The British government's Rwanda-UK asylum deal exposes the detrimental effects of an absolute state sovereignty principle in the African Union. This principle, argues Hannah Muzee, is a major stumbling block to Africa’s desired unification objectives
On 14 April 2022, Britain announced a plan to move illegal migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda. By so doing, it aimed to reduce the number of people risking the dangerous journey across the English Channel in search of a better life in the UK. Since 2021, an estimated 28,000 illegal migrants have made this treacherous crossing.
Dire economic and political conditions on the African continent continue to drive many people to seek ‘greener pastures’ in Europe, especially the UK. The migrant influx is often blamed on the failures of political leadership in post-independent Africa. But former colonial powers also played their part in impoverishing the continent.
The vestiges of colonialism have invariably reduced former colonies and protectorates to perennial structural dependency. These remnants come in the form of neo-colonialism, and imperialism’s lust for expanding cheap mass markets in Africa. Consequently, most African countries are in huge debt. They are politically unstable and insecure. They also lack the means to develop the industrial capacity to sustain their own populations.
Rwandan president Paul Kagame claims Britain approached him because of his success in resettling African migrants stranded in Libya, in his capacity as Chair of the African Union. This resettlement took place in 2019, following reports of gross human rights abuses in parts of Libya. On 10 September of that year, Rwanda signed an agreement with the African Union (AU) and UNHCR to establish an Emergency Transit Mechanism for evacuating refugees and asylum seekers out of Libya.
The African Union stood back when the US attacked Libya, providing a clear path for foreign powers to undermine unification
However, it is also illuminating to look at an earlier event. In 2011, the United States attacked Libya, creating political and social instability, on the pretext of human rights violations by Muammar Gaddafi. The AU did little to prevent foreign invasion on African soil. Instead, it stood back. The AU failed to take advantage of its right to intervene in member states’ affairs regarding crimes against humanity. Its inaction cleared a path for foreign powers to undermine Africa’s process of unification.
Article 3 of the AU’s Constitutive Act provides for the defence of sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states. Article 4, meanwhile, gives the AU the right to intervene in members’ internal affairs in situations of human rights violation. Yet, over the years, the AU has failed to intervene effectively in cases of gross human rights violations and threats to continental peace and security.
There have been minor exceptions, such as direct intervention by the AU in Sudan and Somalia. But the principle of protecting state sovereignty remains a 'secret code' African leaders use to guard against interference.
All 55 African countries are members of the AU. Despite this, they have hardly ceded any sovereignty to supranational structures like the Pan African Parliament, the Assembly of the Union, the Executive Council, or the Commission.
Rwanda’s asylum deal with the UK is indicative of the dangers of absolute sovereignty. This is especially clear in the light of its imperialist financial implication
Maintenance of absolute state sovereignty is paramount for African presidents. The Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan for Action (2018–2030) addresses the consequences of forced displacement through national, regional and continental dialogues and cooperation. However, no AU organ has a mandate to act. Rwanda’s asylum deal with the UK is indicative of the dangers of absolute sovereignty. This is especially clear in the light of its imperialist financial implication.
Pan-Africanism is the life force of the AU’s objective to achieve sustainable African unity. The AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), deftly used the ethos of Pan-Africanism to maintain a semblance of unity. This sustained the OAU amid the turmoil of colonialism and Cold War politics.
So, where do the current African leaders get it wrong? The Pan-African ideology holds that solidarity among African peoples is the only way to emancipate Africa from neo-colonialism. Insistence on state sovereignty departs from this.
State sovereignty as the absolute power and authority of a country over its domestic affairs, without external interference, tends to create pseudo-autocracies. These are evident in authoritarian governments in Africa. Adherence to the sovereignty principle reinforces personalised politics in the African Union Assembly. Each African leader strives to maintain their power and individuality, with no accountability.
But the actions of AU member states have implications for the function of other states, by virtue of this membership, of their commitment to a united Africa, and the AU’s Agenda 2063. For Rwanda, the deal with the UK has grave implications for her immediate regional economic community, the East African community, and Africa as a whole.
Africa’s unification struggle is futile unless African leaders realise that their individual countries' domestic economic and diplomatic interests must not come at the expense of the socio-economic stability of the entire continent. As Kwame Nkrumah believed, 'African unity is, above all, a political kingdom which can only be gained by political means. The social and economic development of Africa will come only within the political kingdom and not the other way round'.
African leaders must realise that their individual country's interests cannot come at the expense of Africa's general socio-economic stability
Clearly, the Rwanda-UK refugee deal raises concerns about the viability of maintaining absolute state sovereignty in Africa. The atmosphere in the Global North is one of widening right-wing and racist brutalities against migrants. In this context, the UK-Rwanda deal will not serve as a quick-fix solution to the global migration crisis.
Rather, the refugee deal is a way of dealing with ‘unwanted others’ without addressing the fundamental issues that drive people away from their countries. It undermines efforts towards African unity. And it illustrates the dangers of member states maintaining absolute state sovereignty in the African Union.