Africa: Is the African Union Capable of 'Silencing the Guns in Africa'?

(file photo)
4 February 2020

Cape Town — This year's African Union (AU) summit, which draws the continent's heads of state and government together in Addis Ababa in the coming days, is being held under the theme, Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa's Development. While the principal aim of a campaign to be launched at the summit is removing illegal weapons from circulation, the ambitious scope suggested by the theme's title begs the question: are the AU and its constituent bodies fit for the purpose of building peace?

AllAfrica highlights a new examination of the issue .

When the African Union succeeded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 2002, the focus of the pan-continental body changed from one largely concerned with liberation from colonial and apartheid rule to one of encouraging "increased cooperation and integration of African states to drive Africa's growth and economic development". Among the most important of a range of objectives aimed at fulfilling this vision was for the newly-constituted grouping to "promote peace, security, and stability on the continent".

Since then, the AU has wrestled not only with intervening in disputes between member states, but also with how to move away from the OAU's principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states and to step into the domestic affairs of countries where there is civil conflict.

The AU's success in peacebuilding is underestimated in the view of Elissa Jobson, the AU advisor at the Brussels-based NGO, the International Crisis Group.

"Peace and security is one of the main success areas of the African Union and it doesn't really get the credit for it," she said last year in a podcast discussion on peacebuilding arranged by the Carnegie Corporation.

And the AU has recently drawn praise for its success in brokering an agreement to establish an interim administration in Sudan after the conflict which followed last year's overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir.

But its performance has been mixed, as highlighted in a new report by Shewit Woldemichael, an Addis Ababa-based researcher of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), an African security policy group and a member of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding. The report was originally published in the ISS's PSC Report, which monitors the work of the AU's Peace and Security Council. The PSC is the 15-member body which is the AU's primary organ for responding to conflict and crisis situations.

Reporting on the PSC's work in 2019, Shewit Woldemichael wrote that it had responded to several conflicts, including those in Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR).

She added: "Stability in the Sahel was discussed, along with climate change, the foreign military presence in Africa, and terrorist networks.

"However the council remained silent on key issues such as the conflict in northern Cameroon, ethnic-based clashes in Ethiopia and brutal attacks by extremists in northern Mozambique. It also allowed situations to escalate before stepping in, such as when protests began in Sudan."

"The lack of effective and timely responses to potential and actual conflicts raises important questions about the PSC's role," she concluded.

She identified Cameroon in particular as an important example of the AU's shortcomings in dealing with intra-state conflict (conflict within states).

Recently the country was identified by Human Rights Watch as one of Africa's conflict hotspots in 2019. HRW's 2020 World Report reported:

Armed groups and government forces committed widespread human rights abuses across Cameroon throughout 2019... The Islamist armed group Boko Haram carried out over 100 attacks in the Far North region since January 2019 killing more than 100 civilians.... In Anglophone regions, violence intensified as government forces conducted large-scale security operations and armed separatists carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Shewit Woldemichael reported on the AU's response: "Despite major initiatives, the escalating 'anglophone' crisis in Cameroon has been overlooked by the PSC since the armed insurrection broke out in 2017.

"The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) discussed the crisis informally in May 2019, because African non-permanent members of the UNSC – South Africa and Equatorial Guinea – voted against attempts to bring the anglophone crisis up for formal discussion at the UNSC.

"Although the AU Commission (AUC) chairperson visited Cameroon in late November 2019, the inability of the 15 PSC members to discuss the deteriorating situation in the country despite obvious early warning signs and reports from the AU's Early Warning Unit, for instance, raises questions about the extent to which the PSC makes use of the AU's own structures for conflict prevention.

"The Central African states of Burundi, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea serve on the PSC, with the latter serving on both the PSC and the UNSC... The central African regional economic community, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), has never discussed Cameroon, nor did it refer the situation to the PSC."

Writing on disputes between states as opposed to intra-state disputes, Shewit Woldemichael was also critical: "The PSC's record on resolving disputes between states was also mixed. The council ignored some tensions between countries, and those it did choose to discuss in 2019 were either already being addressed or had been resolved by another party..."

She concluded: "Currently when the PSC tables potential and actual conflicts for deliberation, this is perceived by member states as a direct attack on a country's sovereignty, or an attempt to undermine the ability of regional economic communities to deal with conflicts. If the council is to respond effectively to conflicts in 2020, this view needs to change."

The ISS researcher also deals with the AU's record on intervening in contested elections and unconstitutional changes of government. Read her full report here: Will the AU Peace and Security Council Do Better in 2020?

AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. This article may be freely used and reprinted, provided that AllAfrica is credited as the source.

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