The advisory ruling that the UK’s sovereignty claim over the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean is illegal, voted 13-1 by judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 25 February, was a triumph for Chagossians exiled in the mid-1960s in a discredited deal that led to Mauritius’ independence from the UK and Diego Garcia’s conversion into a US military base in 1971. Mauritius – which claims it was coerced by the colonial power into giving up the Chagos Islands – received strong support, led by the African Union (AU), which presented the ICJ with written comments and participated in oral hearings. By doing so, the AU observed that, for the first time in its history, it had contributed “in an opinion before the Court in support of one of its member states”. It did so in an issue central to its being since the Organisation of African Unity’s formation in 1963: ensuring the continent’s complete decolonisation.

A more empowered AU, mobilising the combined weight of its 55 member states to overcome what ICJ president Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf called the “wrongful act” committed against the Chagos Islanders, fits well with the organisation’s narrative of becoming a world-scale player. Planned institutional reforms could make for a more robust decision- and policy-making body, helping to deliver the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), the triumph of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s 2018 chairmanship (succeeded this year by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El Sisi).

ACFTA envisages an African union not unlike its European counterpart (the European Union is the largest contributor to the AU’s recurrent budget) with plans for a single African passport and a Protocol on Free Movement. In parallel, secretary-general Moussa Faki Mahamat has been promoting the AU’s claims to lead in regional peacekeeping; security is a focus for the former Chadian defence minister.

However, institutionally the AU is far from becoming another EU. Its 2002 founding constitution foresaw a range of institutions, including an African Criminal Court. But 16 years on, there is still no counterpart to the powerful European Court of Justice. Neither are the AU’s legislative bodies anywhere near a balance to the executive run by the African Union Commission. Some of the eight sectoral commissioners – government nominees appointed by the AU general assembly – have carved out a niche, like Algerian peace and security commissioner Smaïl Chergui. Others claim in private to feel powerless compared to the ambitions of their office. Efforts to tackle internal weaknesses are undermined by personal politicking – underlined by the increasingly violent and public enmity between Mahamat and his Ghanaian vice-president Thomas Kwesi-Quartey. A report on sexual harassment of female employees, presented in November by special envoy Bineta Diop, reflects the sometimes toxic atmosphere in the Commission; the Senegalese women’s rights activist referred to 44 cases of alleged abuse but her report has not been published in full or, as yet, acted on.

More change is promised. Commissioners appointed in 2021 will have been selected by international headhunters for presentation to governments. Efforts will continue to open African skies and mobilise energy finance. ACFTA is making progress with state-by-state ratification. The first ministerial talks for a new deal to succeed the 2000 Cotonou Partnership Agreement between the EU and 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries were held in Brussels on 22-23 January. Rwandan foreign minister Richard Sezibera said the AU’s leading role reflected its “coming of age, with a determination to speak with one voice on the world stage”. But while the newsflow is positive, the devil is, as ever, in the detail.