AU summit: Too little, too late

A decade later, is the African Union still relevant?

The AU has responded to many of the crises in Africa with mixed degrees of success [EPA]

Marking the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development, the African Union Summit is due to be held from 21- 31 January 2014 with the theme, “2014 Year of Agriculture and Food Security”.

The theme of the summit will be overshadowed by other current and emerging peace and security crises. Recently, South Sudan has been added to the list of hot conflict spots, such as the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Somalia, Darfur (Sudan), Libya and Egypt. Indicative of the gravity and enormity of the peace and security challenges Africa faces, the continent now hosts more than 120,000 troops both from AU and UN at a cost of more than $6bn. 

The region has also produced more than11 million forced migrants, including a sharp increase in the number of internally displaced persons in addition to the recent displacements in and from South Sudan and CAR. 

Too little, too late?
Testifying to AU’s interventionist mandate, the union has responded – albeit too little, too late – to many of the crises in Africa with mixed degrees of success. Counterfactual analysis would better offer the prism through which we can see AU’s limited successes, by raising hypothetical questions such as, what would have been the situation in Somalia and beyond without AMISOM? Did the mediation effort, following Kenyan elections, contributed to the relative stability in that country? What would be the fate of the relationship between South Sudan and Sudan without AU mediation?

To its credit, the AU has been active against any form of unconstitutional changes or extensions of mandates to govern. Moreover, the AU has been highly involved in monitoring elections in Africa, and subsequently, in mediation efforts when post-election violence occurred in several African countries, relatively successful in Kenya (2007), Zimbabwe (2008) and Cote DIvoire (2010).

Furthermore, it has now become unthinkable to conduct any mediation in Africa without AU’s active involvement. The international community has outsourced this responsibility to high panels and envoys including South Africas former president, Thabo Mbeki. Despite the challenges Africa is facing, the composition of the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in 2014 exhibits what one may call the “generational progression of democracy. With each passing decade, the numbers of democratically elected leaders in Africa have increased. As reported in the 2013 Mo Ibrahim Index, 94 percent of Africa’s population live in countries that have demonstrated improved aspects of governance.

Interventionist France

 A decade after declaring “African solutions to African problems”, Africa has now become the backyard for interventionist Frane and Nato. The AU is partially responsible. By not demanding democratic reform of governance in countries facing serious crises, and some of them ruled by one person for more than three decades, the AU -by de fault- helped the external military intervention. Surprisingly, the AU has increasingly endorsed the intervention of France in Africa. While useful in the short-term, however, unless replaced by an African input, these interventions are counter-productive in the long term.

Facing a debilitating gap between early warning and early response, institutions such as the African Standby Force (ASF are far from achieving a “standby” position and have remained standing without deployment. The Panel of the Wise is yet to show its wisdom in preventing conflicts ahead of escalation. In conceding its failure to operationalise the ASF and to respond on time to the situation in Mali and the CAR, a lapse that compelled France to intervene, the AU has decided to embark on a new transitionalarrangement in the form of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises.

African states have been reduced to the status of “police-states” strong only in securing and maintaining power unconstitutionally through brutal politics and sheer force.

 Unlike previous times, the summit is held at a time when leaders of Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and Kenya are overwhelmed with domestic political challenges. Already embroiled in regional conflicts in DRC and South Sudan, leaders of Rwanda and Uganda cannot enjoy the confidence of their peers. Leaders from Ethiopia and Senegal are new in the process of consolidating their Pan-African credentials. Without committed Pan-African political leadership, early response will remain elusive. Thus, at the centre of AU’s shortcomings remained the low Pan-African commitment of its member states and their leadership. AU can stretch its hand as long as its member states allow it.  

Short on actions

Nevertheless, as in all its decisions, there is no guarantee that this transitional mechanism will be effectively implemented and deployed in the event of the next crisis. Based on its past behaviour, the AU has never been short of decisions; only on actions.

The gaps between means and aspirations, the actual commitments and political statements, between pan-African solidarity and national interest need to be bridged. With 55 percent of the AUs budget coming from donors to cover its programmatic work, non-African external foreign forces effectively control the AUs wallet.

With 55 percent of the AU’s budget coming from donors to cover its programmatic work, non-African external foreign forces effectively control the AU’s wallet.

Another shortcoming dates from its establishment,when the AU has been mainly focused on policy formulation, costing close to $1bn. It is better to have modest normative frameworks that are well observed than more ambitious and idealistic plans that are always disregarded, because, even with its impeccably impressive normative frameworks, the AU became a mockery if it proved unable to implement them. As a result, the AU itself faces both popular and performance legitimacy deficiencies. Now, ten years later, it is critical time for this organisation and all its organs to advance from norm-setting towards the norm-implementation phase of existing treaties and policies.

It is for this very reason that achieving Africa’s peace, prosperity and democracy requires effective transformation of the potential drivers of change in Africa, mainly individual states, political parties, the AU and the Regional Economic Communities (REC). While some crises require rapid military intervention, no crisis in Africa will be solved through hard military intervention alone. Eventually socio-economic development and good governance constitute the best means to prevent conflicts. Aptly, the current theme of the AU summit “Agriculture and Food Security” could increase resilience and help drain the swamp of poverty in which conflicts flourish. However, Africans will judge their governments not only by the quality of the norms they set, but also by the sincerity with whcih they implement them.


Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is International Consultant on African Union affairs, and Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College.

Follow him on Twitter: @meharitaddele