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Topics / Sustainable Peace in Africa

Peacebuilders: The African Union

The rise of regional economic communities in conflict resolution

The African Union continues to play an important role in enforcing peace and security on the continent, but the political momentum is shifting toward “coalitions of the willing” and regional economic commissions, according to Africa experts interviewed in Nairobi and Addis Ababa for Peacebuilders, a Carnegie Corporation podcast series. Hosts Aaron Stanley and Scott Malcomson speak with experts from the region in this fourth episode of the Peacebuilders series.

In this episode: Elissa JobsonWilfred MuliroGetachew Zeru

MALCOMSON: Welcome to Diffusion, a podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, I’m Scott Malcomson

STANLEY: and I’m Aaron Stanley. In this fourth episode we’re discussing the African Union, which in 2002 succeeded the Organization of African Unity as Africa’s continent-wide political body. Both the OAU, founded in 1963, and the AU have been the focus of much hope and of much disappointment.

MALCOMSON: We spoke in Nairobi with Elissa Jobson, the AU advisor at International Crisis Group, and Wilfred Muliro, a lecturer at the Technical University of Nairobi.  

JOBSON: You know, peace and security is one of the main success areas of the African Union and it doesn’t really get the credit for it.  I think it's often underestimated.

STANLEY:  But what areas would you consider the successes that it's seen?

JOBSON:  I think we've seen the continent is prepared to intervene when others aren’t — in Darfur, particularly initially.  And Somalia, I mean, there's still a lot of work to be done there, but without the African Union's intervention, I think we'd be in a much worse state in Somalia.  And I can see Wilfred nodding his head in agreement.  I think also they've done some interesting things in terms of setting continental norms and actually setting standards internationally.

MALCOMSON:  In peace and security?

JOBSON:  In peace and security.  Apart from the Commonwealth, they are the only inter-governmental organization that is prepared to intervene internally in their member states’ conflicts and crises.  There's very few organizations that can actually do that, can actually come in and intervene without member states’ permission.  It has a mandate to engage and that derives from experiences during the 1990s, in particular the genocide in Rwanda.  The OAU I think we typically would say had a policy of non-interference whereas the AU has a policy of non-indifference.  This idea that there was an international responsibility to engage and not just stand by when atrocities are being committed.

I mean I think we're… I think we've moved away a bit internationally and also in the continent from the sort of heyday of this idea of responsibility to protect.  I think what happened in Libya, certainly for the continent, has moved them away from that.

MALCOMSON: The Responsibility to Protect, often referred to as R2P, is a political commitment subscribed to by all the members of the UN General Assembly.

STANLEY: R2P requires states to protect their citizens against genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. If a state fails to protect its own citizens, the international community can involve R2P as a principle for intervention.

MALCOMSON: As Elissa mentions, R2P was invoked in the NATO-led intervention  in Libya.

JOBSON: R2P was used as a justification for intervening in Libya and the continent was strongly against that, or elements of the continent was certainly strongly against the NATO intervention, and the upheaval that we've seen as a result of that and as a result of not having a political strategy to accompany a military strategy in Libya has certainly tarnished the image of responsibility to protect in the continent—

MALCOMSON: But was there a blowback from that onto the constitutional semi-equivalent for the African Union?  In other words, did the negative effect of the R2P experience in Libya then have an unintended consequence for the African Union's views on…

JOBSON:  I think it's undermined the idea that there is an automatic responsibility to intervene.  I mean a lot of the question of intervening on the continent is down to political will and finding a group of member states who have an interest and who are usually affected.  I mean it's typically the neighboring states, not always but typically the neighboring states, who are most likely to be those to intervene and sort of finding a coalition of the willing to intervene, I think, is becoming harder, but that's partly because a lot of member states are looking internally. I mean I think one of the deficits that we have at the moment, I think, on the continent is a lack of a Pan-African vision amongst a lot of the African Union member states.  And at the moment there's very few leaders — and I think it's important that it isn’t these big political heavyweights that are interested in this. Particularly the bigger African Union member states have got their own internal issues and they're not thinking continentally.

MULIRO:  The idea that Nigeria, South Africa, you know, Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, Masiri, and the rest, even Gaddafi, why there was some Pan-Africanism is because, one, they had the ear of the international community.  They listen to them. They had good networks.

And second, I think, they always moved as a team, whether at the UN or negotiating for issues in Africa, they were always ...  In fact they were called, at one time, I think someone labeled them as an African alms something, like they were carrying a cup, begging around the globe.  You remember that?

JOBSON:  Yeah.

MULIRO:  But still, you know, the fact that they were moving as a team, it made moving around the countries and requesting them to accept peer-review mechanisms, I remember even in Kenya here.  So it made AU very, I think, prominent within the psyche of Africans, ordinary ones.

But now, I think the Pan-Africanism has gone down, and especially the fact that, because of the idea of rotation of the African issue of, “It’s your turn.”

MALCOMSON: A primary focus of the African Union has been on peace and security. But conflicts are increasingly being handled by the regional economic communities known by the unfortunate acronym, RECS.

STANLEY: The lead agency on the conflict in South Sudan has been the  the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD. It is made up of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda

JOBSON: To say there's a rivalry between the regional economic communities and the AU, partly over resources that are available from the international community.  So if you're engaged in mounting a mediation, between parties in South Sudan, the international community is pumping quite a lot of money into your organization giving you the capacity to actually conduct these meetings.  And there’s a certain amount of prestige as an organization, that you get sort of being in the spotlight. I mean the IGAD meetings, the international media is there, in the discussion on South Sudan, the negotiations, there's quite a lot of international attention.  There's also quite a lot of international money engaged. So there is competition between the AU and the RECs over this.  And I think if they were to be closer and work more closely together, and particularly if they were more engaged in each of the deliberations, then I think there would be opportunities to try and reduce that competition.

MALCOMSON:  Do you think that the experience of IGAD and South Sudan constitutes in a sense a negative example that makes the AU look more attractive?  Or is the place where perhaps a larger AU role would be--would help to unblock some of the political stalemate not just within the country itself but amongst the members of IGAD who are attempting to solve that conflict?

JOBSON:  I mean, I think South Sudan is a very special case, well —

MALCOMSON: I hope so.

JOBSON:  — at least it's — it is and it isn’t. I mean, I think it's hard to find a solution there.  I think there is a lot of criticism against IGAD about that it hasn’t been able to find a solution. But before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the early 2000s, within Sudan, when eventually a decision was taken to the two countries to split, and we had years and years and years of war.


JOBSON: Yeah. So some of the issues that we're seeing in South Sudan stem back to things that have happened during the Sudan Civil War, the things that we’re seeing happen in South Sudan stem from that.  So it's really complicated and it's—and, you know, for IGAD to actually have managed to get a peace agreement on the table in 2015 as they did — with the support of the African Union and the wider international community — was actually a major achievement two years after the civil war started, two and a half years after the civil war stated.

MALCOMSON: Getachew Zeru is an assistant professor of peace and security studies at Ethiopian Civil Service University. We spoke with him in Addis Ababa.

ZERU: When we see the intervention from the neighboring countries, from IGAD, from the African Union, from the international community, it also has its own limitations or problems. For example, let’s take IGAD, as an institution.  The  attachment of the countries to South Sudan is the main problem that IGAD is not able to resolve. For example, let’s take Uganda. Uganda is pro-government. It’s still supporting the government, the Kiir government, because of its own reasons, economic reasons and political reasons. Take Sudan. Sudan was the mother of South Sudan, but after the secession of South Sudan, still they have controversial issues, and for a long time Sudan was supporting the rebels. Same is true of Kenya, a little bit, was neutral. But now,  Kenya is becoming part of the game.  If you remember, Kenya deported an official of the rebels [in 2016], and the official is now sentenced to death by the government. He was deported by the Kenyan government.  And Kenya also…I think the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission advisor, said that Kenya has been allowing for military transport from Kenya, from the port to South Sudan. Despite the government’s denials, military equipment is passing through Kenya, because Kenya has access to the sea.  Kenya is nowadays supporting the government against the rebel groups because, as I said, the spokesman of the rebel groups was in Kenya and Kenya deported him to South Sudan. You can also take the case of Ethiopia as well.  Ethiopia doesn’t want to create any kind of pressure on both sides, because, you know, Ethiopia has military in Abyei [an unstable province of South Sudan]. The entire peacekeeping mission [there] is from Ethiopia. And in the African Union, the regional forces that are now acting in Juba [South Sudan’s capital] are also part of the game. Ethiopia is not pressurizing the agreement, to push the government and the opposition to bring it into practice. Because she [Ethiopia] wants to keep its name. So the member countries in IGAD are not genuine enough to resolve the problems of South Sudan.


STANLEY: Returning back to our conversation with Elissa Jobson and Wilfred Muliro.

JOBSON: One thing we need to talk about with South Sudan is also the role of Egypt, which certainly since 2015 has become important.  It's an important player, but it's outside of IGAD.  And this is potentially where the AU can have a role. Egypt's engagement in South Sudan has increased in the last couple of years, and this is partly due to its relationship with Ethiopia.  And Ethiopia is building the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile.  South Sudan is a riparian state of the Nile so it's an important ally, both for Ethiopia and Egypt to get on side in their own dispute over the Nile waters.

South Sudan has a border with Ethiopia.  Ethiopia has its own internal issues, there were concerns that Egypt might use South Sudan as a way of funding and getting arms and support to rebels in Ethiopia.  So there's sort of — Egypt has been brought into this proxy-war sphere and it’s largely due to its relationship with Ethiopia. 

MULIRO:  And I think, just to add, IGAD and the AU, there as she said the AU has a policy of…the subregional organizations are called the building blocks for African continental integration.  Then second, like within the Sudan epicenter there, at the center of the conflict, the AU, though it is at the top there cannot manage unless it brings in the neighboring states, with their interests.  And this is something like it is a paradigm or something growing within the African form of peace support operations.  That maybe since we do not have enough resources, or members are unwilling unless they get funding from the UN, and we had gotten used to the idea of “we just come in, when there is a ceasefire then the UN takes over.”  But the UN is not doing that, even for AMISOM —

MALCOMSON: AMISOM is the African Union Mission in Somalia, a decade-long peacekeeping operation supported by the UN and funded largely by the European Union. AMISOM might well be the last of its kind. In the last episode of this podcast Rashid Abdi went so far as to say AMISOM’s days are numbered.

MULIRO: — so what happened is that they rally around countries to be troop-contributing countries who are affected by the conflict.  So then they have a very serious reason to be engaged.

But for Sudan, as she said it's not as straight as Somalia.  Somalia, there's a backlash in Kenya, in Ethiopia, and almost it's like the interest of those states that are there are almost coalescing.  It's like they coincide.  But in Sudan everybody has his own interests and he does not want to be left out of the peace process.

JOBSON:  I think, I was going to say, I think in terms of where the regional economic communities like IGAD fit within the African Union, I mean I think it’s important to remember that IGAD member states are also AU member states, and these member states that are saying themselves that they don't wish the AU to have a bigger role.

MALCOMSON:  In principle, the budding conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its control over the waters that feed the entire country of Egypt, you would think that in theory the African Union would be a very good place to work out diplomatically, to ease, some of those tensions.

MULIRO:  It appears, I wish to agree, it appears that the AU continuously has to rely on the sub-regional, the regional economic communities. It looks like the AU is something so broad and deals with the broad pillars and allows the nitty-gritty of issues to be done at the regional economic communities

JOBSON:  I think the AU can play a bit of a role, and it has done.  We saw at this summit in January, in Addis Ababa, there was actually a meeting, a trilateral meeting, on the sidelines of the AU summit between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia.  So, I mean, whilst it's not an AU initiative, they're using the fact of an AU meeting to join and to meet together, and I think there was obviously some pressure for them to meet because things were sort of escalating between those three countries  just immediately before the AU summit.  So the--as a convening space, it allows heads of states to sort of meet on a slightly more neutral ground.

Member states sort of use the AU and the regional organizations as and when suits their own national interests I think. And I think that's something worth sort of bearing in mind. There's a whole question of political will and whether or not you're going to find that your regional economic community is going to give you the most leverage in allowing you to have, allow your interests to be best served, then you will go for the REC to lead.  When it's the AU, then you will go for the AU to lead.  And when neither of those, you might — if you've got the alternative of the Arab League then you go to them or you go to the UN.  We've seen a number of states sort of effectively playing these different institutions off against each other.

MALCOMSON:  Jurisdiction shopping they call it.

JOBSON:  Yeah, forum shopping, yeah.

MULIRO:  We used to have this very quiet policy that neighbors are disallowed to intervene in a state.  But continuously the trend is changing and I think it's because of the fact that, what you mentioned at the onset, that those who are affected more will be more willing to use their resources at the beginning before the UN comes, or the EU, to sort a situation,  and I think the AU is leveraging on that.

JOBSON:  Yeah.

MULIRO:  And that's why I continue to insist that it looks like it's continuously behaving almost like the UN and now the AU: let's begin with the regional mechanisms before we come in.  So the AU is doing that with all those other challenges but I don’t know the future of that, the fact that we allow those who are greatly affected and their neighbors to intervene. 

JOBSON:  If you look at Somalia, the troops are probably, that have got the most interest, are the Kenyan troops and the Ethiopian troops, because they've got self-interest, they've got national self-interest, and if the money reduces for AMISOM, for soldier stipends, then the troops that will stay will be the Ethiopians and it will be the Kenyans because they've got an interest.  And whilst having countries who have got a national interest engaged it is a problem, you also can’t have peace without them, because conflicts, even if they're within one international border, they often spill outside of that, and the regional dynamics, the dynamics of the neighbors, it has to be taken into account.  I don’t think there’s a single conflict on the continent that doesn't expand beyond the original conflict country into the wider region.

STANLEY:  Nor any conflict, really, ever.

JOBSON:  Anywhere else,  yeah.

MULIRO: I’m beginning to feel that it may, at least it may, this trend of AMISOM may continue.  It may not die. It may continue for two reasons that, one, what he has mentioned, the reduction in interest and the rest.  And number two, the idea that the AU has realized that it is easier for you to raise troops very fast and to have people willing to die if they are interested and affected by the conflict.

And in fact the AU went further — and I agree with you that it is actually a very unique peace-support operation that you accept openly that states come with their interests, and we shall give you a sector.  So you give Kenya a sector that is near. In fact it is our mission, but it is individual states pursuing their peace in Somalia the way they know, with an abstract umbrella called AMISOM to give them the legality.  Because you have given Ethiopia their sector, Kenya.

STANLEY:  — I just want to make one clarifying point on that. What you're saying there is that the Kenyans operate under Kenyan leadership, the Ethiopians operate under Ethiopian leadership, the Ugandans operate under Ugandan leadership —

MULIRO:  Even territories are different.

STANLEY:  Each of them are in different parts of Somalia —


STANLEY:  And so that's just as a clarifying point on how the AMISOM effort is led.

JOBSON:  There is a general in chief.

STANLEY:  Yes, right.

MULIRO:  Just slightly, and I think it’s because of that struggle to improvise and use the resources that are there.  Personally I think I support that. Despite their interests, that is the only mechanism that will have worked in the presence of lack of interest from the international community and reduction in resources.

MALCOMSON:  And the lack of some larger Pan-African purpose that would have configured it differently.

MULIRO:  Yes, you give it—

MALCOMSON:  [Interposing] Mention that as well.

JOBSON: In recent years we've seen a further evolution. And this is why I think the AMISOM-type operations are dead.  We've seen the multinational joint task force in the Lake Chad Basin, which was a coalition of five states who were affected by Boko Haram around the Lake Chad Basin. We've seen the international community giving them some support.  The EU is giving them funding, the US, UK, France — to the various individual countries, has given them support.  And the EU in particular, I think, favors this kind of method because, one, it means that they’re not having to pay the stipends of soldiers.  The African countries are paying for their own soldiers to intervene in the Lake Chad Basin. And we've seen this repeated in the Sahel in the conjoined force of the G5 Sahel.  And again — and this has sort of been pushed by France, largely as a way for it to disengage from Mali — a coalition of five states who are affected by events and conflict in Mali, neighboring states, who have agreed to join forces, bring together their forces, to engage in particular mission.  And I think that going forward this is what we're going to see more of because, one, it means that international community pays less.  AMISOM has been an enormous cost for the European Union, I think it's somewhere like 1.4 billion, more than that, billions of Euros that they've pumped into AMISOM in the 10 years that they have been there. And they just don’t have the money to sustain this.

We've seen that the US is moving away from multilateralism, doesn't want to put money into international organizations like the UN and to a certain extent the African Union as well.  So we're going to see less money available for missions like AMISOM. And I think the model of the coalition of willing states, supported logistically and financially by international actors, is probably more a model that we're going to be seeing going forward.

MULIRO:  But the G5—

MALCOMSON:  [Interposing] That still keeps your point though, doesn't it?

MULIRO:  This way ends an out when--it looks like—

JOBSON:  [Interposing] But it's not AU, they're not AU controlled—

MULIRO:  Yes, it looks like the states are disengaging from the AU, but whenever the idea of saying that maybe it, maybe it will be two tracks: that first, the base will be regional and moving to the case of willing states.  Those are the heavily affected.  Or if we bring in the AU, it will go the way of those willing states, would just come there as an umbrella, maybe legitimacy like the UN resolution. But it's the states doing their own peace and security process.

JOBSON: And that is what we're seeing in the Lake Chad Basin and in the G5 in the Sahel. So the AU had a slight role with the MNJTF, but with the G5, the AU has been cut out entirely.  I mean, what it does does provide is it's provided a veneer of legitimacy for these five states to agree to work together.  It's provided a continental legitimacy which has then been used at the UN to provide international legitimacy for this force.  And I think that's probably where we're going to move towards, because there's very little appetite to fund peace support operations run by the African Union.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.