In an exclusive interview with The Africa Report, the new AU Commission chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, lays out his strategy to make the organisation more effective and relevant

From his office on the 18th floor of the African Union’s (AU) towering Chinese-built skyscraper, Moussa Faki Mahamat looks down at the noisy construction boom taking place on the streets of Addis Ababa below. The former foreign minister of Chad was the surprise winner of the race to succeed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the head of the AU’s Commission. Most observers had placed their bets on Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed.

In one of his first interviews since taking office, Faki tells The Africa Report about the opportunities and challenges on the continent and lays out his vision for reforms that could make the AU more relevant and less reliant on foreign donors.

Over the first several months of his tenure, Faki has been lauded for easing the divide between Anglophones and Francophones that was starker under his predecessor. He also visited South Sudan and signed a framework with the United Nations that makes it easier to deploy peacekeeping operations.

But the most pressing work that Faki sees is reform of the institution itself. “Unfortunately the majority of our programmes and projects are financed by outside partners,” says Faki. “This year was sort of a transitional phase, but from 2018, [paying an annual levy] will become a mandatory requirement for all member states. I think that any organisation worth its salt should be able to take care of itself.”

Boosting trade

Experts are sceptical that member states will pay up, and that the AU will be able to make them. Elissa Jobson, an adviser on AU relations for the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, says the AU’s annual levy still faces strong opposition. Only Ghana and Rwanda have signed it into national law while Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Republic of Congo have taken steps to implement it, she says.

The AU’s biggest donor, the European Union (EU), is set to introduce a new development fund for the AU in 2020. Although Faki is trying to wean the AU off foreign money, the EU’s deep pockets are badly needed. Since 2004, it has provided more than $2.4bn in assistance to the AU, according to the ICG.

Part of Faki’s optimism is down to opportunities he sees for the AU to help boost trade and economic activity on the continent. “There’s been progress made when it comes to the free-trade zone on the continent and our hope is that in 2018 it will take effect,” he says. He adds that he has gathered support from 40 countries to remove trade barriers and ensure the free movement of people, goods and capital.

But progress in removing barriers to trade has been uneven across the continent, even though no one is expecting a continental free-trade agreement any time soon. Faki says that the Economic Community of West African States, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the Southern African Development Community have made “more visible progress” than the Economic Community of Central African States or the Arab Maghreb Union. “The degree of economic integration will determine the level of institutional and political integration,” he says.

Fragile states

Faki says he sees many challenges over the next year, particularly in fragile states where conflicts are raging, like South Sudan and Somalia. He is quick to emphasise the important work of the AU mission to Somalia, where critical funding from the EU is due to end next year. He also points to the AU’s collaboration with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in South Sudan as an example of his peacekeeping strategy, which revolves around inclusive dialogue. But Jobson of the ICG says the AU was only allowed to engage after IGAD set the terms.

Prolonged political disputes will also pose problems in 2018, Faki says. Electoral disputes in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could boil over into violent conflict. “We are very pleased and happy that an electoral calendar has been published [in the DRC] and we are appealing to all the parties to work together to diffuse tension. And we have pledged our support to the electoral commission,” Faki says.

Another potential problem is in Libya, which is a sore point for the AU because it has long felt excluded from the peace process. Faki says his “ardent wish is that the different parties will come to the understanding that a military solution is not an answer to the problem. Under the Skhirat agreement, it is necessary for all the parties to agree in order to overcome this deadlock […] The AU is open to facilitate this dialogue between the different parties.”

G5 sahel

Over the next year, experts are predicting a shift in the AU’s security priorities from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel region. As a Chadian, Faki grasps the importance of the problems there. “In the Sahel, we have Mali and we have put in place the G5 Sahel,” he says, referring to a joint task force of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger working together to fight terrorism.

The African-led G5 mission could be a blueprint for future peacekeeping operations on the continent. “It’s obvious today that the typical peacekeeping operations can no longer contain the current threats or the fight against terrorism,” he says. “It is therefore necessary that the United Nations and the G5 members take this reality into account. These are real threats and it is imperative that we find solutions to restore peace. These are terrorist groups and arms and human traffickers of all types who are all very well equipped, sometimes even better than the countries they operate in.”

But unless foreign donors step in, the lack of funding for the G5 mission will seriously limit the scope of its operations. Faki is visibly frustrated by this. “I really do not understand why it is not possible to fund the operations of the G5 Sahel because it is a mission dedicated to the fight against terrorism, and we all know that it is a real threat to peace and security.

“It is an absolute necessity to adapt our peacekeeping missions and operations to match the reality, and it is also important to take into account the views of the AU, which is better placed to assess the situation on the continent.”

This article came from the December/January 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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