Author: Babatunde Fagbayibo and Udoka Ndidiamaka Owie
Type of publication: Article
THE NORMATIVE BASIS OF THE AU’S COORDINATING POWERS
The Constitutive Act empowers the Assembly to create other organs, including the Africa CDC as a specialized technical institution of the AU to promote disease prevention and control in Africa. The AU Executive Council, composed of designated national ministers, is tasked with coordinating and taking decisions on policies in areas of common interest to member states. The AU Commission is the designated “engine room” of the organization, and is responsible for initiating and implementing AU policies.
The Constitutive Act contains some of the normative stipulations affirming the AU’s authority to coordinate policies on the continent. A number of stipulations are relevant in the context of the AU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include objectives to: achieve greater unity and solidarity between the countries and peoples of Africa; promote and defend African common positions on issues of interest; coordinate the harmonization of the policies of regional economic communities (RECs) in Africa; advance the promotion of research in science and technology; work with international partners to eradicate preventable diseases and promote good health in Africa; and promote democratic principles and the rule of law. The Constitutive Act also includes within its objectives the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights, in respect of which the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights includes the right to the best attainable state of physical and mental health. Read together, these norms speak to developing a common agenda that drives meaningful and sustainable regionalism on the continent. In addition, these norms form the basis of the AU’s policy and agenda-setting interventions in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
With regard to soft law, the AU Agenda 2063 serves as the flagship framework for repositioning the continent as a meaningful player on the global stage. Adopted in 2015, the AU Agenda 2063 outlines seven aspirational goals: a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development; an integrated continent, politically united, based on the ideals of pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s renaissance; an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law; a peaceful and secure Africa; an Africa with strong cultural identity, common heritage, values and ethics; an Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, to care for children; and an Africa as a strong, united and influential global player and partner. Under the first and sixth aspirations, Africans will enjoy a high quality of life and sound health underpinned by the provision of quality health services and infrastructure.
Central to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the African Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 Outbreak (Joint Continental Strategy), authored by the Africa CDC, is the key soft law document. Drawing from the norms contained in the Constitutive Act, the Joint Continental Strategy sets out the strategy for dealing with COVID-19 in Africa with twin goals: the prevention of severe illness and death; and the mitigation of social disruption and economic consequences of the virus. Achieving the stipulated goals is envisaged through a binary approach: the coordination of multi-level and multilateral collaborative efforts between the AU and its agencies, multilateral organizations, RECs, member states, private sector and other stakeholders to strengthen capacity to control the virus; and the promotion of evidence-based public health practice.
The Joint Continental Strategy also provides for its implementation through two major operational units: the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) and the Africa CDC’s Incident Management System (IMS). The Africa CDC, through AFTCOR, is at the heart of the coordinative matrix for addressing the pandemic. The Africa CDC has regional collaborating centres in each of Africa’s five RECs, which are responsible for implementing continent-wide public health strategies within member states’ structures. AFTCOR draws upon these structures while focusing on six technical areas: surveillance; infection prevention and control; clinical management; laboratory diagnosis and subtyping; risk communications; and supply chain and medical commodities stockpiling. The IMS functions with the support of the African Volunteer Health Corps, which assists during public health emergencies.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE TRANSNATIONAL APPROACH TO COVID-19 IN AFRICA
The AU has adopted a multi-sectoral approach in its continental response, recognizing that its response requires a whole-of-society approach in view of the pervasiveness of the virus. One of the AU’s initial interventions was the establishment of the African Coronavirus Fund by the Bureau of the AU Heads of State and Government, chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who was the chair of the Assembly in 2020; a decision to this effect was subsequently adopted by the Executive Council. The fund is aimed at supporting a sustained health response, including the procurement and distribution of essential medical equipment and supplies, boosting capacity of the Africa CDC; and mitigating the socio-economic and humanitarian impact of the virus on vulnerable African populations. The bureau agreed that member states would contribute USD 12.5 million as seed funding, with the bureau member states (Mali, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Egypt) agreeing to contribute USD 4.5 million of that amount.
With rising currency depreciation and the concomitant increase in debt service payments due to the pandemic and its negative implications for African economies, the AU sought external financial assistance to alleviate economic hardships on member states. Following the tasking by the G20 of its finance ministers and central bank governors to develop an action plan in response to the pandemic and liaise with international organizations to ensure swift and appropriate international financial assistance, the then Assembly chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed four special envoys to mobilize international support for Africa to assist in mitigating the negative economic impact of the pandemic. The special envoys are “tasked with soliciting rapid and concrete support as pledged by the G20, the European Union (EU) and other international financial institutions”.
Furthermore, the AU has entered into partnerships with private entities and corporations. One such is the partnering with the China-based Jack Ma Foundation and the Ali Baba Foundation, which has donated three consignments of personal protective equipment to the AU. The AU’s response has also extended to the racist attacks and brutality meted to Africans in Guangdong province in China following the outbreak of COVID-19. The then deputy chairperson of the AU Commission, Kwesi Quartey, invited the Chinese ambassador to the AU, Liu Yuxi, to discuss the incidences of racism against Africans with a view to resolving them.
In addition, there is a dedicated up-to-date page on the AU website, which provides information on COVID-19, an emergency hotline, and continental documents and guidelines aimed at combatting the pandemic. Similarly, the AU has fully explored social and popular media as channels for enhancing awareness and information on the virus, including the provision of daily updates on the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Critical to the achievement of the goals of the Joint Continental Strategy is the development and roll-out of a safe and efficacious COVID-19 vaccine in Africa. To this end, the Africa CDC developed a COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Access Strategy, which the AU Bureau of Heads of States and Governments endorsed on 20 August 2020.
On 14 January 2021, the AU announced that, through the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, it had secured a provisional 270 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine for Africa, and member states began to pre-order vaccines through the Africa Medical Supplies Platform. The African Export-Import (Afrexim) Bank provided procurement commitment guarantees of up to USD 2 billion to vaccine manufacturers on behalf of member states, to facilitate payment for the vaccines.
Even as some AU member states have only recently received the first doses of vaccines through COVAX, while vaccinations are well underway in the rest of the world, the AU’s commitment to multilateralism and solidarity remains critical not only in its crafting of a continental response to the pandemic but also its implementation of policies in this regard.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) remains one of the most active RECs in terms of policy response to COVID-19. Based on its experience dealing with the Ebola outbreak in 2014–16, ECOWAS put in place an early mechanism to prepare for COVID-19. As far back as 27 January 2020, the West African Health Organization (WAHO), ECOWAS’s specialized health institution tasked with coordinating regional health initiatives, issued recommendations to ECOWAS member states concerning the novel coronavirus outbreak, well before the WHO determined the existence of a pandemic and even before the AU and Africa CDC activated a continental response. It still maintains an information dashboard, monitoring infections, deaths and recoveries from the virus in West Africa. The Regional Strategic Plan 2016–20 for West Africa stipulates the promotion and harmonization of health policies and programmes for WAHO, as well as strengthening strategic partnerships for health and building institutional capacity in priority areas, including disease control, epidemics and health emergencies. Due to this, WAHO entered into a strategic partnership with UNESCO as it strove for solutions to strengthen national capacities to respond to the pandemic. In addition, ECOWAS has provided funds for the procurement of medical supplies and equipment, including testing kits, protective personal equipment, medication and ventilators. Furthermore, WAHO strengthens the capacity of medical, laboratory and technical personnel within member states and deploys epidemiological surveillance of the virus through its Regional Centre for Surveillance and Disease Control, which is central to the operational mechanism of the Africa CDC and the Joint Continental Strategy. Equally as important in ECOWAS’s response is the decision of the Authority of Heads of States and Governments jointly to develop a post-pandemic economic recovery plan. The plan includes measures such as: issuing long-term treasury bills and bonds to finance critical investment needs to support the private sector and revive economies; providing substantial support to various social sectors and for the most disadvantaged segments of society; deploying financial tools and means through central banks to support the financial sector, and assist small and medium-scale enterprises; and implementing urgent measures to support the production of consumer products including agricultural products. It is important to emphasize that two ECOWAS member states, Ghana and Senegal, have been commended for providing continental leadership in the development of affordable and effective rapid testing for coronavirus.
This overview of continental and sub-regional responses to the pandemic shows considerable preparedness that must be factored into the discourse on COVID-19 in Africa, as exemplifying much needed multilateralism and solidarity in the critical times and circumstances introduced by the pandemic. Through the regional collaborating centres, as well as in their various and varied responses to COVID-19 and their role in synergizing sub-regional and continental health, the RECs form a key part of the continental response under the Joint Continental Strategy. Critical as the sub-regional responses are, some limitations are notable. The impact of the sub-regional responses, although it is still too early to make a definitive call one way or the other, remains open because their results are somewhat mixed. ECOWAS, SADC and the AU have recognized the imperative for better harmonization and coordination between sub-regional initiatives and continental initiatives for a cohesive response in Africa. Unlike the AU, the adequacy of the communication of strategies by the RECs remains doubtful. Institutional crises within some RECs undermine their cooperative stability, as is evident in the Economic Community of Central African States, which is currently undergoing reform having adopted instruments of institutional reform in December 2019. Likewise, there are additional problems of the AU deferring to continental initiatives without replicating critical efforts, such as: creating special funds at the sub-regional level for combating the virus; non-compliance with regional COVID-19 plans including unilateral measures by some national governments and even delayed national measures; funding challenges by the RECs and insufficient resources to implement and coordinate responses; and political instability as a result of armed conflicts, especially in Central Africa, as well as the political crisis caused by a recent military coup d’état in Mali and the death of the president of Burundi. There is also the absence of regional and national leadership, as shown in the case of the late President John Magufuli of Tanzania, who was also the chair of SADC, regarding his scepticism and denial of the virus’s existence, or even President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. The latter (although appointed by the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Governments as the “champion” to coordinate the COVID-19 response and eradication process at the sub-regional level) has failed to show the necessary cogency or leadership in addressing the pandemic at the national level; this is evident in the misappropriation by government officials of palliatives meant to mitigate the economic hardship of the pandemic, as shown to the world during the “#EndSARS” protests against police brutality and bad leadership. Nevertheless, the AU can leverage these continental and sub-regional initiatives for multiple goals beyond combatting the pandemic.
THE PROSPECT OF UTILIZING THE AU’S RESPONSE TO COVID-19 AS A TEMPLATE FOR ACHIEVING ITS SUPRANATIONAL ASPIRATIONS
The way in which the AU has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic so far has been commendable. Despite its many challenges, the AU has been able to craft a sound continental response strategy that is matched by concomitant policy actions and processes. Such a positive response raises a further question, one that is at the heart of this article: could this serve as a window of opportunity for creating the template for the AU to achieve its supranational aspirations? In his analysis of the role of the Africa CDC in coordinating the response to COVID-19, Engel argued that this action is an important investment in region-building, especially through the implementation of a “strategy of creating hubs and spokes in the African regions”. The implication of this is that strategies employed by the Africa CDC, and the AU, during this period provide processual experiences that can be further explored in not only recognizing the imperative of enhanced regionalism but also understanding the dynamics of putting in place supranational measures for regional integration in Africa.
The AU’s coordinating strategies in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic present instructive pointers for crafting a feasible template for broader supranational ambitions. As already noted above, four key issues are relevant in this regard: progressive internationalism; swiftness of action; agency and ownership of the process; and legitimacy. These factors should be adopted and adapted to ongoing normative processes of transforming the AU. The engagement with relevant stakeholders in the process of enhancing the AU’s powers must be informed by ideas that indicate the necessity of urgency, continued and sustained engagement, transparency of activities, and the understanding that context matters in policy formulation and implementation. It also shows the importance of prioritizing multi-sectoral and intersectional approaches in addressing critical issues. The successes of the Africa CDC, in its first three years of existence and despite its many challenges, reflect the possibility of effectiveness on the part of regional institutions once the necessary political will exists. This also shows the efficacy of soft law in achieving the objectives of coordinating policies and norms. Similarly, the sustained interaction among key AU actors and civil society in strengthening intervention strategies and exploring possible means of improvement underline the much-needed cooperation in advancing the cause of regional integration. The recognition of the AU’s efforts by external actors further enhances its legitimacy and the possibility of its capacity to act as the continent’s voice on the global stage.
Challenges and prospects
Before considering the methods of adapting the lessons from the AU’s approach to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, it is first imperative to consider the possible normative challenges in this respect. The first is the absence of a normative framework regulating relations between the AU and RECs. Although a framework was adopted in 2007, it never came into force. This led to a new draft protocol that is also yet to come into effect. This normative gap means that there is no clarity in terms of division of labour and functions between the AU and the RECs, exacerbating their inability to coordinate policies and strategies effectively around regional integration. The existence of such a normative framework would have provided the Africa CDC with an easier task of ensuring compliance from the RECs, as well as enhanced synergy with them, in terms of combatting the pandemic.
Another challenge is that some AU member states have refused to comply with the continental agenda on social distancing, reporting of infections, closing airspace and respect for fundamental human rights.
The third challenge is that both the AU and the Africa CDC are hampered by limited human and financial resources for effectively combatting the virus. Although the AU has been proactive in setting up funding structures for the Africa CDC and its activities, the agency still relies extensively on external funding.
Lastly is the inadequacy of national health systems and the insufficiency of public health assets. This puts a strain on the ability to address the pandemic and other critical diseases effectively and efficiently. The health system in many African countries is affected by a combination of low access, chronic underfunding, lack of personnel, and the poor maintenance and / or lack of healthcare system infrastructure. While corruption, mismanagement and lack of political will remain key reasons behind this, a recent analysis by the Jubilee Debt Campaign showed how certain African countries end up spending more on debt repayments than on health.
These challenges are part of the systemic issues undermining the AU’s capacity adequately to address regional integration and governance. As already mentioned in this section, these challenges have spurred reform efforts in the AU. While these reform efforts are still at an embryonic stage, it is argued that the way in which the AU has displayed assertiveness in combatting COVID-19 can serve as a guideline for achieving its core objectives. In this respect, the discussion below teases out the normative issues that should inform this process. Three normative zones of engagement are considered: a strategic approach to subsidiarity; measurability of actions and standards; and the flexibility of implementation. It is crucial to emphasize that, while a broader supranational role for the AU remains the ideal goal, there is a need to consider the pragmatic value of first applying these three approaches to discrete policy areas. The reason for this is two-fold. First that a wholesale, blanket approach to supranationalizing the organization may engender significant push-back from member states. Secondly that the strategic application of supranational measures to specific areas can serve as a useful lesson for expanding policy methods to other integration objectives.
Established as a pan-African construct for economic and political integration, the AU has been a solid expression of continental solidarity and policy coherence, especially in its response to COVID-19. Despite its many challenges, the AU has proved to be an effective case study for progressive internationalism in a world that is currently experiencing increasing nationalism. The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health, political rights and socio-economic conditions has highlighted the importance of a multi-sectoral approach to addressing it. The AU’s positive multi-pronged response to the crisis has shown its potential to be a major platform for coordinating actions for enhanced cooperation and regionalism on the continent, thus providing a template for enhancing the AU’s powers. The AU’s intervention shows four key factors that are necessary for enhancing its powers: progressive internationalism; swiftness of action; agency and ownership of the process; and legitimacy. These four factors should be adopted and adapted to ongoing processes to transform the AU. Indeed, the AU cannot afford to waste the lessons learned from, and opportunity created by, the current pandemic, which it can leverage to enhance its powers and achieve its aspirations.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.