Au In The Eyes Of Its Own Citizens And Why It Matters

Perception Poll On The AU


AU Watch is an African-based policy, advocacy and research think-and-do tank on the African Union (hereinafter AU) and the AU Member States, as they relate to the AU. Headquartered in The Gambia, the seat of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Right (hereinafter the Commission), AU Watch monitors the AU by the standard of its Constitutive Act and the standards of the legal instruments of its various institutions. It challenges and holds to account the AU and States Parties to the Constitutive Act to live up to those standards and ideals they have set for themselves. AU Watch is also committed to advancing a wider understanding of the AU, its RECs, institutions and programs and their critical security, political, economic and human rights issues of the twenty-first century and their potential resolution. Working with partner organisations and individuals, AU Watch’s practical programmes also includes combating corruption and injustice, poor governance, poverty, human rights violations, and building a strong and dynamic civil society that questions and challenges what African states managers are doing. AU Watch works in Africa and on African issues around the world.

The AU and Its Image Challenge

The AU is the principal political regional forum for Africa for facilitating international cooperation among its Member States to promote democracy, human rights, multidimensional security, and the advancement of sustainable and inclusive development. Founded in 2002 as the successor to the Organization of African Unity (OAU), all African states are members. For the last 56 years, the O/AU has been an important political and economic force in Africa, whether acknowledged as such or not. Its primary purpose is African integration, in other words, the promotion of unity and solidarity among African states, with a view to achieving peace, security, and prosperity for all in the continent. But how many Africans and even non-Africans know what the AU does? How do Africans view the AU? Of those who know what the AU may be doing, how many think it’s an organisation fit for purpose? What are the perceptions of its citizens about the role of the AU on issues like governance, corruption and human rights? Are these aligned with the way in which the AU leadership perceives its role and influence on the continent?

These are important questions. We are of the view that as the most important multilateral forum for Africa, it has to be made to work for the people it claims to be working for. A politically stable, economically attractive African continent is not only in Africa’s interest, but also in the interest of the world.

A strong, effective AU can play a key role in achieving that. However, fifty-six years after the formation of the Organisation of African Union, too many Africans, seemingly, have a very negative view of the AU. Considering the number of issues undermining the efforts of the AU, one might wonder why this poll is even important, since we ‘all’ probably ‘know’ the answers, even before the questions are asked.

A Deaf and Blind Regional Organisation?

There are a number of reasons why a poll like this is important, but we highlight what we consider are the three main reasons. Firstly, AU Watch is of the view that by bringing all of us into the conversation about the type of AU we want, we are empowering all of us to determine the Africa we want to see by 2063. Africa today is faced with a confluence of factors that present great opportunity for consolidation and rapid progress. These include encouraging growth trajectories of many African countries, reducing violent conflicts, increasing peace and stability, tackling corruption, coupled with some advances in democratic governance, rule of law and securing human rights, especially the rights of women, disadvantaged and excluded groups and communities. The truth is several regions and countries reflecting on their long-term strategies see Africa as an important continent for their future prosperity and security. Africa must therefore develop its own long-term strategy based on African aspirations as well as its people’s ingenuity, creativity and hard work to regain its own destiny. However, success depends upon acting in unity, transparency, willingness and capability to assess performance, correct mistakes and build on successes and sound governance and values. The AU MUST bring the 1.4 billion people it claims to be working for into its conversation. The AU has been talking to itself for 56 years! Participation and inclusion of all key stakeholders in the conception, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of its programmes are critical success factors, which will enhance awareness, ownership and strengthen collective commitments, as we look forward to the realisation of Agenda 2063. If the AU is to ensure that Agenda 2063 is an integral part of the African Renaissance which calls for changes in attitudes, values and mindsets to inculcate the right set of African values of Pan Africanism, self-esteem, hard work, entrepreneurship and collective prosperity, perception can be seen as ‘early warning systems’ for an actor which is still in the process of establishing itself as a credible regional organisation.

Against this backdrop it becomes evident that the way in which the AU is perceived by its own citizens have a direct bearing on its success as a regional player. What ordinary Africans think of the AU is an important factor in facilitating or opposing the achievements of the AU. As a matter of fact, it is our view that the AU has ‘failed’ in many of the projects it has embarked upon, simply because it has failed to bring the African people into the conversation it is supposed to be having with them. Comprehending the perceptions of how the AU is seen by its own citizens and the world at large can help gauge the extent to which it is seen as a credible and consistent actor in regional and global politics. Moreover, views about the AU might tell us something of the degree of the AU’s effective communication skills, which, according to this poll is very low.

The broad conclusions reached by this Poll suggest that millions of its citizens have no idea what the AU is and what it is doing. In recognition of the contribution that individuals and civil society can have on the AU itself, the Constitutive Act of the Union seeks to create “a people-oriented community” in the Union based on a partnership between governments and all segments of society. To ensure the realisation of that objective, it established the Citizens and Diaspora Organizations Directorate (CIDO) for mainstreaming the participation of non-state actors in civil society affairs of the Union. What is the situation? Like the headquarters where it is located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU seemed to have imbibed its host country’s culture of secrecy, its default position of reticence and non-disclosure. But if one is to remember that the AU is paid for by public money and that it is African taxpayers who pay for its expensive summits, the hotel bills, the lunches, the international phone calls, the per diems, then such secrecy, lack of transparency, lack of information and ignorance of the people about the work of the AU is unacceptable. AU Watch believes all of Africa and its friends should assist CIDO and indeed the AU itself, to create that dynamic people-centred community in the Union. The founders of AU Watch want to see less grandstanding, less obfuscation and a more straightforward, open way of doing things.

Secondly, the AU is the principal political regional forum for Africa for facilitating international cooperation among its Member States to promote democracy, human rights, multidimensional security, and the advancement of sustainable and inclusive development. In the diplomatic and political world perceptions matter as much as facts in the formulation of policy responses and the constraints on success. How your constituents see you is important for the implementation of policy. The failure of policymakers to try and understand the perceptions of those at the receiving end of their policies can come at a cost. It can also frustrate well-intended policies and even lead to deep resentment.

Thirdly, there is a gap in the literature that needs to be filled.[1] The thesis of the AU’s ‘unavoidable role’, found widely in the literature dealing with the AU’s specific role in regional politics, needs to be further challenged. A lot of work has been done on evaluating the AU’s effectiveness, but very little has been done on how its own constituents really see the organisation. This area of enquiry, therefore, deserves further investigation. The AU policy chiefs would benefit immensely, from trying to understand how their actions are perceived by others. Whilst we recognise that this Poll is tiny, and not very representative of the entire continent,[2] it still has a lot of value. A follow up regional audience survey is planned in 2020.


Summary of the Results of the Survey

AU Watch conducted a series of scientific poll in 2016, 2017 and 2018 in five African countries and two European countries. The results reveal the shocking extent of the ignorance about the AU, its institutions, and its programs. Even for those who had some limited knowledge about the AU, including very highly educated and supposedly informed people, the level of distrust and cynicism about the AU is worrying. For example, the survey revealed that nearly ninety-one per cent of the people polled thought the AU is a useless organisation and nothing more than a bureaucratic talking shop for many of Africa’s dictators. Many called it “spineless”. Asked whether they trust the AU and if it’s fit for purpose, eight-eight per cent want to see it abolished as it had no meaningful effect on their lives. Ninety-seven per cent of the ‘ordinary’ African citizen had no idea what the various bodies or programs of the AU are and what they are doing. Seventy seven percent did not even know where the headquarters of the AU is located and what it is doing.[3] For those who knew something about the AU, many believe that like its predecessor that was incapable of securing democracy and human rights, promoting peace and security, the AU, similarly, is a useless organisation that would not make their lives any better.[4]

AU Watch also spoke with 73 senior African Union officials and observers of continental politics. We asked them about what they think are the views of the citizens of Africa hold of them and whether it matters. The agreement was that the interviews would be dealt with as unattributed quotes. This enabled us to solicit a range of frank opinions and observations to inform this Perception Poll. We were struck by the fact that the AU interviewees all raised similar doubts about the AU’s effectiveness. What was also striking was the extent to which these perceptions were similar with the perception of the citizens of Africa. Our discussions in Addis Ababa and the many AU meetings across Africa highlighted a number of recurring themes that shaped these views of a useless AU. Interviewees persistently raised the issue of the failed expectations and the AU double speak.

A familiar refrain articulated by those we talked to is a growing lack of trust in the AU’s bona fides. The organisation claims to represent all of the citizens of the continent, but there’s a sense that very few believe in its programmes or can point to ‘something’ concrete what the AU has done. The dominant view is that the AU does not use its image and its resources to promote opportunities for wider African involvement. Rather, the personal interests always enjoy priority. This, despite AU’s rhetoric of its African Agenda.[5]

What was most surprising for the AU Watch researchers were the levels of mistrust and lack of belief about the work program of the AU even amongst AU staff. Of the AU staff polled, sixty-nine per cent believed it could be a force for good, eighty-seven per cent, however, did not believe that the organisation in its present form and with the current leaders in place, can resolve Africa’s problems. Cynicism about the AU amongst ordinary Africans could not be more evident, as was demonstrated by the question if they thought the AU could oversee the unification of Africa. A hundred per cent of the recipients replied that it will not happen even in their grandchildren’s life-time. Interestingly, ninety-eight per cent of those polled know the EU and even where the various bodies of the EU are located. Asked what the function of the EU is, ninety-one per cent answered to “work for their people and make Europe rich” and give aid to Africa. 29 percent called aid to Africa “Europe’s left over.” Ninety-five per cent of the Europeans polled have never heard of the AU and of those who knew about the AU, ninety-eight per cent thought it was it not fit for purpose.

As Africans how do we change those views? A casual examination will reveal that most development processes in Africa are mainly state-centered, “a top-down” process. Development strategies and we dare say political processes in many African countries, lack the involvement of civil society, even though its participation is crucial in ensuring democratic legitimacy. The Constitutive Act of the AU refers to the creation of space for the inclusion and participation of civil society in its processes. Various advocacy opportunities for civil society are also provided for in the structures of the AU. But are they used to benefit the African people?



Through the AU Perceptions Poll, we asked more than 3,500 people in 5 countries about their views of the AU, and if they think the AU is an effective institution. The poll sought to answer questions around people’s experience of the AU and what they think will contribute to a more effective AU. The poll wanted to determine from our sample size, how many people have heard about the AU or have some idea what the AU is doing. We also wanted to test that of those who know what the AU may be doing, how many think it’s an organisation fit for purpose? The poll also wanted to know what are people’s perception on issues like governance, corruption and human rights and whether the AU is the right organisation to handle these issues. It also sought to know the views of people about what should be the main priorities of the AU and how the AU and its Members should respond to the citizens they are governing.? The poll sought to know from senior AU policy staff whether the views of the citizens are different from the way in which the AU leadership perceives its role and influence on issues like governance, corruption and human rights? Are these aligned with the way in which the AU leadership perceives its role and influence on the continent?


Why Now?

With so many changes in the world order, more countries in Africa are experiencing a closure of space for free expression and action than at any time since the formation of the O/AU. People in many countries in Africa face serious restrictions and repression when exercising their basic rights. This includes citizens who raise their voices against corruption and political dysfunction, organizations that save lives and provide basic services to people in need, communities that defend their sustainable livelihoods and demand a fair share of natural resources, and activists who fight for gender justice. This assault on the norms affecting how our leaders engage with us, in turn affects how we engage with which other.

This is the troubling context to this inaugural AU Perception Poll conducted by AU Watch. The poll aims to provide information for AU’s political and policy leaders to deal with the root causes of disillusionment in the continent. It also seeks to contribute to a greater public discourse around what the AU is and how it should engage the citizens it says it is working for – dealing with the drivers of cynicism and disenchantment – as a critical approach to preventing and responding to the genuine aspirations of people’s needs. Hopefully, it will help Africa’s political leaders and senior policy-makers better understand the views, hopes and aspirations of their constituencies when it comes to pursuing sustainable solutions to today’s leading regional challenges, whether that is human rights, development, terrorism, migration, conflicts and governance.


Who Was Polled?

The countries polled between 20016 and 2018 represent a wide range of circumstances, from more peaceful states to those at risk of conflict and those where there is active armed conflict.

They include:

  • The Gambia
  • Senegal
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Sierra Leone
  • Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
  • Nigeria
  • Rwanda
  • United Kingdom (UK)
  • Targeted polling was also undertaken separately within the AU itself and in the US and Canada were AU Watch has members and interest groups.

What makes the  AU Perception Poll Different?

Attitudes and perceptions matter, especially in politics. Politicians, decision-makers and businesses are all informed by the preferences of voters, citizens and consumers. Understanding audiences’ attitudes can also inform the inform the approach we take to engagement. What ultimately sets this poll apart is that, as far as we know, is the first official poll that sought to answer questions around how people see and feel about the AU. Through harnessing the views and aspirations of about two thousand people in 10 countries, we have looked at what citizens and staff of the AU ‘really’ think about the organisation. We have also tried to link the findings of the Poll, conceptually, to the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the AU’s Agenda 2063 programme.

Overall, the results whilst not very shocking to the vast majority of the African people and probably even to the AU itself, is as far as we know the first official poll that looks at what the citizens of Africa really think of the organisation and its Members. The results also underscore the need for the AU and AUMS to listen to the 1.4 billion people they are ruling over, whilst also highlighting a deep-seated desire of members of the African public to be more involved in the work of the AU. While the poll illustrates the diversity of people’s experiences, it also shows how much Africans have in common when it comes to humanity’s shared values and our common aspirations for peace, security and a decent life.



Two forms of qualitative methods were employed for this survey: interviews and questionnaires. The questions in this poll were translated into the local languages where the poll was being targeted, allowing more people to take part and answer the questions with ease and accuracy. No financial incentives were given to respondents for participating in the poll. For the face-to-face interviews’ we people were given the option to leave the poll at any time. What was interesting about this poll, was the willingness bordering, sometimes, on anger to participate in the poll.

Questionnaire design

Perhaps the most important part of the survey process was the creation of questions that accurately measure the opinions, experiences and behaviours of the public. We realised that accurate random sampling and high response rates will be wasted if the information gathered was built on a shaky foundation of ambiguous or biased questions. So, some attention was paid to how the questions were ordered in the questionnaire as earlier questions – in particular those directly preceding other questions – can provide context for the questions that follow. We asked open-ended questions about regional challenges, opinions about AU leaders and similar topics near the beginning of the questionnaire

Open-and closed-ended questions

Some of the questions were open-ended question, where respondents provided a response in their own words, and closed-ended question, where they were asked to choose from a list of answer choices. For many of the closed-ended questions, the number of answer choices was kept to a relatively small number – just four and five at most.

Piloting the Poll

AU Watch Pollsters conducted pilot tests in 2016 in Banjul, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau to better understand how people thought about the issue or comprehended a question. Some of the questions were later adjusted for clarity and comprehension.  It also helped us to determine what topics will be covered in the Poll. Our Pollsters also used the open-ended questions to discover which answers are most common and then develop closed-ended questions that included the most common responses as answer choices. In this way, we thought the questions may better reflect what the public were thinking or how they viewed a particular issue

[1] Chris Landsberg and Shaun Mackay, ‘Is the AU the OAU without the O?’, in South Afri can Labour Bulletin, vol. 27, number 4, August 2003.

[2] For financial reasons AU Watch was not able to increase the sample size and extend the poll to the whole of Africa. We very much doubt though, whether the results would be statistically different if more countries and interviewees have been involved. Hopefully a more broad-based survey could be conducted at a later date. The poll, however, is a pointer that such polls are needed. The poll was also conducted over three years – between 2016 and 2018. Even though we asked some of the same questions at different points in time (again because of financial reasons) it allowed us to report on changes in the overall views of the general public. The changes were not statistically different.

[3]Ordinary in this sense means people who are not directly involved with NGOs, or the various treaty bodies on the continent. They include for example farmers, market traders, drivers, house wives, etc. 81 per cent of those polled did not know what the AU stood for; 83 per cent could not tell the headquarters of the AU; 94 percent had no idea what the African Commission is; 98 per cent had no idea what the African Court is or what it is doing; 98 percent had no idea what the African Expert Committee on the Rights of the Child is; 97 per cent had no idea what is Ecosoc is; 99.4 could not name the policy organs; 99 per cent could not name the current Chair of the AUC. 99.7 per cent could not name the current Chair of the AU; 100 per cent never knew that the AU had organs or bodies in charge of water, animal health, transportation, etc; 98 per cent thought the ADB was a UN bank; 99 per cent had no idea that the Recs are also part of the AU and much more from our survey. Even amongst lawyers, our survey revealed that the vast majority had no decent knowledge about the AU and its work. Interestingly, many of the older generation (55+) in our survey knew a lot about the OAU and its fight for independence and African Unity. We say interestingly because those were the days before TV, internet, social media and smart phones. They only had radios and an intense desire for political activism.  

[4] Prove us wrong! Go back home and do an anecdotal survey in your country. Do not forget to include lawyers and university graduate in the survey! When you get the results, sit back and analyse the time and effort you have put in this AU project. Hope you’ll still have the energy and courage to laugh at yourself and our follies.

[5]What is the African Agenda? The “African Agenda” is based on the “understanding that socio-economic development cannot take place without political peace and stability” and these are prerequisites for socio-economic development.