The African Union needs a single foreign policy

Lynda Chinenye Iroulo
Assistant Professor of Government
Georgetown University

On 25 May 2023, the African Union (AU), which began as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), will celebrate its diamond jubilee. Sixty years later, the quest for African integration has not been achieved. The AU has succeeded in building common positions focusing on global issues like the Common African Position on Humanitarian Effectiveness and has responded to various issues, including Covid-19, civil conflicts, and development. Although the AU has evolved, broadening its scope to promote cooperation and development, the promise of regionalism remains unfulfilled. The AU has paid laudable efforts at cooperation, and it has to tackle integration with similar fervour. Its time for deeper integration to be supported by an African foreign policy to achieve complex domestic and international agendas.

African countries, most of whom belong to multiple regional organizations, have designated the eight sub-regional bodies as building blocks for continental integration. In addition, institutions like the African Union Development Agency, African Peer Review Mechanism, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and African Continental Free Trade Agreement are valuable instruments for fostering deeper integration. Thus, integration should top the AU’s priorities to go hand-in-hand with cooperation. The AU Assembly, the heads of states responsible for the final decisions, needs to leverage the benefits of cooperation to pursue integration.

Over the years, the AU has worked towards building consensus around ‘commons’ for the continent. But a single document reflecting an African foreign policy is conspicuously absent. There are two key reasons why the AU should adopt a foreign policy document, which has always featured as propriety since the organization’s inception. First, the gradualists won when two factions of newly independent African countries competed over the design of a continental organization. However, they won with the view of eventually integrating a bottom-up approach that would adopt a common foreign policy which the revolutionaries envisioned. Hence, the time is now. Also, pursuing a single foreign policy by the AU in critical areas will accelerate the common gains of promoting development across the continent, given its available natural, human and organizational resources necessary for such an endeavour. Moreover, a single foreign policy will transform African countries’ relations externally. Adeoye’s analysis of common African positions shows that a united voice has strengthened Africa’s position as a global player.

For instance, the AU can employ the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to create the conditions for African countries to pursue a common trade policy in international affairs. It behoves the AU to draft an African foreign policy leveraging this effective arrangement as a catalyst for its other action plans. On trade, a strategy should be laid out not just on how the AU member countries liberalize the movement of goods and services within the continent but also on its international trade through clear stipulations on a single tax system for goods and services by non-African countries. Equally critical is an AU reform directed at mitigating over-dependence on foreign donors. Member states can extend that initiative by developing an import duty for non-African goods and services with the 0.2 per cent duty on eligible imports reserved for the financing of the AU. Foreign actors should be made to engage with Africa as a single economic bloc to ensure that both big and small states on the continent rip the benefits of this integration.

The AU should perform due diligence to protect the continent, which has morphed into a dumping ground for substandard goods, expired drugs, technologies and fabrics, all of which are most harmful to the health of African people. A unified trade policy will not only send a strong message but will also rectify the problem by stipulating prerequisites for the quality of goods coming into the continent. Other needed steps, the AU should demand that Multinational corporations hire Africans for both representations and checks and balances as regards labour conditions. Implementing a standard foreign policy will ultimately benefit Africa by mitigating the effects of the prevailing power imbalances transnationally.

A strong case to be made regarding a standard foreign policy involves migration outside the continent. The Henley Passport Index, 2022, has shown record-breaking travel freedom for top-ranking countries, gaining visa-free access, on average, from 57 to 107 countries. However, it has also documented the widest mobility gap, so much so that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres labelled it a “travel apartheid”. This is because richer states consider African citizens to be high risk at the levels of security, asylum and visa overstaying.

With the Covid-19 outbreak, the African experience has once again shown us why it is essential that Africa sets a single foreign policy on migration. Although the continent has one of the least infections and death rates, it has faced the most discriminatory travel policies. Africans must be treated humanely around the world. Some sub-regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States already have free movement protocols that should be replicated across Africa. The AU can begin by using each REC passport as the pilot passport for free movement across the continent, making it an international passport. Furthermore, an AU foreign policy on migration should demand reciprocity with non-African states. Thus, if a non-African passport holder can travel visa-free within the continent for three months, then an African passport holder should be accorded the same rights afforded easily to non-Africans to enter most African states, no questions asked.

However, to initiate these steps towards a single AU foreign policy, the Assembly must merge talk with action by implementing these urgent policies. Re-echoing the warnings of the great Kwame Nkrumah, Africa Must Unite to deal with challenges that are best addressed continentally. We have remained disadvantaged for too long while still having the opulent resources to achieve our objectives. Deeper integration supported by a single African foreign policy will be beneficial.

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