OPED: COVID-19 gives the African Union a unique opportunity to reclaim its convening power and coordination role

By Japhet Biegon is the Africa Regional Advocacy Coordinator at Amnesty International

On 7 April, President Donald Trump attacked the World Health Organization (WHO) and its leadership, describing the organization as “very biased towards China” and threatening to cut funding for it. Many across the world quickly rallied behind the WHO and condemned Trump’s attacks. But it was Africa’s swift and vocal reaction that soon stood out.

It all began with a stern tweet from Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission. He said he was surprised by US government’s campaign against the leadership of the world health body and expressed the support of the African Union (AU) for Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus.

This tweet triggered a chain of posts from African leaders, including Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Namibia’s Hage Geingob, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. President Ramaphosa subsequently issued a detailed official statement in his capacity as the political head of the AU, affirming Tedros’ “exceptional leadership” and declaring the AU’s “unwavering support” for him.

The AU’s reaction to President Trump’s attacks reveals a broader trend that can be seen in the organization’s response to COVID-19: its increasing, even newfound, ability to speak with one voice, act in a coordinated fashion, and move forward with some unity of purpose.

The AU’s reaction to President Trump’s attacks reveals a broader trend that can be seen in the organization’s response to COVID-19: its increasing, even newfound, ability to speak with one voice, act in a coordinated fashion, and move forward with some unity of purpose.

Rising to the occasion

Although it has had to suspend or scale down most its activities and operations, the AU has risen to the occasion and taken up the crucial role of setting up and coordinating a regional response to COVID-19. From standard setting to marshalling international solidarity to fundraising and mobilising of resources, the AU is arguably in its finest hour since it was established in 2002 to replace the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

Since mid-February, when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Africa, different AU organs and institutions have convened to agree on continental policies and actions. An emergency meeting of AU health ministers convened on 24 April set the ball rolling when it agreed to develop a common approach. With the help of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the AU then developed a joint continental strategy to ensure coordination of the efforts of member states, and synergy and collaboration between the relevant AU organs and departments. The AU has also constituted the Africa Task Force for Coronovirus and launched the Africa COVID-19 Response Fund. By 27 April, African countries and private entities had contributed USD 61.5 million towards the Fund.

From standard setting to marshalling international solidarity to fundraising and mobilising of resources, the AU is arguably in its finest hour since it was established in 2002 to replace the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

The AU has also been the continent’s public face and voice in its engagements with international partners such as the World Bank and the IMF. On 12 April, President Ramaphosa appointed four AU special envoys to mobilise international support for Africa’s efforts to address the economic challenges resulting from COVID-19. The consistent calls by the AU for various forms of debt relief for African countries have so far yielded some positive results. 

The AU convening and coordination role has also extended to liaising with Regional Economic Communities such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). 

Sustaining the momentum

The AU has proved its worth with its response to COVID-19 in terms of coordination and convening relevant stakeholders. It now needs to scale up its response and use its influence to demand that human rights are at the centre of all COVID-19 prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts by member states. To begin with, the AU should call on member states to unclog overcrowded prisons. 

AU now needs to scale up its response and use its influence to demand that human rights are at the centre of all COVID-19 prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts by member states.

Countries such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Zimbabwe have already taken some measures to free up space in prisons.However, these are not enough; more countries in Africa should implement more effective measures in this direction.  

But once COVID-19 subsides, the key challenge for the AU will be to sustain the current momentum, and more importantly, to replicate this success in other areas of its competence, particularly relating to human rights, peace and security.

A 2017 report by Amnesty International found that a lack of coordination has often hampered AU’s capacity to effectively protect and promote human rights in its peace and security initiatives. Indeed, speaking to fellow heads of state in the January 2017 AU Assembly, President Kagame issued a grave indictment against the organization: “We have a dysfunctional organization in which member states see limited value, global partners find little credibility, and our citizens have no trust”.

Once COVID-19 subsides, the key challenge for the AU will be to sustain the current momentum, and more importantly, to replicate this success in other areas of its competence, particularly relating to human rights, peace and security.

Consider, for instance, the conflicting responses of the AU and the SADC in early 2019 when a dispute arose as to the results of the presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). On the one hand, the AU called for the suspension of the announcement of the final results due to “serious doubts” while SADC endorsed those results. As a colleague said then, the reactions of the AU and the SADC were “marred with confusion, contradictions and discordance”.

Consider too the 2015 response to the grave violations of human rights in Burundi ahead of the presidential elections. The AU Peace and Security Council ambassadors adopted a decision to deploy a protection force to stop the grave human rights violations taking place in the country, only for that decision to be reversed later by their respective presidents.

On 25 May, Africa Day, the AU can truly celebrate its success in coordinating responses. It is an excellent opportunity to build on the existing goodwill from states to fully reclaim its convening and coordination role in all facets of its mandate.                                                                                                                        

This article was first published in the print edition of the weekly EastAfrican