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The new African Union Commission (AUC), installed in March, is coming to grips with a dizzying number of dossiers under new secretary-general Moussa Faki Mahamat. New commissioners like Amani Abou-Zeid, responsible for infrastructure and energy, are expected to be more dynamic than their predecessors (Abou-Zeid replaces fellow Egyptian Elham Ibrahim, an AUC veteran). Mahamat may be a less divisive figure, and less focused on domestic political ambitions, than his South African predecessor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. From their Chinese-built, largely European-funded headquarters in Addis Ababa, the new team are working to deliver the African Union’s ambitious economic programme Agenda 2063, and to resolve more short-term issues, from increasing the density of cross-border interconnections to tackling instability and terrorism.

Security is a priority for Mahamat, a former Chadian defence minister who is close to his fellow Zaghawa, President Idriss Déby Itno. Mahamat emerged as a surprise winner over the initial favourite, Botswana’s foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, and his eventual main rival, Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed. He gives the AUC a more francophone feel than his anglophone predecessor.

Counterparts like the European Union – which is planning its fifth summit with African leaders this November in Abidjan – are anxious to see a reinvigorated AU to help promote a more integrated continent. African leaders agreed in Kigali last July to explore new ways to finance the AUC and pan-African programmes, rather than depending on others. This would give substance to claims that Africa should ‘take ownership’ of its own development. Cynics say many governments could start by paying their arrears to the AU. In the works is a plan to overhaul AU finances, imposing a 0.2% levy on all import transactions by member states; this radical policy is being driven by the dynamic force that is Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Speaking at the Chatham House think-tank in London on 12 May, Mahamat estimated that the 0.2% import levy could raise $1.3bn/yr. This is hardly enough to implement programmes and bring peace to the continent’s troublespots, but it nevertheless represents “a strong political decision”. Africa should finance its own continental budget, Mahamat said, “an organisation financed only by partners cannot really take responsibility for itself”. With the AU on a firmer footing, Africa will be better placed to renegotiate relations with key partners. “We need to rethink the partnership with Europe: Africa today is not the Africa of 50 years ago,” Mahamat said.

African Energy’s soundings suggest this view is shared in Brussels and by key European capitals. Germany’s Marshall Plan with Africa policy document published in Bonn in late 2016, states: “In 2017, both Germany and the European Union are turning the spotlight on Africa. Germany is making the continent a focus of its presidency of the G20. And the EU is working on a new Africa strategy. The 28 member states want to redefine the basis for cooperation between the EU and Africa by replacing the Cotonou Agreement with a new partnership agreement.” Negotiations to replace Cotonou are expected to start in the next year (AE 342/22). Meanwhile, the European Commission is making progress on plans for increased financial and technical support (AE 345/19). This will support the AU’s jobs and youth agenda, which Mahamat said would be at the centre of the Abidjan summit and which is highlighted in the German Marshall Plan.

The AU of the past has often been dismissed as a talking shop. But Africa needs greater integration if its economies are to thrive, it needs a platform to help resolve pressing security issues, and remind the continent’s more retrograde leaders of their responsibilities. Efforts to revive the African Development Bank during the past decade have shown that more dynamic, useful pan-African institutions can re-emerge from decades of under-achievement. A reinvigorated pan-African institutional architecture could yet play a significant role in delivering better results for the continent’s youthful majority.