The African Union (AU) plays an increasingly important role in Africa and the world with each passing year.
“Africa will shape the future,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed in November 2021 at an address to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria, “and not just the future of the African people but of the world.”
This sentiment is captured in U.S. government-wide priorities. The U.S. Mission to the African Union (USAU) is at the forefront of advancing these policies, notably working alongside the AU to build African confidence in multilateralism and renew the African commitment to multilateralism’s underlying principles.
In February 2023, USAU facilitated six assistant secretary-level visitors from the Department of State and USAID as well as the U.S. candidate to lead the International Organization for Migration. For four straight days, this high-powered delegation advanced U.S. foreign policy goals on peace and security, good governance, health, food security, and climate change, building on the momentum of the December 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
While participating remotely in the 2021 African Union Summit, President Joe Biden committed the U.S. government to “engage in sustained diplomacy in connection with the African Union to address conflicts that are costing lives all across the African continent.”
Headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and with organs throughout the continent, the AU is the premier convening authority for Africa, shaping
political and economic norms for its 55 member states. The United States is not a member, but it is the first accredited observer nation to establish a dedicated mission. The AU is a strategic partner with substantial reach, and USAU is perfectly placed to influence continental geo-political decisions as Africa asserts its burgeoning power on the global stage.
“With Secretary Blinken’s strong commitment to multilateralism and our concerted effort to partner with Africa in tackling shared global challenges, I can think of no more exciting time to be working with the African Union,” said Chargé d’Affaires Mika Cleverley.
The AU is relatively young. It was officially launched in 2002 as the modern iteration of the Organization of African Union (OAU), a then-40-year-old intergovernmental community of African states born from the desire to make Pan-Africanism a functional ideology. Uniting the conservative, nationalist countries of the Monrovia Group with the more progressive Casablanca Group, 32 African states signed on to the OAU charter in 1963 with the aim of working together to resolve continental issues. The OAU unified its members while staunchly defending the sovereignty and independence of each.
OAU had its successes, notably in its dedication to eradicating apartheid and ending colonialism, the founding of the African Development Bank, and its collaborations with the U.N. to assist refugees. It could not overcome, however, its internal contradiction. The OAU’s policy of non-interference in domestic affairs of member states meant it could not intervene in intrastate conflicts that riddled the continent or even speak out against some of the 20th century’s worst human rights atrocities. This opened the organization up to criticism within and outside of Africa.
The AU is more functional, influential, and effective than its predecessor. The Constitutive Act, for example, includes the right for the Union to “intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity,” looking forward while recognizing the issues of the past.
Importantly, the AU is being recognized as such with increased buy-in from its members and acknowledgement by its partners. While organizational and bureaucratic hurdles still exist, it is creating the political energy for it to deliver on behalf of its constituents.
“Even in just the three years I worked with the AU, I saw the AU’s political stature expand significantly and our own deliberative processes improve through better consultation with our African counterparts,” said former Political and Economic Counselor Melissa Schumi Jones. “The next decade could be legacy-defining for the AU.” Today, the AU has 55 member states, including all African countries north and south of the Saharan Desert. It can be roughly broken down into three components: its policy organs including the Assembly; the Commission; and the specialized agencies dedicated to enacting AU treaties, such as Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, and AU Development Agency.
The AU Assembly is the highest policy organ of the AU, consisting of heads of state and government. Underneath the assembly sits the Executive Council (EC), made up of foreign ministers and the Permanent Representative Committee (PRC), which are member state ambassadors accredited to the AU. PRC meets throughout the year to negotiate positions and policies that are then sent up through the EC and finally to the assembly where declarations and decisions are adopted. The role of AU assembly chair rotates each year, giving a new African leader the opportunity to influence its priorities and direction.
The AU commission, its secretariat, is currently just a fraction of the size of the U.N. secretariat, sometimes frustrating the expectations of members and partners alike. It is led by a chairperson, currently Moussa Faki Mahamat (from Chad), whose second and final four-year term will conclude in 2025. He is supported by a deputy and six commissioners, each leading a thematic directorate.
“I spent most of my time working with colleagues at the AU Commission. They are passionate and knowledgeable. I learned a ton about how Africans perceive and approach global issues,” said former Economic Officer Michael Fraser.
USAU was established in December 2006, the first non-African state to create a diplomatic mission dedicated to the AU. Others outside the continent have followed suit, including the European Union in 2008 and China in 2015. U.S. government officials and senior AU Commission leadership meet regularly for high-level dialogues, the most recent of which in 2022 between Blinken and Faki resulted in a new memorandum of cooperation to strengthen the longstanding public health partnership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When fully staffed, USAU includes an ambassador, deputy chief of mission, office management specialist, and five officers covering political, economic, climate, and public diplomacy from the Department. Interagency colleagues include USAID, CDC, U.S. Africa Command, and the Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as a U.S. Department of Agriculture officer, who divides time between bilateral and multilateral issues. There is also a dedicated team of eight locally employed staff, some of whom have been with the Mission since its inception, and three eligible family members.
“It is amazing how much we have grown over the last 15 years. I love all the opportunities to interact with high-level visitors, both American and African,” said Public Affairs Resource Coordinator Lina Muhammed, who joined the team in 2006.
USAU shares a compound and management platform with the bilateral U.S. Embassy to Ethiopia, so teamwork is paramount. Nearly 20 years of creating synergies has resulted in a friendly and productive shared work environment. The two missions work seamlessly together, leveraging expertise, diversity, and the ability to advance shared and individual goals.
Addis Ababa is called “the diplomatic capital of Africa,” thanks to the AU and the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa being headquartered in the city limits. The AU is the largest multilateral organization outside of the U.N. system, meaning there are more than 100 diplomatic missions in the city.
“I thrive in this space because our African counterparts are passionate about their vision for the continent,” said Climate Officer Chris Nyce. “I know firsthand because of the energy being directed toward climate change mitigation, and adaptation, but that passion extends to all sorts of policy interests important to the United States.”
The large international community positively affects family life in Addis Ababa as much as it does work life. The International Community School (ICS) of Addis Ababa, for example, enrolls roughly 1,000 students from 67 different countries. It has a 16-acre campus for four separate schools, from preschool through high school, and graduating seniors are often accepted to top-tier universities across the globe.
According to Dr. Tim Stuart, the Office of Overseas School’s regional education officer, “ICS is considered one of the top international schools in the AF region. Its commitment to academic excellence and special needs education ensures that all students learn and engage at the highest level.”
Over the last few years, USAU has played an integral role in U.S. policy on the continent. The Mission, in conjunction with the special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Embassy Addis Ababa, and the Bureau for African Affairs, supported the AU-led process to broker a cessation of hostilities in fall 2022 after two years of civil war in Ethiopia. Africa CDC, then led by U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Senior Official of the Department’s new Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy Ambassador John Nkengasong, guided Africa through the COVID-19 pandemic. The DOJ’s International Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Network program has trained and connected more than 300 prosecutors and investigators to combat cybercrime across 13 African countries together through USAU’s attaché Anand Ramaswamy. USAID funds are supporting the African Peer Review Mechanism, a leading African-to-African capacity building initiative to improve governance and political stability throughout the continent.
The AU is not a one-stop shop for advancing African policy goals. The value, however, of incorporating Addis Ababa-based engagement into larger strategic efforts that involve Washington, the U.N. in New York, and member-state capitals is immeasurable. The AU is an essential political player on the continent, and one that is only becoming more important as it advances its Agenda 2063, the AU’s guiding blueprint, and joins the G20 as a permanent member.
USAU is at the forefront of connecting American Missions across the Bureaus of African Affairs and Near Eastern Affairs to the bigger continental picture. This small but mighty team certainly doesn’t do it alone, and they celebrate the thriving strategic partnership between the United States and the AU.
Source : Statemag