Yearbook on the African Union

By Ulf Engel

Ulf Engel (ed.), Yearbook on the African Union, vol. 1 (2020) (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2021).

In October 2021, I published the Yearbook on the African Union (YBAU). This yearbook is the first of its kind. The YBAU is first and foremost an academic project that provides an in-depth evaluation and analysis of the institution, its processes, and its engagements. It seeks to be a reference point for evidence-based policymaking and decision-making. In addition to targeting policymakers and practitioners, it is also meant to become an academic resource for scholarly communities. As the editorial board[1] noted, the YBAU seeks to be the first port of call for bureaucrats, diplomats, practitioners, ‘out-insider’ experts, intellectuals, and consultants to have access to reliable information and analysis on the African Union (AU) that is also able to support policy and decision-making.

The main reason for starting this yearbook project is the lack of easily accessible, reliable, contextualised, and continuous information on the activities of the African Union (AU) – an intergovernmental organisation that was founded in 2001 as successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, established in May 1963). Arguably, the AU and its various actors may be living in a diplomatic bubble in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and remain disconnected from ‘the African people’. However, since its founding, the Union has become a major actor in global affairs and aggregates the interests of its 55 members. For the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), the AU Commission (AUC) has become the main intermediary between AU member states and the world outside the continent. The practical relevance of the continental body can be felt in many policy arenas, from peace and security to climate change to trade – to name but a few. In fact, the AU is the main African agency to moderate and mediate Africa’s transregional entanglements under the global condition.

African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: Ulf Engel.

In early 2020, the AU’s public health agency, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), was invaluable in terms of preparing national health systems to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, despite the increased agency in recent years of the AU in general, and the AUC in particular, little is known – outside expert policy or academic circles – about the Union’s activities. There are both official and academic yearbooks on the UN and the EU, but the activities of this African international organisation that represents 55 members hasn’t yet provoked this kind of interest.

When conceptualising the YBAU, I also had in mind my own students – in the African Studies and Global Studies programmes at Leipzig University, or those in the MA and PhD programmes that Leipzig has been jointly offering since 2012 with its partner in Addis Ababa, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies. In contrast to working on the UN or the EU, it can be rather challenging, if not quite frustrating, to do research on the AU. Often times, important sources are not easily available. This yearbook is therefore a valuable resource for teaching and research.

Clearly, this is not the yearbook of the African Union, but rather a yearbook on the African Union. This is an academic project: nothing more, nothing less. The Yearbook brings together a group of scholars that have previously published not only on African Union policies, but oftentimes also in interaction with AU officials, even sometimes working as consultants for the Union over many years.

The first part of the YBAU, the Year-in-Review, features “The Annual Interview”, a chapter on “The State of the Union”, and a contribution discussing the Union’s chairperson. For the first edition of the Yearbook, the choice for the interview is obvious and unavoidable: the COVID-19 pandemic has gravely struck all African countries and, in most societies, exacerbated existing cleavages and social inequalities. Here I was very glad the founding director Africa Centres for Disease Control, Dr. John N. Nkengasong, was willing to talk to me. The chairperson of the AU for the year 2020 was South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. This chapter is written by Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Part 2 of the Yearbook is made up of nine topical chapters that highlight the dynamics in the Union’s substantive policy fields: (1) ‘development’ (dynamics around the New Partnership for Africa’s Development); (2) education, science, and technology; (3) governance; (4) health (HIV/Aids, Ebola, COVID-19, etc.); (5) infrastructure; (6) peace and security; (7) trade and regional integration (e.g., the African Continental Free Trade Area, which finally started in January 2021); (8) strategic partnerships (with the UN and the EU, respectively); and, last but certainly not least, (9) women and youth. While these policy fields have historically emerged, I am sure that over time, other topics may develop into fully fledged policy fields – climate change is an obvious candidate.

The third part of the YBAU is made up of a Book Review section. Katharina P.W. Döring (Södertorn University, Stockholm) and Jens Herpolsheimer (Leipzig University) have selected a range of interesting new publications that are likely to advance the field of the study of the AU and the regional economic communities (RECs). Finally, the fourth part of the Yearbook is designed as a service section for quick reference of key events, decisions, and officeholders in 2020.

The challenge now, of course, is to mobilise enough commitment to come up with volume 2, volume 3, and beyond.


[1] The five board members are Linnéa Gelot from the Folke Bernadotte Academy (Stockholm); Cheryl Hendricks, the new director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (Cape Town); Gilbert M. Khadiagala, the Jan Smuts Professor of International Relations and director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg); Paul Nugent from the Centre of African Studies (University of Edinburgh); and Thomas Kwasi Tieku from King’s University College (Western University, Ontario).


Ulf Engel is professor of Politics in Africa at the Institute of African Studies at Leipzig University (Germany). He is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia) and a professor extraordinary in the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). From 2006 to 2019, he advised the African Union Peace and Security Department in the fields of early warning and preventive diplomacy.


Citation: Ulf Engel, Yearbook on the African Union, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31354.


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