Over the years, the AU has attracted degradation for its lack of efficiency and its heavy bureaucracy, which makes its operations cumbersome.
The body depends on foreign donors, who this year will pay for 54% of a total budget of $681.5 million (R9.7billion). Its peacekeeping operations are lethargic because of poor logistics and funding.
Most AU peace-keeping missions depend comprehensively on the benevolence of Western donors.
Enter Paul Kagame on January 29, 2016. The advent of the result-oriented Rwandan leader brought a new sense of urgency into this otherwise quiescent organisation.
“At home, the results are striking. AU members thus reckon that he could do to the whole continent what had been done in Rwanda,” Rwanda’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe, declared as Kagame ascended to the AU chair.
Kagame is a paragon of Africa in terms of management and governance, but detractors say his record on freedom and democracy is abysmal.
He hit the ground running, and his immediate task was to reform the AU and give it the impetus needed to tackle the continent’s problems.
He championed a proposal to levy a 0.2% tax on each country’s imports to finance the AU, which would provide the organisation with $1.2bn and wean it off its donor dependence.
Kagame launched the AU Peace Fund. Its coffers now have $89m.
The introduction of the AU passport was accelerated and designs were unveiled at the last AU Summit in Addis Ababa held in February. The passport will facilitate the free movement of people, spur economic growth and promote trade.
And perhaps Kagame’s most outstanding accomplishment was his push for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which was unveiled in Kigali during March last year.
Africa will become the world’s largest free trade area: 55 countries merging into a single market of 1.2 billion people with a combined GDP of $2.5trillion.
The agreement creates a single continental market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business.
Countries joining the African Continental Free Trade Agreement must commit to removing tariffs on at least 90% of the goods they produce.
As the Rwandan leader prepared to leave the chair, one Western diplomat observed: “He (Kagame) is the Lee Kuan Yew of the African continent.”
Lee Kuan Yew was the first prime minister of Singapore and credited for leading it from Third World to First World status in a single generation.
Elissa Jobson, head of Africa advocacy at the International Crisis Group, says Kagame showed that the AU presidency can be used to promote national interests and boost a leader’s international profile.
Kagame has passed the baton to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, but an AU official in Addis Ababa says Kagame will remain a point person for the organisation’s broad reform agenda, despite handing over the chair.
* Kelvin Jakachira is group editor in chief of AB Communications, a multimedia firm in Zimbabwe.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.