The African Union was founded on the principles of the Organization of African Unity, which was established in 1963 during the period of independence and transition from European colonialism. The Ethiopian government, because of its proud history of having repelled colonial occupation and having institutional stability, offered to host the institution, where it remains to this day.
New political leaders in post-colonial Africa recognized they were inheriting countries and government structures created by European officials who made decisions without regard for local political dynamics. Colonial boundaries cut across traditional boundaries and variously divided established kingdoms or brought together sovereignties that either had nothing to do with each other or that were in conflict or competition. European colonial authorities were able to manage their artificial states by using economic enticements to foster cooperation, ruling indirectly by arming and empowering favored subnational sovereigns and ruling directly by deploying ruthless armed forces.
When they achieved national political freedom, the African political elite chose to maintain the colonial borders. In many cases the new governments even maintained close cooperation with the former colonial authorities. The new leaders virtually all agreed that such borders would be inviolable and that the internal affairs of African countries were off-limits to external resolve. The incoming political leadership gained much more from maintaining and exploiting colonial-era governmental, economic and security infrastructure than from devolving the inherited states to localized, traditional boundaries. That process would have meant disbanding the tools of established governance and would have come only at the expense of the new national authorities.
The problem for the emerging African leadership at independence was that lifting externally imposed governments did not mean an end to political opposition. The political elite in independent African countries were pressured to free up the security controls that subjugated local populations, but newly found national political freedom could and did invigorate local or traditional sovereigns to demand their freedom as well. Local leaders would argue that independence should not stop at the national level, since those limits were artificial. Instead, they wanted full freedom for local sovereign actors who existed prior to colonialism.
This threatened the new national authorities with the potential loss of the benefits of national sovereignty, such as jurisdiction over economic resources found within the newly independent territory. But it also meant potential conflict — and conflict not only with internal, subnational rivals but also with sovereigns wanting to make cross-border amends for artificial colonial divisions. Independence was, in fact, a very dangerous time for national authorities struggling to establish and exert sovereignty. This compelled post-independence African leaders to focus inward, and most still have to do this today.
The Organization of African Unity was created to address the post-independence concerns of how to establish political, economic and security governance in a way that redressed colonial injustices but did not jeopardize national sovereignty. Not willing to cede any sovereignty, it was no surprise that national authorities were similarly not willing to empower a supranational organization. The Organization of African Unity was thus created without the tools necessary to impose its will — it was provided no standing military forces, no independent ability to raise revenues and no ability to legislate or adjudicate national issues. Also not surprising, the Organization of African Unity could not resolve internal injustices.
The African Union is no different. It remains fully dependent on donor funding to finance its offices. It consults on governance; there is a Pan-African Parliament, hosted by the South African government. And there is an African Union Peace and Security Council, but it has no standing armed forces, though some countries float concepts of stand-by forces under national command to be used in regional security crises. The African Union Mission in Somalia is a multinational peacekeeping force largely made up of troops drawn from East African countries. Similarly, the African-led Stabilization Mission in Mali is composed largely of countries neighboring Mali. However, what makes these missions possible are national interests of troop-contributing countries and Western concern over international security in Somalia and Mali, backed by Western support and funding.
But at a fundamental level, countries in Africa face the same consequences of the artificial nation-state boundaries they inherited at independence. More countries than not face internal challenges to the ruling government — not merely in the sense of replacing one faction in power with another, but also a loss of sovereignty. Ranging from rebel groups to political factions demanding autonomy if not independence, almost half the countries of Africa face threats that undermine and would devolve national sovereignty. Only a few African countries face concerns limited to a change in those holding power, including Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho. While all are supportive of the African Union, none of these countries is willing to cede power to supranational authorities and cooperate across borders in a manner that jeopardizes its position domestically.
Like the Organization of African Unity that preceded it, the African Union is not a supranational authority able to leverage Africa's 54 countries for continental power, but a consultative forum designed to deal only with manageable, non-controversial concerns. Sovereign issues must be addressed not at a continental level but among the national authorities and the local authorities and elites who were disrupted by national boundaries.