Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Chairwoman of the AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

PERHAPS ABBA’s song, Money, money, money, should be the African Union (AU) anthem.

Similar refrains were the depressing mood music throughout most of the 39-year existence of its predecessor, the generally unlamented Organisation of African Unity (OAU), before it was put to sleep in 2002. For both bodies, whose combined 50th anniversary will be celebrated next May, finances have always been a debilitating problem.

Money for salaries and electricity bills in Addis Ababa, the pan-African headquarters since the early days of independence. Money for travel, hotels and summits where, in principle, the continent’s future is shaped. And the heaviest item of all, money to pay for military intervention forces when conflicts erupt and for peacekeeping missions when the parties have fought themselves to a standstill.

Expectations for the new AU were high a decade ago and they spiked again in October when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma took over as chairwoman of the AU Commission in Addis Ababa, the seat of pan-African government.

Like its model, the European Commission in Brussels, the executive branch of the AU is supposed to formulate and implement policy. South Africa barged and bargained its way past resistance from other African countries and imposed its very experienced minister on the group of 50-odd nations.

Protests that a gentleman’s agreement was being breached — because the top job at the AU and previously at the OAU had traditionally been reserved for a politician from a small or middling state — were brushed aside. South Africa wanted the job and got it. References to new brooms and sweeping out dead wood flew thick in the air between Pretoria and the Ethiopian capital.

At farewell banquets before her departure, there were emotional speeches which suggested that Addis was on Planet Mars, rather than five hours flying time away. It was said that South Africa and its ruling African National Congress (ANC) were making a supreme sacrifice by sending one of their most able daughters into the wilderness to sort out an institution that was slipping towards dysfunction nearly a decade after its birth.

How these key messages went down among Ethiopians, whose civilisation is ancient and many of whom do not consider themselves to be Africans at all, has yet to be the subject of a scientific poll.

Nor has there been any public discussion of the fact that in her first two months in office, with a mountain of work on her desk, Ms Dlamini-Zuma has come home twice on ANC business, despite insisting before her departure for Addis that her new vocation was to serve the whole of Africa rather than just her homeland.

On her first trip back, less than two weeks into her new job, she addressed a dinner in her honour organised by Business Unity South Africa. The remark that caught one’s attention was about money.

"Over 97% of programmes in the AU are funded by donors," she said. "We should be more self-reliant. Our governments must put more money there."

She made the speech at Gallagher Estate in the utilitarian hub between Johannesburg and Pretoria where most of Africa’s new institutions have been parked. The Pan-African Parliament, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism are all nearby. The oldest is only 12, but so far none has shown any sign that it will set the world alight. They all cost money to run, and substantially that is donor money.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma says a liberated mind cannot allow that its development should be funded by donors. But what is being done to change this state of affairs?

"It’s a major impediment to anything that you want to make happen. If African leaders are not going to support their own organisations they will not get the ownership we keep talking about," says Adekeye Adebajo, the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.

It should also be said that he believes the AU has done much better on human rights, governance and managing conflicts than its predecessor.

The old OAU was regularly broke and had to go cap in hand to any leader who might be willing to bail the organisation out. For example, Uganda’s notorious Idi Amin was allowed to chair the OAU for a year. The most generous paymaster was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi; his overthrow and killing last year had many repercussions for Africa, but one of them was uncomfortable belt-tightening by some institutions.

The AU has an annual operating budget of about $300m, which member states are supposed to pay according to their economic strength. The top five of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa cover 75% and the balance is paid by the rest.

But the programme budget, the cost of actually doing things that the annual AU presidential summit decides are worth doing, are mostly paid by foreign governments. The European Union (EU) nations pick up the lion’s share because some of them colonised Africa and the two continents have such strong connections.

Analyst Matlotleng Matlou says African states, big and small, need to dig much deeper into their own resources to pay for their growth and protection. "The money is on this continent. Look at trade with China. It’s an excuse and in the AU you must put your money where your mouth is."

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki agrees that the dependency on donors is a major weakness. "It impacts negatively on the capacity of the continent to implement its own programmes and clearly it is something that needs to be changed," he says. "In the end, donor countries obviously have the right to say if you are asking me to assist it means that I must approve of what it is that you want to do."

With Mr Gaddafi gone and the to-do list growing remorselessly in Addis, an AU committee chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is looking at alternative revenue sources. A special tax or levy on air travel is one idea.

The highest costs are incurred by conflicts and although everyone agrees that African troops rather than foreign ones should be deployed to enforce the peace — as in Somalia — purely AU missions are largely funded by the EU. The United Nations peacekeeping missions are phenomenally expensive; the 2013 budget for the biggest, the 19,000-strong Monusco force in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be about $1.4bn, according to security sources in Addis.

The cost to global taxpayers seems especially eye-watering because the missions’ mandates and performance are so heavily criticised.

What if the AU cut its coat according to its cloth, like the rest of us? Narrowed its focus to the absolute priorities?

Mr Mbeki does not see that as an option and points to the crisis in Mali where two-thirds of the country are in the hands of Islamist radicals and Tuareg rebels. The last third is controlled, more or less, by soldiers who staged a coup at a time when such things are supposed to have gone out of fashion.

"To decide to do nothing because we don’t have resources becomes very difficult. There are things like that which can’t be avoided," he says.

The issue could be even more pertinent next year if signs that conflicts could be making a comeback are confirmed. Some first-rate mediation, backed up by muscle, will be needed to prevent war in and around Mali and eastern Congo, to keep the lid on conflicts in Darfur, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Somalia, and to prevent new punch-ups breaking out.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma does not like answering questions from journalists about African conflicts. She often says that there will be peace when the continent is developed.

But can we afford to wait?