On April 7, President Donald Trump attacked the World Health Organisation (WHO), describing it as “very biased towards China” and threatening to cut funding for it. Many across the world quickly rallied behind the WHO and condemned Trump’s attacks. But it was Africa’s swift and vocal reaction that soon stood out.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, sent out a stern tweet in reaction. He said he was surprised by US government’s campaign against the leadership of the world health body and expressed the support of the African Union (AU) for Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus. The tweet triggered a chain of posts from African leaders, including Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Namibia’s Hage Geingob, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.
The AU’s reaction reveals a broader trend that can be seen in the organisation’s response to Covid-19: its increasing ability to speak with one voice, act in a coordinated fashion.
The AU has set up and coordinated a regional response to Covid-19: from standard setting to marshalling international solidarity to fundraising and mobilising of resources.
With the help of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the AU then developed a joint continental strategy to ensure coordination of the efforts of member states and collaboration between the relevant AU organs and departments. The AU has also constituted the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus and launched the Africa Covid-19 Response Fund. By April 27, African countries and private entities had contributed $61.5 million towards the Fund.
The AU convening and coordination role has also extended to liaising with Regional Economic Communities such as the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community.
The AU now needs to scale up its response and use its influence to demand that human rights are at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts by member states.
To begin with, the AU should call on member states to unclog overcrowded prisons. Countries such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria have already taken some measures to free up space in prisons.
Once Covid-19 subsides, the key challenge for the AU will be to sustain the current momentum, and replicate this success in other areas, particularly relating to human rights, peace and security. A 2017 report by Amnesty International found that a lack of coordination has often hampered AU’s capacity to effectively protect and promote human rights in its peace and security initiatives.
Indeed, speaking in the January 2017 AU Assembly, President Kagame issued a grave indictment against the organisation: “We have a dysfunctional organisation in which member states see limited value, global partners find little credibility, and our citizens have no trust”.
The AU can truly celebrate its success in coordinating responses. It is an excellent opportunity for the AU to build on the existing goodwill from states to fully reclaim its convening and coordination role in all facets of its mandate.
Japhet Biegon is the Africa Regional Advocacy Coordinator at Amnesty International