The African Union: forging strong, personal relationships with Africa

The 60-year-old African Union (AU) – based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital – has developed an ambitious Agenda 2063. What exactly does it do and what role does Belgium play at the AU? We asked Stefaan Thijs, permanent representative to the AU.

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Group photo with African Union summit participants

Group picture in front of the emblem of the AU during the celebration of the 60th anniversary (© FPS Foreign affairs).

The 60-year-old African Union (AU) – based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital – has developed an ambitious Agenda 2063. What exactly does it do and what role does Belgium play at the AU? We asked Stefaan Thijs, permanent representative to the AU.

As early as 1963, the predecessor to the African Union (AU) – the Organisation for African Unity – was anointed. Not coincidentally, during the period of decolonisation. With the organisation, 32 African countries wanted to express a pan-African vision for a free and united Africa that would take its destiny into its own hands.

60 years later, 55 African countries are members of the AU – virtually the entire continent. Only Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan aree missing. They were temporarily suspended for being involved in conflicts. As with the EU, all AU member states have a permanent representation in Addis Ababa. This is also the case for almost all other countries in the world, including Belgium – they have observer status at the AU. That alone shows the great importance of the AU in today's world.

Ambassador Stefaan Thijs in front of the emblem of the African Union

Ambassador Stefaan Thijs in front of the emblem of the AU (© FPS Foreign affairs).

Inter-governmental organisation

'It is safe to say that thanks to the AU, Addis Ababa is one of the great diplomatic centres of the world – comparable to Brussels,' says Stefaan Thijs. He has been in post in Addis Ababa as the Belgian ambassador and permanent representative to the AU since 1 August 2022. 'Yet you cannot simply compare the AU to the EU. The EU is far more integrated, whereas the AU is purely an inter-governmental organisation. So that makes it a grouping of autonomous countries. There is an AU Commission, but all decisions are usually made by consensus among the 55 member states.

And this is not easy. 'Upon accession, candidate EU countries have to meet specific conditions (the 'Copenhagen Accession Criteria'), so you have more or less similar profiles,' Thijs explains. 'With the AU, all African countries that want it are automatically members, without conditions. So the diversity is far greater, there are many more of them, and there is no supranational engine like the Commission in the EU. That makes it difficult to come to agreements and to integrate deeper.'

Moreover, the genesis is different. Thijs: 'The EU arose through economic collaboration – the political came later. The AU, on the other hand, started from a political drive. Above all, it wanted its independent voice to be heard in the world. Attempts at greater economic integration followed only after the fact.'

African solutions to African problems

The AU has developed an ambitious Agenda 2063: a blueprint for 'the Africa we want' by 2063. And that involves: 'an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the global arena.'

A major achievement of the agenda so far is a political agreement on an African Continental Free Trade Area. At present, the AU is fully engaged in its implementation. The free trade zone should boost trade between African countries.

In addition, health is also high on the AU agenda, including with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). In the wake of the corona pandemic, the Africa CDC aims to advance the health agenda and better prepare Africa for future pandemics.

With its Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS) Department, the AU is working for peace in Africa. 'When conflict occurs in Africa, the AU invariably tries to formulate a response,' Thijs says. 'Whether it is Sudan or Tigray in Ethiopia, the Great Lakes or the Sahel, it is trying to intervene and play a significant role. According to the doctrine: African solutions to African problems.'

Open AU meetings

It is essential that Belgium be closely involved in the AU. With that said, a great deal is happening within the framework of the EU. Thijs: 'The EU has its own ambassador, representing all Member States. All the post heads from the EU Member States present meet at least twice a month to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. That does not prevent us from participating in open AU meetings as far as possible, even as an individual country.'

Our embassy chooses mainly those meetings that correspond to Belgian priorities. 'Peace and security, for example, is very important for our country,' says Thijs. 'As it happens, the embassy also has a military attaché who, using his defence background, monitors those aspects very closely. One major task for the diplomats is to keep the main administration in Brussels well-informed about AU actions. This is needed to help shape our policy around the Great Lakes, among other things. Where possible, we try to enhance the AU's actions.'

Health is also close to Belgium's heart. 'Already during the corona pandemic, we campaigned for Africa to eventually be able to produce its own vaccines and medicines, including through a vaccine hub in South Africa. Along with Germany and France, Belgium is now a front-runner within Team Europe in supporting the AU and the Africa CDC in rolling out an ambitious African health agenda. Moreover, Minister for Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez wants to make supporting that African health agenda a big priority during the Belgian EU presidency next year.'

Women mediating

So in addition to participating in meetings, our embassy within the AU also works proactively around Belgian priorities. And this could be even more intense. This is why Ambassador Thijs would like to conclude a Memorandum of Understanding with the AU. Aim: Taking diplomatic relations to the next level through regular and structural consultation with the AU summit.

Belgium also has a number of specific projects underway with the AU. Thijs: 'Through FemWise Africa and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), we are supporting women so that they can better play their role in conflict prevention and mediation. As such, we are contributing to the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), an AU programme. In addition, through UN Women, we are supporting African girls can code. This will mean 2,000 girls between the ages of 17 and 20 from across Africa will be trained as computer programmers, designers and creators.'

As a relatively small post – under-resourced and, since recently, with only 3 diplomats – you have to be very creative to have any impact and visibility, Thijs argues. 'This is why we are strongly committed to sharing expertise in areas where Belgium is strong. We do this by organising seminars and exchanges with experts, for example on health or mediation and conflict prevention. Or on humanitarian aid. The AU plans to set up its own humanitarian agency next year. This should allow it to be able to deploy itself if there is a disaster in Africa. In doing so, it is mirroring the ECHO – the European humanitarian aid agency. We are finding that there is a huge demand for expertise on that.'

National holidays

Every embassy in Addis Ababa – virtually the entire world is present – hosts a reception on the occasion of its national holiday. Our embassy makes grateful use of that. 'At those receptions, we meet our colleagues from almost all over the world,' Thijs explains. 'So also those of African countries, which is particularly interesting because they send the cream of the crop from their diplomatic staff here. The African diplomats here are all very knowledgeable and erudite. After a reception, you can invite some of the people you spoke with to a working lunch at the residence to go deeper into a topic. As long as there is some effort and a lot of empathy, you can thus build strong, personal relationships, even with the relatively closed-off group of African diplomats. That's how you learn a lot about what's really going on in Africa.'

Photo of banners with prominent African politicians in the main hall of the African Union

Banners with prominent African politicians in the main hall of the AU (© FPS Foreign affairs).

Strong identity

Just last year in February, an extremely promising EU-AU summit took place in Brussels. Shortly thereafter, Russia attacked Ukraine. Suddenly, the African countries appeared less than eager to join the EU camp. 'We take note of that but, on the other hand, we continue to hold the debate and explain our European position,' says Thijs. 'Some countries prefer to act non-aligned, while others have some special ties with Russia. They also do not understand why Europe does want conflicts in Africa to be stopped immediately, but is now supplying weapons to Ukraine itself. The West is blamed for too many double standards and inconsistencies in policy. There's no getting around it: Africa is asserting its independence. The AU has certainly contributed to a strong African identity.’

The AU therefore wants to play a greater role at the international level. 'It wants to join the G20 – the group of the world's 20 largest economies, including the EU - as the AU. It also wants at least 2 African countries to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Belgium fully supports the principle that Africa should be better represented on the international scene, including the UN Security Council. It is important for Africa to have a greater face and voice in the world. So we want to maintain a respectful dialogue and grow towards a mature relationship.'

Empathy is important

Empathy is very important here, Thijs stresses. 'We must never forget or ignore the scars of the colonial period. After all, Africa, as well as the relationship between Africa and Europe, are still struggling with an unprocessed past. We must not only show we understand this, but continue to work on it. This is also an ongoing challenge for Europe, which will require some political investment. Moreover, it is evident that Africa deserves its place in today's multipolar world.'

Regained confidence in African identity – thanks in part to the AU – may have a positive impact on the continent's overall economic development. This makes it important for Belgium to try to make the AU stronger. 'This can be done by sharing our expertise gained within the EU. For example, by making it clear that Belgium owes a lot to the EU – that thanks to the EU, as a medium-sized country, we have far more of a say today. Doing things together gave us more power in the world.'

'Moreover, it is my deep sense that the Africans strongly appreciate the EU and our European model,' Thijs adds. 'And this is despite the conspicuous presence of China and Russia in Africa. Many among the African elite have studied in the EU and therefore have a certain loyalty. We must therefore remain committed to university collaboration, which creates ties with future elites.'

So the Belgian presence at the AU is proving extremely valuable. Because this is how we forge strong, personal relationships with the African continent, which will increasingly come to the forefront in the future. Consider that as many as 70% of Africa's population today is aged under 30.