Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the African Union – formerly the Organization for African Unity – and while much of the attention might have been on the Chinese-built AU headquarters in Addis Ababa where Africa’s leaders gathered for the AU Summit, there was certainly a lot of coffee shop talk in Cyberville as well. One of the many discussions I participated in yesterday was the Africa on the Blog Chat (#AOTBChat) on Twitter which questioned the AU’s relevance today.

The AU also updated its Facebook page with a reference to a tweet by George Ayittey – the Ghanaian economist of Cheetahs vs. Hippos fame who is very outspoken regarding his opinion of Africa’s leaders:

“Name one crisis the African Union has been able to resolve in the past decade. Scratching your head? Always appealing to the int’l community” – George Ayittey’s tweet from May 18.

The AU Facebook update asked whether Ayittey’s tweet was “irresponsible” or “the hard truth”, and seeing that I was just exiting the metro station when I read the update, I responded with a simple “the hard truth”. A few hours later, I came home to a direct comment from the AU (Facebook admin):

So, the purpose of this post is two-fold. First, to share some of what was I discussed in the AOTB Chat yesterday regarding the AU’s relevance and outlook, and secondly to respond to the direct comment from the AU. I’ll start with the latter first.

Clutching At Straws?
First off, the AU’s Facebook update didn’t ask for fact or an explanation, it asked for an opinion. So yes, I do think that the hard truth is that the AU is not making headway on its vision and many of its professed aims. With regard to crises or peacekeeping efforts, the most notable one which has seen strong AU involvement is with Somalia and even then, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is a joint (albeit unspoken or downplayed) effort with the United Nations. As Ayittey points out on his Twitter page, the actual resolution of the Somalia crisis took place at the London conference and even there, involved various stakeholders. Not just the AU.

To go into semantics, George Ayittey’s tweet seems to infer a resolution led singularly or solely by the AU. He doesn’t say “a crisis the AU helped resolve” – in which case there could be many – he said “a crisis the AU has been able to resolve in the past decade”. Yes, the AU has been very instrumental with Somalia and has done a good job even, but I don’t see how the AU alone can claim responsibility for Somalia. The fact that the AU seems to be clamoring for resolved crises it can put its undeniable stamp on says much in itself. Why should the AU be clutching at straws if indeed it is meeting its aims and making headway towards achieving its vision?

Linked to this is the fact that many Africans don’t know much about the AU. The AOTB Chat was filled with many well-educated, well-read, knowledgeable Africans who I highly respect, and a few of them admitted to not knowing what AMISOM is. If indeed it were so successful, wouldn’t every African child or at least student know that their AU led the charge in bringing peace to Somalia? I myself had never heard of AMISOM until I took a series of peacekeeping classes at SAIS. Herein lies the issue of visibility which brings me to my next point.

The AU’s Identity Problem
In order to evaluate the AU fairly, I refer to its professed mission and vision from its official website.

Vision: “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa,  driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in  global arena.”

Mission: “An efficient and value-adding institution  driving the African integration and development process in close collaboration  with African Union Member States, the Regional Economic Communities  and African citizens”.

From the above, it’s evident that regional integration is at the forefront of the AU’s vision and mission. In order for this to be realized, all hands must be on deck, including those of average citizens. Yet in many respects the AU seems to lack that vital element of citizen participation. Many people criticize the AU for being “a president’s club” which is very disconnected from the people on the ground, and I’m afraid I echo those sentiments. As I mentioned in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera for their interactive map of the AU, I don’t identify with the AU.  I have – as highlighted in the AU Facebook admin’s comment – “Pan Africanist pretensions”, yet I don’t identify with the AU. One Nigerian blogger admitted to not even thinking of the AU until Gaddafi’s demise. The fact that the AU is struggling on even getting Africans on board with its vision of unity in diversity is a serious situation. As an organization which should be the space for Africans who believe in African unity and integration to come together, the lack of identification is a real issue which the AU needs to grapple with, perhaps before it can make any real headway on any of its other professed goals.

And so, I personally think the AU has an identity and an identification crisis. It wants to be the space where all Africans “unite”, yet for the most part it’s currently the space where only African leaders come together. Add the fact that many of these leaders are disliked by their own constituents or regarded as not working in the interest of their respective countries and you can see why the average African might not identify with the AU. What’s more, the organization is dominated by male adults. This is due not only to the fact that there are currently only two female Presidents in Africa – Malawi’s Joyce Banda and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – but also because female political participation and involvement in key leadership or decision-making roles has been lacking. Consequently, a significant proportion of Africans (women) don’t see themselves represented at the AU. I would even say that more Africans identity with their regional economic groups (ECOWAS, SADC , COMESA etc) than they do the AU, and when it comes to regional integration, the African Development Bank probably does a much better job at it by fueling cooperation across the continent.

Visibility & Connecting with Youth
Another population which the AU is yet to truly connect with is youth. Youth constitute over half of Africa’s population – 65% according to the AU Commission’s Youth Website – yet little headway has been made in involving young people or facilitating conversations and cooperation between youth across the continent. True, there is an AU Youth Charter which was launched in 2006, but I’m willing to wager that few African youth even know of its existence.Part of this is tied to education across the continent. While I was introduced to the AU in junior high school, it was primarily because Ghana’s first President Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was instrumental in it’s establishment. As a Ghanaian youth that was exciting for me to know, but I always felt a vacuum in my “African-ness”. I didn’t know much about Ghana’s neighbors much more our friends in Namibia, Senegal or Kenya. Maybe that’s changed now for primary and junior high school pupils with the internet, mobile phones and such, but really, how deep or sustainable are those connections or relationships?

That said, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. The AU was instrumental in spurring independence on the continent and in ending apartheid. More recently, it seems the AU is trying to make amends and provide African youth with an opportunity to gain skills, experience, and learn from one another. Here, I’m talking about the African Union Youth Volunteer Corps (modeled after the Peace Corps) which I learnt about while interviewing one of their volunteers in Accra for my capstone project. The AU-YVC holds much promise, but like much of the AU’s work and projects, it needs increased visibility in order to reach the larger African audience. Another thing the AU seems to be working on is it’s social media presence. As evidenced from the post above, the AU seems to have a pretty active Facebook page which was started in 2008. It’s YouTube channel has many videos including this interview with current AU Commission chairperson Dr. Nkosozana Zuma, who took over in 2012 as the first female head of the organization. While the AU’s Twitter page has over 15,000 followers, it is following only two accounts, which as I found out, are also AU accounts. When/where does the conversation start?

Fostering a Sense of Togetherness
Related to the AU’s lack of visibility is it’s level of interaction with average Africans. More has to be done to ensure that young Africans learn about the continent and key historical moments. One should not wait until they have the opportunity to study in the West before they learn about the impetus for forming the AU, ECOWAS, important leaders like Nelson Mandela & Steve Biko, the Apartheid, the Rwandan Genocide, current movers and shakers from Africa and so on. Just as having social media pages doesn’t amount to “real presence” online, the simple existence of the AU doesn’t mean that there is African unity. No, much more has to be done in order to consolidate and share knowledge across borders, cooperate, and really imbibe a sense of “US” or “togetherness”. The only time I can remember feeling such a “togetherness” was during the World Cup in South Africa when the Black Stars represented the entire continent in the final rounds of the competition. How do we replicate that notion of unity in diversity? What should the AU and its member states be doing to create a sense of identification among African citizens? How can the AU push forward towards its goal of uniting Africans? The next section is a summary of some of my thoughts on moving forward.

As already stated, many Africans don’t feel like current leadership on the continent is really and truly working to address their concerns or represent them. The AU needs to rebrand itself from being a “presidents club” so as to engender a sense of identity among average Africans. In this regard, the very notion of “leadership” must be broadened from political leadership to include business, civil society, youth leadership and so on. Furthermore, Africa’s current leaders must realize that they are being watched. Even if their people have little say or feel they can’t do much to change the status quo, young Africans are watching and we risk repeating the same negative tendencies.

I think the AU can come up with some sort of ambassador program where it highlights the work of average Africans who are really working hard, being innovative, and making a difference in their respective fields. For instance, having someone like Chimamanda Adichie or Ama Atta Aidoo as an AU Literary Ambassador will be a stepping stone to helping encourage more Africans to tell their stories and publish African literature. Besides simple rebranding, concrete steps should be taken to include the voices of average Africans on issues related to the continent. Africa Day (May 25) would be a great opportunity to do this through the organization of sub-regional events parallel to (or even replacing) the AU summit. Each sub-regional event could address an issue that people in member countries have voted as being important for discussing, brainstorming solutions,  and subsequently, for implementation.Until the AU deals with its identification and representation issues, it’s going nowhere fast.

Interaction & Youth
Another thing which needs to be addressed is interaction between Africans from different countries. True, the language barrier doesn’t help much, but it’s time to look at ways to improve and deepen communication. Some have called for one African language, even suggesting Swahili, so as to foster interaction. While I don’t think one language for the entire region is the way to go, I do think forums forums like the AOTB Chat on Twitter are great for simply putting Africans in touch. The AU needs to take it’s social media presence a step further by facilitating conversations between African youth, with the Diaspora and also between African youth and AU leaders. Google+ Hangouts are an excellent tool for such conversations. For instance, Blogging Ghana’s recent G+ Hangout between Ghana Decides, Sunu2012, and Vote or Quench was organized with the intent of sharing lessons on social media election activism across countries and as a result, was undertaken in both English and French. What’s more they can be recorded, and these recordings could later be made available to various local TV stations or even radio stations for subsequent airing in order to reach the majority of Africans who are not online.

Beyond online conversations and interactions, there is a great need for an AU Youth Summit of some sorts. You can’t ignore the continent’s largest population, especially considering it is poised to become the world’s largest youth population by 2100. An African Youth Summit facilitated by the AU would not only help create a sense of community between African youth but will also help in sharing ideas, identifying common challenges, and making much needed connections. Furthermore, it would be an opportunity for Africa’s current generation of leaders to interact with future leaders and collaborate in addressing the gamut of challenges Africa’s developing nations face.

Address Today’s Real Issues
Instead of living on past glories or counting past successes, the AU needs to step up to the plate and address today’s real issues. Here, climate change and China come up. Given the great impact China will -and already is – have on African countries I’m surprised the AU hasn’t come up with a regional strategy to guide member countries’ dealings with China. Many of these countries are too small to effectively negotiate on their own and really, most African leaders look to the short term benefits of engaging with emerging global leaders, especially China. If we were unable to define our strategy for dealing with the US, EU, we shouldn’t be making the same mistake twice. It seems every regional bloc has an Africa strategy, yet we don’t even have one for our traditional trade partners.

In 2009 China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner, and yet, the supposed AU China policy note is still in the works. If the AU wants to gain back some of its relevance, China is where it’s at. A comprehensive regional strategy on China will not only cover trade relations but will also address issues related to land rights and the current trend of land grabbing, oil, minerals and extractive industry issues, infrastructure, human capital development and so on. And so, China poses a challenge, but also an opportunity for the AU. How it meets this will greatly determine what it’s role on the continent will be in the next 50 years.

A Re-Orientation of Our Philosophy & Role
Finally, it is important that we Africans change our thinking. Our notions of “African time” or “African systems” have obviously not done us much good and so we need to try something else. While it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, new dogs can certainly learn new tricks and so the renaissance in our thinking and acting should be geared towards the youth and children. In order for this to happen however, the older generation must be willing to take a step back on some fronts or to at least listen to African youth. Furthermore, we need to work on our educational systems and shift from rote learning to encouraging critical thinking and questioning. A more strategic approach to information creation and documentation has to be taken, with an emphasis on research. Without knowing where we are, how can we figure out where we want to be or project upcoming challenges?