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African unity should be moving much faster, says Baye Moctar Diop

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African unity should be moving much faster, says Baye Moctar Diop

Baye Moctar Diop, Senegal’s ambassador to the European Union, finds in the African Union an expression of the continent’s expectations and contradictions. He pleads for bold action by governments in favour of the people and the image that Africa projects to the world. Interview by Hichem Ben Yaïche and Nicolas Bouchet.

From 2016 to 2021 you were posted to the African Union in Addis Ababa. You were at the heart of the mechanics of African integration and chose to tell this story in African Unity: Between ambition and will power, the insight of an African Ambassador at post in Addis Ababa. What do you retain from this rich experience?

These were very rich years. Addis Ababa is a stronghold of world diplomacy. Africa’s positions as well as its strategy towards the outside world are prepared there. My five years in Ethiopia coincided with the combined efforts of the members of the African Union to put the organisation on a better financial footing. I arrived exactly in the year when the heads of state and government realised that the organisation’s financial difficulties could not continue. It was not sustainable.

It was time for the organisation to get to grips with financing its own activities and achieving its own ambitions. The process has taken many years and is still ongoing. I have seen how Africans are mobilised to give substance to the vision of pan-Africanism and to ensure that the AU is a respected organisation in the world. These very intense moments allowed me to experience the inner realities of the organisation that I have tried to relate in my book.

Financial empowerment is not fully achieved. What needs to be done today to make this institution fully independent?

What is missing, as you rightly point out, is that financial autonomy has not yet been achieved five years after the launch of the new funding mechanism. Today, I am sorry to say, it is no secret that the AU is still underfunded. It depends almost 65% on budgetary support from various partners, European or American. This cannot continue.

What is lacking is a renewed and harmonised determination on the part of States to move at the same pace. With the same ambition to give the AU its financial autonomy. Among the Member States, there are still some that do not apply the new financing mechanism. This is how the great ambition of giving the AU the financial autonomy it so desperately needs, and therefore its independence and the respectability expected of it, has not been achieved.

Why do many people perceive this institution as a bureaucracy out of step with the aspirations of Africans?

I share this analysis. The Conference of African Heads of State and Government is equally aware that the AU is out of step with the aspirations of the African people. This is because the representative organs of governments have primacy over other bodies. In terms of hierarchy, there is first the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, the Executive Council which brings together the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and then the Committee of Permanent Representatives which brings together the Ambassadors.

On the other hand, there are bodies that should represent African citizens, such as the Pan-African Parliament, the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), the African Court of Justice and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These bodies, which are supposed to be the voice of the African people, do not have the same powers as those representing governments. This explains the lack of understanding and the criticism that the AU often fails to reflect the views of the people.

The solution is to give more power and voice to the other bodies to better reflect the concerns of African citizens.

Many Africans think that when they meet, Africa’s leaders produce words rather than actions.

What is missing, in my opinion, is an awareness. The narrative that comes from the AU is not exactly what it should be. It does not fit with the internal geopolitical reality of Africa or the world. The OAU was created in the early 1960s to accompany African independence and to fight against apartheid. The OAU, the forerunner of the AU, achieved its original objectives. But the transition from the OAU to the AU has been difficult to achieve. In its day-to-day operations, the narrative has still remained that of challenging colonisation. This is what really brings down the functioning of the AU and blurs its image somewhat.

What should be done ?

Move the discourse from protest to action, with the means it calls for. We come back to the question of financial autonomy. By playing on these two levers, we should give the AU a better image, reconcile it with the African people and prepare it to assume the role it should play in the concert of nations.

What needs to be done to untie the knots and speed up the processes for greater efficiency?

Efforts are being made. The subject of institutional reform is financial autonomy but also institutional change. There are structural readjustments that the AU needs to make to better reflect its objectives. These readjustments concern the delimitation of missions because the AU works closely with the regional economic communities based in the sub-regions. The idea is that the AU should specialise in global issues, i.e. African economic integration, environmental challenges, migration, the fight against terrorism. These global challenges go beyond the level of sub-regions and this is one of the levers we can work on to make the AU’s action much more visible.

In an emergency, are we able to provide responses that require time and long-term investment?

Africa is capable of meeting all these challenges. The record is admittedly meagre compared to the ambitions declared since 1963, but it is worth its weight in gold. The AU has succeeded in eradicating apartheid and colonisation on the continent. It has been succeeding, since 1999, in undergoing a transformation.

As you know, we are working on the establishment of a continental free trade area to strengthen intra-African trade. The AU set up an economic development programme, NEPAD. In 2013, it also adopted a strategic vision called Agenda 2063. The vision is there.

The challenges are just as great as the successes. What remains is to have a harmonised and common will. This is what makes us feel like we are moving forward, but we are moving very slowly.

However, what we see in the Sahel makes us think. This region is plagued by devastating terrorism that is antagonising communities and creating flash points everywhere. Why has Africa not reacted and become aware of this danger in order to mobilise and address the problem collectively?

The Sahel is indeed a powder keg that poses a threat to Africa’s existence. If it ignites, it could affect almost the entire continent. Terrorism is a cross-cutting scourge that must call for the general mobilisation of all energies.

The solution is already in the documents of the AU, which has set up an African Standby Force. Its vocation is to be able to be deployed in theatres of operation with solely African soldiers to fight battles that must be African battles. We are on the front line and the populations are the first to be affected by the situation in the Sahel. Unfortunately, the African Standby Force that has been officially declared operational is not yet operational. The men may be available but the materials and equipment are awaited from partners and do not arrive at the desired time.

This means that the operationalising of the African Force is somewhat delayed. But I am convinced that, once operational, the deployment of this force with sufficiently trained men supported by partners can play a watchdog role in the Sahel and perhaps throughout Africa.

You were stationed in Ethiopia when the post-Cotonou agreements between Europe and Africa were negotiated. Do they really reflect the challenges and ambitions of the continent? We know that 30% of Europe’s trade is with Africa.

That is why there has been a change that is important to highlight. The new agreement, which we hope will be signed in December, will favour regional compacts. The AU will have its own compact with the EU, as will the Caribbean and the Pacific. Africa, with its geographical and commercial specificities and its constraints of all kinds, will ensure that its concerns are taken into account in a specific way, separate from those of the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Have we indeed achieved this? We will know when the agreement is implemented. But, in anticipation, Africans, under the coordination of AU experts, have ensured that Africa is treated in a specific way, since it has specific needs.

It should be stressed, whether we deplore it or not, that Africa has three areas of cooperation with Europe: with sub-Saharan Africa, with the Maghreb countries through the neighbourhood agreements, and through another agreement that links the EU to South Africa. This differentiation is not conducive to African unity.

Do you fear that the extreme polarisation of the world, illustrated by the war in Ukraine, will have serious consequences for Africa?

It is fortunate that the African Union, under the leadership of its current chairperson Macky Sall and the chairperson of the Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat, very early on set up a task force to make recommendations on Africa’s position on the situation in Ukraine.

It is obvious that what is happening in Ukraine has consequences in Africa, Europe and all over the world. This war is taking place between two countries that are a global grain basket and a reservoir of hydrocarbons for many countries. We all have an interest in working for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of serious negotiations that can pave the way to peace. This is the path that the AU is on.

We know that the consequences will be terrible. The UN Secretary General has spoken of a “tsunami” in terms of food security in Africa in relation to what is happening in Ukraine. It is not Africans but FAO and WFP experts who have warned about the dangers of what is happening in Ukraine. This is why, at the beginning of June, the AU and African Commission chairmen went to Sochi, Russia. They met with the Russian president to explain to him that the conflict affects the continent. And that the African Union, which has no position on the conflict, should not suffer from it.

And, to give credit where credit is due, they solemnly called for the release of grain shipments from the Black Sea to allow the export of Ukrainian grain under the auspices of the United Nations. In recent weeks, fears about food security in Africa and elsewhere have eased, and we welcome this.

Africa is a continent of raw materials, a continent that needs to be developed and given an economic boost. How do you see this cycle coming out on top?

We have to recognise that there are difficulties and that we cannot look away from what is happening on African soil, which gives the continent an ugly image. Besides that, there have been important efforts. It should be remembered that before the Covid-19 crisis, for a decade, Africa was the continent with the highest growth rates in the world.

In Ethiopia, before the war and before the health crisis, the growth rate was over 10%. It is the second most populous African country. The same is true of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, which achieved a growth rate of 7% before the pandemic. In spite of our difficulties, in spite of all our constraints in terms of infrastructure and energy, we have resources that are capable of helping the continent develop. Africa is 30 million square kilometres. One of our main resources is the youth of our population: out of 1.4 billion inhabitants, 60% are under thirty.

The urgent need to solve these problems, alongside efforts to improve economic and political governance, is to ensure that there are no more wars, to settle inter-state disputes peacefully, to improve economic governance, to eradicate corruption… is to invest in human capital. To train our young people and give them jobs. That is why efforts are currently being made on food, pharmaceutical and medical sovereignty because we also need to care for our people.

This is why the AU, which in 2015 created the Africa CDC to deal with major pandemics, recently ratified the agreement to create the African Medicines Agency. So there is no reason to be discouraged. We must continue to work and improve political and economic governance, to invest in reducing our structural vulnerabilities. In this way we will achieve economic emergence by 2035. This is the ambition of the AU chairperson.

From the AU observatory to the EU headquarters in Brussels – where you are posted – you are going to have an even stronger experience where Africa will continue to pursue you. How can you bring your valuable experience to the continent?

It’s easy to move from Addis Ababa to Brussels, where the AU has a permanent representation office. We also have a very dynamic African group that works closely with the European Commission. It should be stressed that Africa, through history, has a very deep relationship with Europe. Even though I have left Addis Ababa, I still have this passion for Africa deep inside me. I continue to follow the activities of the AU from here, so that we can have this exchange of experience.

What the AU is doing is more or less the same as what the EU is doing. So there is a lot of room to exchange on the respective experiences of the EU and the AU and to get the best from each organisation.

As a diplomat, you know how to keep your word. However, you feel the need to express a certain truth despite the constraints of your position. What challenge remains to go even further in the pooling of this experience?

I am campaigning for Africa to propose more in its political unification project. My feeling after leaving Addis Ababa is that the steps towards building a political union on an African scale are still timid. Next year the AU will be 60 years old, which is a long time in a human lifetime. We should be moving forward much faster, but what is lacking is a little more audacity. This is why I am campaigning for our states to trust each other more and to say that we definitely have a common destiny.

Our destiny lies in inter-African solidarity. We are Africans, we have the same history, we share the same geographical space and we must live together, grow together, become richer together and die together. This is missing. This is where the problem lies when I write “wills” in the plural in my book.

The second element is that, at the level of the AU, the conception of African unity is not the same among all member states. For some, the African unity theorised by the founding fathers such as Jomo Kenyatta or Kwame Nkrumah remains a mobilising discourse. But there are, on the one hand, those who want to take controlled steps and, on the other, those who want to confine the AU to a role of harmonisation of positions.

Between these two groups, there is sometimes a certain self-neutralisation and they move forward with great difficulty. That is why I call on the AU and the Assembly of Heads of State and Government to be a little more daring and harmonious, to sit down and think together about the ambition to achieve this political unity on a continental scale.

“African Unity: Between ambition and will power, the insight of an African Ambassador at post in Addis Ababa” is published by L’Harmattan.

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