Britain’s vote to ditch the European Union offers the chance of a new beginning — not just for the EU, and the U.K., but for Africa. Since most countries on the continent gained independence in the 1960s and 1970s, they have mindlessly mimicked Western political institutions. Rome has a basilica; so, too, must Yamoussoukro in Ivory Coast. France once had an emperor, so Jean-Bédel Bokassa spent $25 million on a coronation ceremony in the Central African Republic. The United States has a space center. Now Nigeria does too, at the cost of $89 million, though more than half its population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Of the putrid carcasses of failed foreign systems that litter the continent, none is more rancid than the African Union, which, as it happens, was modeled on the EU.
Since at least the start of the global financial crisis, and certainly since last month’s Brexit referendum, the EU has proved it can’t work for Europe. African leaders should now admit that a meretricious caricature of it can’t possibly work for Africa.
As the successor institution to the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the first pan-African body of the postcolonial era, the AU was founded in 2001. It was the brainchild of the late Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, who, having previously crowned himself “King of Kings,” no doubt harbored delusions of becoming the continent’s first president. (He would have to settle for the AU chairmanship, which he held from 2009 to 2010.) The aim of the new body was to present a united African front in international affairs and to speed up the development of the continent. But the AU was hobbled from the start by its poor structural design, which was both too centralized and too weak to function as envisioned.
The AU concentrates decision-making authority in the AU Commission, an executive branch roughly analogous to the European Commission, which initiates policy proposals and implements decisions taken by the larger AU Assembly, among other AU organs. The AU Commission controls the purse strings, and member states have little influence over the drafting of proposals and initiatives. This level of centralization has proved unworkable in a continent of 54 countries and more than 2,000 distinct ethnic groups. The AU Commission’s authority mostly serves to create suspicion and intrigue and ultimately to instill resistance in member states to the body’s dictates.