The African Union is at a crucial moment in its development as a political force

The World
U.S. President Barack Obama salutes delegates after delivering remarks at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 28, 2015.

President Barack Obama's speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Tuesday was the first time an American President addressed the union.

"I stand before you as a proud American, I also stand before you as the son of an African," he said.

Obama spoke about democracy and warned African leaders that "nobody should be president for life." That's a sore point in a number of African nations, where leaders in their 80s and 90s continue to hold power.

The African Union may be the only body in a position to influence those leaders. The African Union was established in 2001 to replace a dysfunctional organization known as The Organization of African Unity. The body focuses in continent-wide human rights, conflict resolution and economic development, says Don Connell, a visiting scholar at Boston University's African Studies Center.

The only African state that is not a member is Morocco. So far, results from the African Union have been mixed, Connnell says.

"They have gotten involved in some situations that have been very difficult [such as in the Congo and Burundi]," he says. "They have not been able to deal with an issue very close to where the meeting is taking place right now, the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict."

The African Union has also not been able to deal with the larger human rights issues on the continent.

"They set up an African commission on human and people's rights, they set up an African court to try and deal with internal issues around human rights, but look who the current president of the AU is: ... Robert Mugabe, president for life in Zimbabwe," says Connell.

But Connell says the AU is a "work in progress." He adds that Obama's speech at the African Union comes at a key moment.

"This is a real statement about taking Africa more seriously," he says.

It's also important for the US, he says, which is trying to compete with China — a rising power on the African continent.

"China actually built the building that President Obama was speaking in as a gesture to the AU," Connell explains. "I think Obama is playing catch up in that respect."

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