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No consensus on resolving regional tensions, conflict

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Picture: Amanuel Sileshi / AFP / Taken on February 17, 2024 – Outgoing chairperson of the African Union and President of Comoros Azali Assoumani.

By Sizo Nkala

The African Union (AU) held its 37th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last weekend.

The assembly is the organisation’s highest decision-making body and uses the Ordinary Sessions to reflect on the previous year while setting the agenda for the year ahead.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani replaced President Azali Assoumani of the Union of Comoros as the new chairperson of the AU.

Picture: Amanuel Sileshi / AFP / Taken on February 17, 2024 – President of Mauritania Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the newly elected chairperson of the African Union speaks during the opening ceremony of the 37th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on February 17.

This year’s summit was held under the theme, “Educate an African fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality and relevant learning in Africa”.

This is in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

The theme of the summit could not have been more apt, taking into consideration that Africa is facing a crisis in the education sector.

According to the State of Global Education Update released in 2023, about 90 percent of children in Africa were not able to read and understand a basic text.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Institute for Statistics observed that sub-Saharan Africa had the highest rates of education exclusion with about 20 percent of children aged between 6 and 11 out of school. The rates were higher for older cohorts, with one-third and almost two-thirds of those aged between 12 and 14 and between 15 and 17 being out of school respectively.

The exclusion is not only visible at the primary and secondary school levels, but also at the tertiary level.

While the global average for tertiary education enrolment stands at 40 percent, the average for sub-Saharan Africa is a lowly 9 percent, confirming that the right to higher education is not yet a reality in Africa. Females are the hardest hit as there are only 76 female students for 100 male students in higher education institutions in Africa.

The Continent urgently needs more tertiary institutions to train the hundreds of millions of African youths for the job market. There are only 740 universities and colleges to serve 660 million African students compared with 5,300 institutions for a population of 330 million.

Compounding the worryingly high rates of education exclusion and lack of access, is the deplorable quality of education.

The highest-ranked African university in world rankings sits at number 173 while only 18 African universities make the top 1,000 universities in the world. This speaks volumes of the low academic standards in most universities on the Continent.

Moreover, higher institutions are failing to produce sufficient numbers of graduates trained in critical skills such as agriculture, engineering, mathematics and health. Without proper and robust education systems, the Continent will not be able to achieve its development goals as set out in the AU Agenda 2063. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to grow at break-neck speed, Africa will be behind and will be further marginalised from the global economy.

Moreover, one shudders to think of the socio-political horrors that would be unleashed by having more than 600 million working-age people shut out of the labour market. The summit adopted a roadmap on education which urges member-states and other actors to improve the state of education in their countries.

The 37th Ordinary Session came at a time when the Continent is facing multiple crises. These include the debilitating debt crisis which has seen 21 African countries facing high risk of debt distress, the erosion of democracy marked by a wave of military takeovers witnessed in Niger, Gabon, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, the deteriorating security situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan and Mozambique, and the growing inter-state tension between Rwanda and the DRC and Somalia and Ethiopia.

Assoumani said the promotion and preservation of peace and stability was the priority during his term because it was the basis for realising the aspirations expressed in the AU Agenda 2063.

Ghazouani, stressed the importance of reforming the international system to ensure that African interests were protected on the global stage.

Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, led the condemnation of Israel’s continued offensive in the Palestinian territory of Gaza which has killed almost 29,000 people including more than 21,000 women and children.

In a show of solidarity, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh also addressed the gathering. Brazilian President Inácio Lula da Silva also addressed the summit and underscored the partnership and solidarity between Brazil and Africa while stressing the importance of the two sides working together to tackle challenges affecting the Global South, namely global governance, conflict, environmental degradation and education.

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who was appointed by the AU to lead the institutional reform process in 2016, also gave his report at the summit. He informed his peers of his wish to let another person lead the process. He also lauded the progress that has been made in the AU reform process over the past eight years, particularly the setting up of a $400 million (R7.7 billion) Peace Fund and getting the UN Security Council to finance 75 percent of the continental body’s peace operations.

However, he highlighted several challenges that undermined the effectiveness of the AU, namely the lack of a concise agenda for the body, the confusion between the roles of the AU chairperson and the AU Commission chairperson, the lack of co-ordination between the AU and the regional economic communities the reform of institutions like the Pan-African Parliament and the African Court of Justice to make them more effective, and the failure to implement the decisions taken by the heads of state due to organisational incoherence.

President William Ruto of Kenya will replace Kagame as the Champion of Institutional Reform.

Among other issues discussed at the summit were the modalities of Africa’s participation at the G20, the election of the AU Commission leadership in February next year, and peace and security.

One hopes that the 37th Ordinary Session of the AU will not be another annual box-ticking ritual but mark a turning point towards a stronger continental organisation.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies