Spreading the light: African Union and civil society relations

At the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa. Life & Peace Institute, 2015

You notice 2 things when you arrive at the African Union building on an early Saturday morning: brightness and newness. A brilliantly lit futuristic design that has an optimistic message: the very best of Africa is yet to come. You also soon realize that in this spectacular building, like all buildings, there are places that the light cannot reach.

This weekend LPI’s Horn of Africa Programme (HARP) participated in an Oxfam-organized training for civil society organizations (CSOs) on understanding and engaging the African Union. The annual training takes place on the eve of the Heads of State Summit and, since 2011, at the African Union Commission. Participants were acquainted on the origins of the African Union, its policy and decision-making processes. The idea is, if you know better you will strategize better.

For LPI this training was timely. In 2012 we embarked on a study to inform a Horn of Africa regional programme grounded in our 30-year bottom-up peacebuilding approach. Our findings redefined our research question. A tumultuous, conflict-ridden region the Horn of Africa has received a lot of attention but few of it strategic: CSOs, Track I and II actors both pursuing peace yet rarely crossing paths. In October 2014, we launched the Horn of Africa Programme with the objective of bringing peace actors, in all their expertise, resources and reach together to walk not only the same path but sit at the same table.

Panelists Jeggan Grey Johnson and Rizzan Nassuna, described avenues for CSOs to provide the technical expertise and grounded experience needed to formulate policies from the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) to the Pan African Parliament, Expert Meetings that precede policy adoption and MoUs that formally define a CSOs’ relationship to Departments within the Commission.

Ibrahima Kane, African Union Advocacy Director for OSISA, gave sage advice: “Institutions are made up of bodies, strategies and a culture. CSOs must really understand the institutions they want to engage. Understand what they tell you about themselves, their mission statements, but also understand the ways in which they work.”

While the training provided many teachable moments there was a profound realization that the relationship between CSOs and the African Union is mutually reinforcing. As, Desire Assogbavi (Head of Oxfam International’s African Union Liaison Office) said “the African Union raises the political will for transformative policies and CSOs are its multipliers.”

The space for CSOs while less grand is no less important, they illuminate the shadows and the corners that the AU cannot. And by working together we can bring the best of Africa closer and sooner.