When It Comes to African Crises, the African Union Is No Solution

A number of recent developments, including the civil war in Ethiopia and a spate of military takeovers in Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Chad, have exacerbated longstanding concerns of democratic backsliding, the return of military coups and the viability of the nation-state in Africa. The reactions of regional bodies and the African Union to these developments have been typified by carefully worded diplomatic statements, suspension of erring member states from group activities and weak sanctions, evoking familiar criticisms of those organizations as “dictators’ clubs” beholden to national leaders at the expense of the citizens they ostensibly serve.

The inability of these bodies to effectively mediate in regional conflicts or reverse illegal power grabs, let alone prevent them, raises questions about their effectiveness in enforcing “good governance” in their regions and across the continent. And for many other observers, the crises in Ethiopia, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Sudan and elsewhere also call into question the commitment of member states to enforce protocols they signed up to, and highlight the structural, institutional and ideational hurdles that handicap the ability of these organizations to enforce their policies.

In crises across the continent, the African Union is notoriously slow to respond or get involved, sometimes taking days to offer even a perfunctory statement of acknowledgment or concern. Last year, for example, at the height of an Ethiopian military offensive in Tigray marked by summary executions, rapes and allegations of ethnic cleansing, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat praised the Ethiopian government for “bold steps to preserve the unity, stability and respect for the constitutional order of the country.” Flawed polls in Tanzania and Cote d’Ivoire last year were regarded by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, then serving as the AU’s rotating chairperson, as “successful,” despite major concerns about the fairness of both. The AU’s inconsistency in enforcing its own policies, as exemplified by the suspension of Mali and Guinea­­ but not Chad after illegal military takeovers in all three countries, opens up the organization even further to charges of incoherence, hypocrisy and doing the bidding of major powers.

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The African Union’s newly reformed executive commission—led by the merger of the former Political Affairs and Peace & Security departments into a new Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security—has mostly failed in its efforts to mediate in the conflict occurring just outside its new Addis Ababa headquarters, beginning when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed infamously rebuffed three envoys the AU dispatched in an attempt to halt the march of war last year. The outbreak of fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region was perhaps a fitting exclamation mark tacked onto the end of the AU’s disappointing “Silencing the Guns by 2020” agenda, with Ramaphosa’s chairmanship drawing criticism for its lack of progress on peace and governance-related issues.

Partly in response to continental and international criticism of its mediation efforts in a conflict on its doorstep, the AU appointed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as its special envoy for the Horn of Africa in August. While it’s still too early to reach a verdict on Obasanjo’s performance, his appointment has not gone without criticism, nor has it led to the cease-fire in Ethiopia that many African and international stakeholders have long called for.

The African Union’s role as an impartial mediator in Ethiopia and in other continental crises very much deserves the critical scrutiny it receives.

Nonetheless, the African Union’s role as an impartial mediator there and in other continental crises very much deserves the critical scrutiny it receives, given the tone-deaf and outright distorted statements its officials often release about events on the ground in countries across the continent. The AU was one of the few non-Ethiopian institutions to observe the country’s general election in June, which was held under conditions that could scarcely be considered free or fair. Yet Obasanjo, as head of the AU’s observer mission to the polls, declared the vote “credible.”

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The AU’s ability to intervene more forcefully in national and regional crises across the continent is limited by the principles of national sovereignty, or non-interference, and subsidiarity to regional bodies embedded in its Constitutive Act, the codified framework that governs the union’s conduct. Mahamat was quick to point to those constraints in response to a call last year by former South African President Thabo Mbeki for the AU to intervene in the controversial third-term bid in Cote d’Ivoire by President Alassane Ouattara. Many others point to the bloc’s concurrent “duty of non-indifference” as giving it authority to intervene in member states’ affairs under certain circumstances, but the determination of what circumstances qualify remains subject to debate.

The intergovernmental nature of the AU, wherein member states head all decision-making organs, and the bloc’s own subsidiarity principle—which gives primacy to regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States and others in leading interventions in and among member states—also limit the scope of the AU’s actions. In order to overcome these limitations and to improve upon its mandate, member states must agree to weaken provisions limiting the AU’s interventions in national and regional affairs, and the AU would need to update its policies on unconstitutional changes of government, something regional heavyweights like Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt are unlikely to agree to. At the same time, as these hegemons—Nigeria and South Africa in particular—have become more insular and inward-looking in their foreign policies in recent years, they have adopted a pattern of selective engagement in continental affairs, preferring to concentrate their efforts within their regional neighborhoods, where they stand out as dominant powers.

Just as important is the role of the international community, including the United Nations and major powers like the U.S., China and the European Union. Cues and signals from them as well as from other Western capitals, particularly Paris, often inform the response of regional bodies and the AU to issues of peace, security and governance on the continent. In West Africa, though Nigeria is the local hegemon, its reliance on its neighbors—all of whom are French clients—in the fight against Boko Haram essentially binds its calculations when regional crises arise to decisions from Paris, which almost always favor preserving the status quo. For its part, China has donated significant sums to the African Union, including for the construction of its headquarters in Addis Ababa, and continues to do so. Beijing can and does use the leverage that offers, along with its large economic footprint on the continent, to provide diplomatic cover to authoritarian governments in Africa under the guise of “non-interference” and “sovereignty.” The geopolitical implications of these power differentials overlap with and reinforce the paralysis of the AU and the continent’s regional bodies.

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One way regional bodies and the AU could break their deadlock is by adopting less state-centric peacemaking frameworks. Nonstate actors including NGOs, cultural organizations and community groups have a role to play in multitrack diplomacy, by complementing official diplomatic efforts with alternatives whose value governments and international bodies might be underestimating. These actors could also go a long way in helping Africa’s regional bodies and the AU shore up the legitimacy deficits they face among African citizens, which they desperately need if they are to be effective in resolving crises on the continent—and remain relevant to Africans’ aspirations for peace and democratic governance across the continent.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee. 

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