The complexity of the relationship between the AU and regional organisations is evident in the handling of the crisis in the Central African Republic.
At a time when the African Union (AU) seeks to re-evaluate and redefine its relationship with regional economic communities (RECs) as part of the reforms adopted by the organisation, the Central African Republic (CAR) provides a test case for the tricky relationship between these two levels of African governance.
The AU and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have taken turns leading the peace process in the CAR. Earlier on in the crisis, in 2013, this was done to the detriment of a proper collaborative approach that could have yielded a better outcome for the CAR and its people.
The idea of a division of labour between the AU and RECs – the AU and ECCAS, in this case – is a noble one. However, it risks colliding with the reality of power politics and the complexity of applying the principle of subsidiarity.
AU and ECCAS hesitate to speak out about Central Africa
ECCAS is the subregional organisation for the central African region as recognised by the AU. Its members are Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Rwanda and São Tomé and Príncipe.
Over the past few years the relationship between ECCAS and the AU on questions of conflict prevention and management has been complex. For instance, ECCAS has been silent on the situation in Gabon. However, the AU issued a communiqué in November 2018 in response to the unilateral constitutional amendment made by Gabon’s constitutional court, the second controversial constitutional change that year. ECCAS has been equally silent about Burundi, while the AU has, on several occasions, particularly in 2015, looked into the situation there.
Both ECCAS and the AU have, however, refrained from engaging in Cameroon, notably in what is now an open conflict in the north-west and south-west regions of the country.
Political instability has also rocked Chad and the Republic of Congo. In Chad, in 2018, a constitutional amendment reinforced the powers of the president. Meanwhile the country saw a wave of social protests and a rebellion taking root in the north that threatened the N’djamena regime and was quelled with the help of the French military.
In the Republic of Congo, a 2015 controversial referendum was held to allow the president to run for a third term. This was followed by a botched presidential election that led to the crisis in the Pool region of the country, with dire humanitarian consequences. Neither ECCAS nor the AU arbitrated in those cases.
The Central African Republic: a revealing case
The CAR provides a good illustration of the complex relationship between ECCAS and the AU, as well as potential lessons for how they could better work together.
When the CAR conflict erupted in 2012, ECCAS was present in the country through the Mission de consolidation de la paix en Centrafrique (MICOPAX), deployed in 2008. In 2012 ECCAS conducted the first mediation engagements between the CAR government and the Seleka rebel group, leading up to the signing of the January 2013 peace agreement in Libreville, under the aegis of the subregional body. ECCAS was therefore involved in what could be described as an attempt to prevent a conflict that nonetheless erupted and swept away the regime of president François Bozizé in March 2013.
The coup triggered the AU’s suspension of the CAR. While the AU took a firm position on the matter and applied its rules relevant to such cases, ECCAS was more conciliatory. It found a compromise to legitimise the Seleka regime by creating a transitional arrangement, with transitional authorities. ECCAS’s position was determined by key countries of the region and their interests, in particular Chad and the Republic of Congo.
The escalation of the conflict led to the involvement of the AU, and discussions about collaboration with ECCAS officially began in July 2013. The aim was to eventually move from an ECCAS to an AU mission.
Negotiations between the AU and ECCAS
The relationship between the AU and RECs was, at the time, essentially captured and codified in a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on collaboration in the area of peace and security. This memorandum was, however, not clear enough to guide engagements between the AU and ECCAS on the CAR. In that regard, the two organisations signed another MOU in December 2013 during the Elysée (France) Summit on peace and security in Africa.
Significantly, the December 2013 MOU was the culmination of a long process of negotiation where ECCAS sought to retain control over the crisis management and peace process in the CAR. In effect, although the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) replaced MICOPAX, the leadership and composition of the mission remained largely that of ECCAS countries. This was reflected in the MOU.
The passing of the baton from MICOPAX to MISCA came with its own hiccups, with reports that the transfer of funds to troops did not occur swiftly enough, leading to soldiers’ lacking the most basic of necessities for some time. At the same time, ECCAS prevailed over the political process. The organisation held a summit in January 2014 in N’djamena that saw the forced resignation of transitional president Michel Djotodia and his prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye. In July 2014 the International Contact Group on the CAR, under the leadership of ECCAS mediator and president of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, convened the Brazzaville forum for peace and reconciliation in the CAR.
A battle was thus being waged between ECCAS and the AU on who would have the upper hand in the management of the CAR conflict. There was, at that moment, a clear reluctance on the part of ECCAS to abandon the CAR to an AU it deemed removed from the reality of the conflict. Some of the leaders in the region also wanted to keep control over the protagonists in the CAR for the sake of their countries – and for their own personal interests.
A highly political division of labour
Clearly, the question of who takes the lead between the AU and the RECs, in this case ECCAS, is a highly sensitive and political matter that requires a clear and flexible framework of engagement.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) eventually took over from MISCA in September 2014. ECCAS and the AU then resorted to playing second fiddle, until the AU decided to revive the CAR peace process with its Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation in the CAR, starting in late 2016.
Today, the AU has made major strides in the peace process in the CAR with the signing, in February 2019, of a peace agreement between the government and 14 armed groups. When the implementation of the peace deal encountered challenges, the AU called for a meeting between the parties (government and armed groups) in Addis Ababa in March 2018 that saved the agreement.
The AU has since remained steadfast in its monitoring of the agreement, with a visit of the commissioner for peace and security and his team to follow up on the Addis Ababa meeting and the implementation of the peace agreement.
A need to clarify roles
It is evident that the relationship between the AU and ECCAS needs to be clarified in such a way that the two organisations do not have to sign ad hoc memoranda when a situation must be tackled.
The CAR example shows that ECCAS has the potential to conduct conflict prevention through mediation, but it has shown scant regard for the democratic principles that the AU purports to defend. At the same time, the situation in the CAR was particular and explosive enough to warrant such action by ECCAS.
The AU and ECCAS have to find a workable method for conflict prevention in the region. Both organisations have shown reluctance in too many cases, whether it be addressing impending or ongoing precarious situations such as in the Republic of Congo during the Pool crisis or during Cameroon’s so-called anglophone crisis, or addressing structural drivers of conflict in the region.
In what is classically considered crisis management, the AU has shown, in the case of the CAR, its ability to lead a mediation process. This it can replicate going forward, especially as regional political dynamics may sometimes interfere or adversely affect peace talks.
Finally, and perhaps easier to achieve, the AU and ECCAS should work out clearer guidelines for the deployment of peace missions to ensure timely, reliable and effective deployment or handover between the two organisations.
This article is part of a special PSC Report focus on regional economic communities in the run-up to the AU Coordination Summit on 7–8 July 2019 in Niamey, Niger.