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Can the African Union stabilize Africa?

Winter 2013 The Definition

Can the African Union stabilize Africa?

Can the African Union stabilize Africa?

Mariama Conteh

For now, the answer is: yes it can. But the real issue becomes: to what extent? In one sense, the African Union (AU) is unquestionably playing a stabilizing role on the continent. It will likely continue to do so. Of course, things could be better, but imagine Africa without the AU. Would it really be more stable? Probably not.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the new chair of the African Union Commission, provides some hope of reform for the organization – such that it may play a more effective role in Africa’s stabilization. Hopes placed in her abilities to make the institution more effective do not turn merely on the fact that she is a woman, or that she comes from one of the superpower nations of Africa (South Africa). There is a lot more. It is about her track record over the years: as part of the ANC Executive Committee, as South African minister of foreign affairs, as minister of home affairs and, very importantly, as part of the team that drafted the AU’s Constitutive Act.

Can this really be enough? Unfortunately, not enough to make a real difference – that is, not the type of difference that will result in dramatic changes in the AU’s capacity to truly stabilize Africa. We ought not to forget that, at present, the AU functions against all odds. It is a wonder that it is even able to achieve what it does. Representing 54 countries, it has a staff of approximately 1,300 people. Contrast this with the EU, which represents 27 countries and has a staff of about 40,000. It seems unfair to expect much of such an institution – and especially in such a difficult theatre.

We are asking for miracles. This is an organization that has as part of its decision-making structure 54 heads of state. The conditions in many of these member states and the roles that their leaders often play in instability or destabilization is notorious. One individual’s desire to change the AU will evidently not weather the accumulated powers of this mass of leaders.

All of this seems to beg a critical question: how African is the AU? Perhaps a real AU could stabilize Africa, but not one that is reportedly 97 percent-funded by Western nations. How can such an organization really be independent, and make decisions that better the nations and continent that it represents? Some donor nations – sometimes understandably – block and stifle processes of change that may be necessary for stronger democracies on the continent, often in ignorance of the types of painful experiences through which these nations themselves lived in order to ‘develop.’

It could well be that we are looking for stability in the wrong places. It is primarily the role of national governments (and their people) to ensure stability. Let us not reduce their responsibility in this regard. It would certainly ease the work of the AU.

» Mariama Conteh is an independent consultant on peace and security in West Africa, and an adviser to Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative. The views expressed herein are those of the author alone in her personal capacity.

Mohamed Kheir

The promotion of peace, security and stability is one of the AU’s declared objectives. In line with these lofty goals, the AU has been increasingly engaged in peacekeeping efforts in African conflicts.

In Somalia, AU peacekeepers played a commendable role in rooting out Al Shabab from its last stronghold of Kismayo. They have helped to set up medical centres to assist injured civilians in areas liberated from the radical Islamist group. In Darfur, on the other hand, where it played a central role in the international response to the conflict, the AU reaped only limited success. The presence of AU peacekeepers on the ground undoubtedly contributed to the protection of internally displaced persons and humanitarian delivery; nonetheless, its peacekeepers were insufficiently effective in protecting civilians, and its diplomats were unable to commit the parties to accept a lasting peace agreement.

In order to build confidence in its own capabilities and enhance its legitimacy among communities affected by violence, the AU must be seen to be diplomatically and militarily effective in those contexts where it chooses to intervene. For this, the international community must do more to support the AU’s peacekeeping efforts not only financially, but also in the form of logistics, equipment and training.

Where the AU appears to be faltering is in accountability for serious crimes and the implementation of transitional justice. Since 2009, the AU has refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) – though individual African states continue to cooperate with the Court – despite the fact that the ICC is currently investigating eight situations in Africa. Meanwhile, the AU’s African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has made little or no progress in delivering justice. Failure to deliver justice, to compensate victimized communities, and to address the humanitarian needs in areas ravaged by violence will perpetuate conflict in countries and regions on the continent that have been intermittently at war since their independence.

The AU will need to devise programmes aimed at accelerating the pace of democratic reforms among its member states. In the wake of the Arab Spring, which started in the African country of Tunisia and quickly spread to neighbouring Egypt and Libya, it is undeniable that stability in Africa, as elsewhere, can no longer be guaranteed by the sheer absence of conflict. Instead, it must instead be nurtured with continued systemic and institutional reforms. Increasing citizen participation in the form of free elections and free expression, consolidating the rule of law, and protecting the independence of judicial institutions are but some of the crucial advances that the AU must seek in order to signal its seriousness about promoting stability on the continent.

» Mohamed Kheir is a Human Rights Officer in the Middle East and North Africa Section of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The views expressed herein are those of the author alone in his personal capacity.

Steve McDonald

Yes, it can – with a lot of help from its friends. The AU, since its inception in 2002 in Durban, South Africa, has been moving to distance itself from its predecessor body, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and to move toward greater member state accountability, rapid response to crisis, economic integration and advancement, and zero tolerance for the old autocratic, coup d’état, mindset that once hid behind assertions of national sovereignty. The Constitutive Act of the AU, promulgated in 2000, has as an objective the promotion of “peace, security, and stability on the continent[.]”

Stabilizing Africa would be a multi-dimensional effort, requiring the resolution of inter- and intra-state conflict; the achievement of equitable standards of living to thwart poverty, malnutrition, and disease; the provision of education, training and opportunity to expand the continent’s middle class; the elimination of corrupt and inept governance to ensure accountability and responsive government; the opening up of trade and investment within the continent and on a global scale; and the establishment of security mechanisms to prevent terrorist incursions and destabilization. This is a huge menu. The AU, since its inception, through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Peace and Security Council, Regional Economic Communities, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), the Economic Social and Cultural Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Union Standby Force has been trying to address these many issues.

Two important principles contained in the Constitutive Act separate the AU from the old OAU. The first is “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity[.]” The second is the “condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments.” A strong commitment to accountability is exemplified in the APRM. Since its formation in 2003, it has laboured out of the limelight in a remarkable effort premissed on Africans fostering African responsibility. Through a precise review process based on the voluntary adoption by a country of policies, standards and practices that favour political stability, high economic growth, sustainable development and accelerated sub-regional and continental economic integration, some 30 African nations are now members, and 14 more await peer reviews or formal signature in order to join.

What is important in all of this is the commitment, in principle, of the AU to work on all fronts to stabilize the continent and allow it to fulfill its promise and take its rightful place in the global community. Setbacks abound in ongoing conflicts – some old, some new – like Mali and the Sahel or the DRC. However, just as many conflicts are coming to a close, including Somalia and, in recent years, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Burundi. The achievement of socioeconomic, health and educational goals remains spotty, but their achievement becomes more and more a reality as economic growth reaches record levels in many countries, and direct foreign investment – including infrastructural development and the easing or removal of trade barriers – takes hold. Governance remains an issue in many countries, but the patience for the old ‘big men’ of Africa is gone – both in the continent’s vibrant civil society and in the international community at large.

The AU Chair in 2003, Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa’s president, saw an “African renaissance” emerging within this new framework. We are not there yet, but the hand of the AU has been strengthened in the decade since, with general recognition of its centrality and an outpouring of international involvement, through security assistance, increasing trade and investment, and more targeted development assistance. It will take enlightened leadership, which seems to have emerged in the person of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and continued help from the ‘friends’ of Africa: the EU, the US, China, Turkey, India, Canada, and so on.

» Steve McDonald directs the Africa Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

(Illustration: Lisa Haney)

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