In 2011 the African Union (AU) replaced the organisation of African Unity (OAU) which has been founded in May 1963. While the OAU was primarily concerned with decolonisation and apartheid, the AU’s focus has shifted to address the scourge of violent conflicts on the continent as well as questions of trade and development. By now, a few general accounts of the Union’s success and failures have been published. May be the most prominent, although certainly not the only ones, are The African Union. Addressing the Challenges of Peace, Security, and Governance by Samuel M. Makinda’s et al. (Routldege, 2nd ed., 2016), Thomas Tieku’s Governing Africa. 3D Analysis of African Union (Roman & Littlefield, 2016), and the edited volume of Tony Karbo and Tim Murithi’s on The African Union. Autocracy, Diplomacy, and Peacebuilding in Africa (I.B. Tauris, 2018). These publications are all sound academic reflections of high standard. Yet rarely you will find accounts from within the machine which combine academic rigour and insiders’ insights. Kassim M. Khamis’ Promoting the African Union (Lilian Barbar Press, 2008) is an early exception to this rule. And a few years ago, the former Permanent Representative of Gambia to the African Union (2002–2008), Amb. Omar Alieu Touray, has added prominently to this genre. And, this may already be unveiled at this stage, he does so in interesting and convincing ways.
The author, a career diplomat from the small West African country of Gambia, holds a PhD in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva, 1994, supervised by Anthony G. Hopkins who in those days was based at Pembroke College, Cambridge). After his deployment to Addis Ababa, Touray has been nominated Gambia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. A position he never took, because of his appointment as the country’s Secretary of State (i.e. Minister) of Foreign Affairs (2008–2009). After he was released from this position by the putschist President Yahya Jammeh, he left Gambian politics and joined the Islamic Development Bank, with subsequent postings in Jeddah/Saudi Arabia and Abidjan/Côte d’Ivoire, respectively. Touray also authored The Gambia and the World. A History of the Foreign Policy of Africa’s Smallest State, 1965–1995 (Hamburg, 2000) – the only in-depth account of the country’s foreign policy which also doubles as the author’s doctoral thesis.
The book under review is divided into 12 chapters. After the introduction, the author takes the reader back to the situation of Africa at the eve of the 21st century. In chapter 3 he recalls the different proposals for structuring the African Union which were discussed in the late 1990s, including Brother Leader’s notorious plan for the “United States of Africa” (which got quite some support up to 2009 and only faded away after Gaddafi was killed in October 2011). In chapter 4 Omar discusses the challenges the continental body was facing after the OAU’s mission of decolonisation and self-determination was accomplished. The following chapters 5 and 6 highlight the developmentalist agenda of the OAU/AU and the move from the Lagos Plan of Action to the New Economic Partnership for Africa (NEPAD) as well as the human development agenda of the African Union. Chapters 7 and 8 address the twin African Peace and Security and the African Governance agendas, APSA and AGA as there are known in the world of abbreviation connoisseurs. Chapter 9 is devoted to the institutional set-up and decision-making at the Union. Chapter 10 looks into the role of the Pan-African Parliament (based in Midrand, South Africa) which is often seen as fairly irrelevant, although the very idea goes back to the Abuja Treaty of 1991. And chapter 11 highlights the important role of the African Union Commission (AUC) and its bureaucracy which – in contrast to the rather small secretariat of the OAU – is enabling the African Union to develop and roll out policies in so many different fields. This is followed by conclusions.
Of course, many of the achievements of the African Union, or the lack thereof, are discussed controversially among academics and practitioners. For the sake of keeping this within the limits of a book review, in the following I will only focus on those sections of Touray’s account that are dealing with the institution itself, mainly the African Union Commission (AUC).
The AUC is portrayed as the engine room of the African Union – Toray refers to it as the “the locomotive of the whole integration process” (p. 185). Initially conceptualised as the Secretariat of the Union, the AUC indeed has become the centre of continental politics. Many member states lack the capacity to draft policy initiatives; this function has increasingly been taken over by the AUC which over time also grew in numbers (including secondments by international partners, most importantly the UN Development Programme, staff size currently is around roughly 1,800 – out of which 676 is “regular” staff). This has started a structural conflict between the Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC), i.e. the ambassadors of member states, and the AUC. While the PRC insists that it is the legitimate body to control the secretariat on behalf of member states, the AUC argues that the Commission needs to exercise agency in its own rights. In Touray’s days at the African Union this conflict was in its infancy. Today this dispute is part of the ongoing institutional reform process of the African Union (initially started by Rwandan President Paul Kagame). Nowadays, it seems that the Commission will get its way to become the main driver of Africa’s political integration (and, of course, this is inviting comparative perspectives between the AU and the European Union).
Another important perspective the author develops is on the financing of the African Union. Traditionally, high levels of dependency on “international partners” were allowed to develop. Touray also highlights that, in his years, member states were quite reluctant to pay up membership fees and bring the institution to levels were it really could have acted autonomous. In addition, right from the start the AU experienced absorption problems: during the years 2007 to 2011 only up to 54 percent of the operational budget was actually spend (p. 194). Finally, Touray enters interesting ground when he discusses departmental mentalities and values which work against each other. This actually is the kind of insights one would have liked to be more detailed – as academic research on the African Union usually cannot penetrate these spheres of the inner life of the animal called African Union.
So, by way of conclusion, Touray’s account of the first ten years of the African Union is an interesting, very well-informed, balanced and properly referenced narrative of the achievements and challenges of the Union. And despite the fact that the author has been Permanent Representative of an authoritarian regime to Addis Ababa, he manages surprisingly well to fall back into his previous role as scholar of international relations. The argumentation is very balanced. References are sound and the bibliography is quite useful, though not always on top of the game. All in all, this book certainly adds important perspectives to the understanding of the dynamics at the African Union (and the AUC) as well as African international politics. The particular strength of the book is that the author manages to bring in both his experience as a senior diplomat as much as his training as a scholar of International Relations.