Since its foundation in 2001, the African Union (AU) has established an ambitious interest in preventive diplomacy and conflict management and has had a significant effect on security outcomes across the African continent and beyond. However, many external observers see a disconnect between the extent of security concerns on the continent and the AU's ability to respond with "African solutions to African problems".
The origins of "African solutions to African problems" lie in the anti-imperialist spirit that united the continent in 1963 through the Organization for African Unity. Under the OAU's successor, the African Union, the continent's continued ambition for regional autonomy and for region-led solutions has dominated regional security practices and is central to the AU's mandate. Its commitment to African solutions to African problems is also practical and logistical, since the AU and its member states believe that such solutions are more effective and more appropriate than those imposed from outside.
But despite its desire for autonomy, the AU exhibits institutional weaknesses and a logistical reliance on actors outside the continent.
This is demonstrated by the AU's finances. While they are improving, the Peace and Security Department's external support often accounts for 90 per cent of its yearly funding. Also, the AU remains understaffed with only some 1,600 employees.
This relative weakness and dependence undermines the body's autonomy, its authority and its ability to provide region-led solutions, as was shown by the failure of western powers to heed the AU's proposed "roadmap" for Libya in 2011 - including providing humanitarian assistance, mediating among parties and providing a path for Muammar Gaddafi's removal. The chosen approach was calamitous, and this remains a point of contention at the AU today.
Many AU officials believe that the organisation's voice in the design and operation of AU-supported peacekeeping missions is ignored at the United Nations and that peacekeepers from AU member states are seen as dispensable. Rather than supporting region-led solutions, "the UN pays us to die" is a common sentiment among AU officials.
African solutions matter, and should matter more
Given this, one may be tempted to side with critics: the problems of the continent appear too vast for regional solutions alone. But this reality does not mean that the ambition of finding African solutions to African problems is not upheld at the AU, nor that it should be abandoned in the face of the extent of continental challenges.
African solutions must remain a guiding principle for the AU. However, more must be done. Crucially, the AU needs more support from its member state governments. In part, this means financial contributions and, while the growing support of a 0.2 per cent levy on eligible non-African imports, introduced in 2016, is a good step forward, more is needed.
But the AU also needs more member state buy-in and trust. Too often member states are perceived by AU officials as unreliable and uncommitted. The officials complain of leaders' unwillingness to attend summits and of the limited implementation of AU agreements by member states. For example, the African Union Non-Aggression and Common Defence Pact adopted in 2005 has been ratified by just 22 members and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, adopted in 2007, by only 32.
This perceived apathy and the limited financial support from member states leads AU officials to turn to European and other states for support on a daily basis. And these external partners remain more than willing to fill the void left by AU members. They are driven, at least in part, by an interest in expanding their influence at the AU and across the continent more generally.
The U.S. $200 million Chinese-built AU Conference Centre and Office Complex, inaugurated in 2012, and the U.S. $36 million German-funded Julius Nyerere Peace and Security Building, opened in 2016, are concrete reminders of this.
At the same time, the AU must also better demonstrate its value to its members. There should be a review of its peace and security priorities and a narrower focus on a set of clear challenges in coming years: election monitoring, as seen in July this year in Zimbabwe; peacekeeping, visible in the continued commitment in Somalia; and an expanded role overseeing regional responses to terrorism, as with the G5 Sahel Joint Force. If the apathy of member states is to be overcome, the AU will need to lead.
The AU has been and will continue to be the heart of regional cooperation on continental peace and security. African solutions to African problems is an important ambition and should remain a central principle of AU practice.
Aarie Glas is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University. His recent article, African Union security culture in practice: African problems and African solutions, was published in the September 2018 issue of International Affairs.
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