Citizens’ Participation in African Union Decision Making Process: Some Reflections

Recent developments at the African Union especially the launch of Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want –  is a landmark step towards the realisation of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” The Agenda itself recognises that people’s ownership and mobilisation is needed as one of the critical enablers to concretise the seven aspirations of what we can call the business plan of Africa. This must be true both at country, regional and continental level. Civic space is being terribly challenged in a growing number of countries on our continent. At the African Union level, CSOs/Citizens’ institutional space is clearly recognised in the founding documents of the AU (constitutive Act) as well as in other policies and instruments of the Union has been growing significantly in recent years but it is still not properly structured. Engagement is still informal in most cases.

Citizens/CSOs influencing space at the African Union must include two main set of targets: 1/AU Member States and 2/ African Union organs including the AU Commission (AUC) but also other organs based outside of Addis Ababa.  In addition, influencing and participation must be built on the decision making process of the African Union starting from policy proposals, the Permanent Representatives deliberations, Experts meetings, Ministerial meetings until the final adoption by the Summit or other organs of the Union. An efficient influencing strategy must include issue-based power analysis, countries’ geopolitical positions, and engaging specific departments of the AUC etc. without forgetting external actors’ influence.  Efficient influencing strategy must also take in consideration the annual calendar of events of the AUC normally adopted in January every year (now discussed in the June/July Summit). We should not also forget the fact that the African Union is looking for expertise and alternative analysis on particular issues. CSOs aiming to contribute must seek specialization and grassroots based perspectives that only CSOs have in most cases.

Decisions of the African Union Executive Council and Assembly are normally the result of work done months before each summit by the Commission and other organs, and in decision-making processes within individual member states. The majority of proposals presented to the Assembly at the Summit have already been largely agreed before they are tabled. Some of the reports on the Summit agenda are even adopted without any further discussions.

Documents adopted by the Assembly usually start life as a policy proposal from one of the AU Commission’s departments, from another AU organ or from a Member State. These proposals are debated in an experts’ meeting, whose members are nominated by Member States, and then in a meeting called for the relevant Ministers from Member States to approve or amend the experts’ proposals. With the exception of decisions with implications for the budget which are then considered by the PRC, the final documents from the ministerial meeting will go directly to the Executive Council and the Assembly for adoption.


Engaging with Experts and Ministerial Policy debate: Over the last 5 years or so, non-state actors’ engagement of the various steps of the AU Decision making process has been easier than ever, even though it remained informal and unstructured. Most of the departments of the AUC have been systematically inviting non-state actors to policy debates including experts and ministerial meetings. NGOs are even allowed to take the floor during those meetings and share their reports. Organizations that have shown interest in particular issues have normally had a chance to be part of policy discussions at experts and ministerial level as long as they keep contact with policy/desk officers at the AUC or other organs. In 2014/15 for example, my organization Oxfam and a number of its partners, African CSOs and other actors  have had numerous direct engagements with Experts and Minsters in charge of health, peace and security, humanitarian, rural economy and agriculture, economic affairs, trade and industries, human rights, gender etc. In many cases such engagement include participation in formal meetings, side meetings hosted by NGOs and well attended by policy makers including Ministers, Ambassadors, Commissioners and desk officer of the AUC. It is important to insist on the fact that, with very few exceptions, policy influence can only happen at ambassador, expert and ministerial meetings level. At the AU summit, most positions would have already been cooked and a good number of ministerial reports are no more open for discussion before adoption.

AU Summit, a networking opportunity: Normally, there is very little room to catalyze deep policy changes at the Summit level only. Engagement must start from the birth of the process described above. However influence on burning current or on-going issues are best done during the AU Summit. Also, issues on which countries have failed to reach strong consensus during the normal policy process come back to the Summit. The AU Summit equally presents an important opportunity for networking for further engagements and for media work to raise and draw policy makers’ attention on important and current issues. It is also an unique opportunity for organizations, donors and other personalities operating on a wide range of issues from the whole continent and elsewhere to be at the same place at the same time. Non-State actors can hold policy influencing side events during the AU Summit and have delegations to attend. A number of pre-summit consultations are held by CSOs including women groups. ECOSOCC and CIDO are also supposed to hold CSOs pre-summit events but this has not been consistent in recent years.

Observers (CSOs) Accreditation to the AU Summit: Non-state actors’ access to AU Summit has not been properly structured so far and it is difficult to know the actual criteria used by the AUC to identify CSOs to be invited. Organizations working with specific departments at the AUC can forward their applications to those departments. The Citizens and Diaspora Directorate normally post a call for application on the AU website 3 months before the Summit. I am not sure this has been systematic though.

Due to space constraint, the AU Commission makes choices likely based on the timing of application, role envisaged in the Summit, activities related to the themes of the Summit, history of the organization requesting accreditation and institutional relation with the African Union organs etc. CSOs intending to participate in the Summit must first of all apply formally and this needs to be done at least 3 months before the Summit. NGOs having a MoU with the African Union are normally systematically invited to the Summit even though it is not always the case. It is always advisable to make a request ahead of every summit if you wish to be invited.

The current trend since January 2013 is that January Summits seem to be more open to observers (CSOs & Non-African Countries, Int. Gov. Organizations etc.) while access to the mid-year summits are more and more restricted. Speculations indicate that Ambassadors complain about the disturbances at Summit meetings by partners (donors) who host multiple bi-lateral meetings with member state delegations while formal summit policy meetings are running. I have personally witnessed situations where Heads of State and their Ministers of foreign affairs and at times the Ambassadors leave Summit meetings in order to meet with partners. A formal decision is likely to be taken on this issue during the 25th Summit in South Africa in June 2015.

CSOs must not be restricted because of the disturbance caused by partners during the Summits. The AU Summit is an unique strategic and symbolic space where citizens and their formations have a chance to interact with high level policy makers in the corridors, during official opening and closing ceremonies and social events. CSOs also use it for media work including press briefings interview and other media programme.

It is well understood that CSOs do not attend close debates of policy makers during the Summit however the AU Commission itself recognises that Observers including CSOs “are entitled to attend the working sessions of the Executive Council dealing with agenda item of which the AU Commission considers that they are concerned I am not aware of any case where CSOs have used this provision always included in the AU invitation letters to Summits.

As a way forwards: while African CSOs must stand against any closure  or shrinking of the AU Summit space (an unique and legitimate continental policy and networking space for African citizens) we should effectively organize ourselves to engage on a consistent and continued basis, the most influential policy spaces of the African Union which are the experts and ministerial meetings as well as engagement of the Addis Ababa based Permanent Representatives, various AU organs/ desks etc. Access to those spaces is more and more open.

To read more on this issue, get our AU Compendium here:

Note: Views in this blog are absolutely personal.


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