How is the AU addressing concerns of the African citizen?

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    African citizens are driving the African Union to respond better to their needs. As the African rising narrative gains traction, the centrality and primacy of the drivers of that rise – African citizens – continue to dominate debates on sustainable development. No longer invisible or simply victims, African citizens are leading the socio-economic and political transformation of the continent. They are demanding greater accountability, effective participation and inclusion in the socio, economic and political spheres of the state. From the North African uprisings of 2011 to Burkina Faso in 2014, citizen demands can no longer be wished away as mere irritations. African leaders and international actors cannot take citizens demands for granted, as the rumblings of uprisings can be felt in several countries. Change is coming, and in many places it has already come. This article examines the resurgence of the African citizen from a state of apathy as exemplified in the North Africa uprisings and Burkina Faso. As a result of this renewed renaissance, there is an increasing paradigm shift in how the African Union (AU) responds to citizen demands. This article proffers three emerging opportunities at the AU that have great potential to consolidate gains made by African citizens and continue to drive Africa’s rise. These are (1) the African Union Agenda 2063 framework; (2) the African common position on the post 2015 development agenda; and (3) the African Governance Architecture (AGA).

    We the people

    The sovereignty of any state, and the constitution that governs it, rests with its citizens. A government only gains legitimacy and credibility through the principle beneficiaries of the laws and regulations that are crafted to govern it. Therefore, any state’s constitution must represent the will of its peoples. The North Africa and Burkina Faso uprisings prove that any constitutional democracy that is not hinged on the popular will of the people will eventually crumble and may be challenged peacefully or otherwise. In particular, the North African uprisings challenged the rigid interpretation of the doctrine of unconstitutional changes of government hitherto promoted by the AU. These uprisings by citizens called for introspection of what determines a constitutional, or unconstitutional, change of government.

    A paradigm shift

    At first, the AU reacted with consternation to the uprisings in North Africa, not sure how to deal with a crisis that called into question the normative framework of the AU in its unquestioned condemnation of unconstitutional changes in government. Yet it quickly became clear that the framework must be recalibrated to address the new reality that citizens are indeed at the core of state sovereignty and as such, their legitimate demands must be respected and protected. The AU doctrine of unconstitutional changes of government, that had been espoused since the 2000 Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government and affirmed in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, would have to be reexamined. The confounding nature of the North Africa uprisings questioned the usual political and diplomatic decisions at the AU which at times hinders its ability to respond to crisis rapidly. Nonetheless, the AU has since made a u-turn insisting that its normative pronouncements must be respected and abided by within the prism of the citizen’s right as the custodian of sovereignty. Evidence of the paradigm shift was exemplified in Burkina Faso in 2014 when the AU officially called on the regime to respect the will of the people through the AU Peace and Security Council’s ultimatum to the government to restore constitutional order. Even though the AU was criticized for only acting after the popular uprising, still, its reaction was one of the swiftest and firmest to side with citizens’ demands.

    A union of peoples

    Can the African Union truly become a union of African peoples as opposed to simply a club of leaders? The transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union in 2002 was expected to usher in a new sense of urgency and imperative to continental integration. The new AU would accord primacy and centrality to the African citizen. While the OAU had succeeded in efforts towards the political liberation of African states and the end of apartheid, it had largely been viewed as a union of leaders. In a bid to return African citizens to the heart of the organisation, the Constitutive Act expressly provided that one of its principles was “participation of the African peoples in the activities of the Union.” To give effect to this principle, the AU established the Economic Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) as one of its advisory organs with a mandate to bring citizens closer to the Union. While the ECOSOCC has been bedeviled with a myriad of challenges to its goal, its recent revamping shows promise. It may not be there yet, but the African Union is taking steps to fulfill its promise of being a union dedicated to the people of Africa, not just its leaders.

    Responding to citizens’ demands

    In a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the OAU, the AU took time to reflect on its achievements, review its progress, analyse challenges and forecast prospects to achieve continental unity, integration and development. The AU’s principle normative framework - the Constitutive Act - provides the basis for the AU’s unequivocal alignment with African citizens’ demands. In a marked departure from its predecessor - the OAU Charter - the Constitutive Act places an emphasis on the ‘respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance’ as its foundation. Critically, the Act shifts from a focus on the principle of non-interference to one of non-indifference, particularly ‘in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.’ Clearly, if norms were the only measure of the AU’s response to citizens’ demands, the AU would be a shining star. However, the challenge for the AU lies in implementing its norms through the various innovative ways as briefly examined below.

    First, through Agenda 2063, the AU’s vision and blue print for the continent’s next 50 years, the Agenda appeals to all stakeholders, arguing that ‘the whole continent must be part of it to rekindle the spirit of working together to forge the destiny of the continent’ with a particular focus on the engagement of women and the youth. The Agenda calls for ‘visionary and transformative political leadership combined with vibrant citizen engagement.’ Second, the global dialogue on the post 2015 development agenda gave impetus to developing an African Common Position. The Position argues that in order to build a just and equitable society, the path of ownership must engage all citizens and enable them to hold key development stakeholders mutually accountable. It encourages mutual accountability between the state and its citizens. The AU is spearheading efforts to ensure these aspirations are the hallmark of the new post 2015 development goals and are realised in Africa. Finally, in recognition that democratic governance is at the heart of addressing citizen demands and root causes of crisis and conflict in Africa, including unconstitutional changes of government, the AU established the African Governance Architecture as a framework for dialogue among various organs and institutions mandated to promote good governance and strengthen democracy in Africa. AGA’s main goal is to ensure effective implementation of the AU’s Shared Values, and in particular, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Through the AGA framework, engagement with citizens through new and social media channels has intensified at the highest level as exemplified by tweet chats with the AU chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Leveraging on the engagement possibilities offered by new media platforms provides an opportunity for the AU to interface with the citizens on its successes, challenges and prospects. A youth and citizens engagement strategy has been developed as a strategic engagement process for citizens to impart on decision making at all levels. This interaction is expected to galvanise collective responsibility of AU member states and citizens in the quest for improved and inclusive democratic governance on the continent. This is exemplified by the role played by young people through the use of social media in the swift reaction of the AU to the protests in Burkina Faso which eventually ousted ‎Blaise Compaoré. The African continent cannot afford to have a union that does not listen to the African citizen. In fact, increasingly the AU has demonstrated its willingness and ability to be on the right side of history. With informed and vibrant African citizens engaging on a variety of platforms, states no longer have a monopoly on information. The African Union must recalibrate its citizen engagement mechanisms by adapting to the changing times on the continent. Africa is rising, so is the consciousness of its citizens! George Mukundi Wachira is Head of the African Governance Architecture Secretariat at the African Union Commission. The views in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the AGA Secretariat or the AU. Thanks to the AGA Secretariat team - Ibraheem Sanusi, Rizzan Nassuna and Lucy Dunderdale - for their comments.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 3 (April/May 2015).
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