Another African Union failure in Sudan

The AU’s silence in the face of a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, has undermined their credibility yet again.

Austerity measures in Sudan have led to the largest anti-government protests in many years [AP]

The brutal crackdown in late September by Sudan’s security forces and militias, resulted in over 200 deaths and hundreds of protesters wounded and arrested, according to Sudanese and international human rights organisations. The largest anti-government demostrations in many years saw protesters who sought a reversal of the government’s decision to reduce fuel subsidies.

The incident also resulted in the detention of a number of political opponents, a crackdown on journalists, and restrictions on freedom of expression and organisation, thus violating the fundamental and constitutional rights of the Sudanese people. Notwithstanding the crackdown of Omar al-Bashir’s brutal regime, the African Union (AU) has failed to act according to the requirements of its founding documents, including the AU’S Constitutive Act of 2002 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.

There has been neither an official reaction from AU’s executive organs, nor from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the enforcement mechanism that has been established by the African Charter to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Africa. Following its failure to deliver in Darfur, the AU seems to be destined to fail Sudan at large.

Darfur: A test case

“Darfur is a test case for the AU,” and the AU will “succeed in the Darfur test case”. These words, still echoing in my ears, were uttered by Ambassador Said Djinnit, the former director of the AU’s Peace and Security Council. This was in Addis Ababa, May 2004, and Djinnit was addressing the negotiating delegations of the conflicting parties in Darfur for talks on the modalities of the implementation of the N’djamena Ceasefire Agreement for the Humanitarian Purposes in Darfur.

The failure of the AU in Darfur constitutes a serious setback to the doctrine of “non-indifference” and the slogan of “African solutions for African problems.”

The agreement had been signed in April 2004, by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) on the one hand, and the government of Sudan on the other.

As an African, the words of Ambassador Djinnit were a source of inspiration. I was so proud that finally our continent would stand up to its complex and longstanding problems and resolve them once and for all, and without outside intervention. My hope was based on the new spirit and aspiration that came with the birth of the AU as a successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The AU came with noble values of humanity, principles and doctrines of democracy and human rights, enshrined in its founding documents, such as the AU’s Constitutive Act which shifted Africa from the doctrine of “non-interference”, the legacy of the old OAU, to the new doctrine of “non-indifference” that marked the new era of the AU.

To my chagrin, however, the horrific events that later engulfed Darfur, and the protests in Sudan, have rendered the Ambassador’s words mere wishful thinking. Indeed, the AU has failed the test case on all fronts.

It has been 10 years now since the AU started its involvement in Darfur in various aspects of the crisis, including monitoring the ceasefire, peace-making and peacekeeping. Nonetheless, the Darfur human tragedy is still unfolding. Furthermore, the conflict has spilled over to the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The failure of the AU in Darfur constitutes a serious setback to the doctrine of “non-indifference” and the slogan of “African solutions for African problems.”

Too little, too late

Last month, the protest demonstrations and popular uprisings in Khartoum engulfed various neighbourhoods and spread widely throughout the rest of Sudan’s large urban centres. The entire world has been a witness to the horrific and violent crackdown against the peaceful demonstrators who have been defying the brutal regime in Khartoum. Bashir’s security forces responded to the peaceful demonstrators with an iron fist and absolute force. Regrettably, the international response has been weak and has fallen short of adequately responding to the gravity and magnitude of the crisis.

However, the worst and most regrettable response has been the AU’s. The AU has been silent throughout the course of the unfolding pro-democracy uprising. To date, there has been no statement from the AU on this grave human rights situation which falls under the category of “serious circumstancesof the Constitutive Act 2002. Many human rights organisations have been dismayed and shocked by the silence and inaction of the AU. Indeed, this silence has brought the credibility and integrity of the AU into question.

Article 4H of the act permits the AU to intervene in a member state in the case of “grave circumstances“, which include gross violations of human rights such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. It has been the hope of Africans that the birth of the AU would mark a fresh beginning, a new era that would transform Africa to a free, peaceful, democratic and prosperous continent. Moreover, the hope was also that the newly established organisation would be on the side of  the people and not the rulers.

We still have hope in the organisation that we once dreamed of to play the lead role in transforming Africa  and for Africa to stand as a world model for democracy and human rights.

In Sudan, the AU and African leaders failed to fulfil their obligations under the AU’s founding documents. Furthermore, it is evident that Bashir’s regime has been using the AU, under the banner of African solidarity, to obstruct and frustrate regional and international efforts towards resolving the crisis in Darfur.

Waiting for Bashir?

In September, during the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, I had the opportunity to meet with two high profile AU officials who have been working on the Sudan file for quite a long time.

In my meetings with officials, I asked why the AU has been silent on the situation in Sudan. Its silence will undermine the AU’s role and engagement in Sudan. The responses were not convincing, they gave the impression to me that they were waiting for Bashir to quell the peaceful pro-democracy protests and consequently end the uprising.

The AU should rise up to the complexity and urgency of the crises in Sudan and should strongly condemn the gross violations of human rights committed by Bashir’s regime.

In the name of Pan-Africanism and in the spirit of the South Africans noble struggle against apartheid that we all supported unequivocally, I call upon Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the chair of the African Union Commission, to act swiftly to save Sudanese lives and dignity. The AU shouldn’t wait until Sudan descends into more chaos; it is imperative that the AU convenes an urgent meeting to deliberate on Sudan’s crisis.

The African Commission on Human Rights is urged to immediately dispatch a mission to investigate the crackdown on the civilians and peaceful demonstrators. Furthermore, the Commission should call upon the government of Sudan to adhere to its obligations under the African Charter and other relevant instruments. The AU should put forward a strategic and comprehensive plan for Sudan with the aim of promoting and facilitating a peaceful democratic transition. This is the only way that the AU will be relevant and a part of the solution in Sudan.

We still have hope in the organisation that we once dreamed of  to play the lead role in transforming Africa, and for Africa to stand as a world model for democracy and human rights.


Ahmed Hussain Adam is a prominent Sudanese politician and scholar from Darfur. He has been one of the principal negotiators on behalf of the people of Darfur in various peace talks sponsored by international and regional organisations such as the UN, the African Union, and the Arab League. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and co-chair of the Two Sudans Forum at ISHR.