AU summit: the men in hats with their backs against the wall

The AU Commission can't do much if African leaders remain divided on how to solve key peace and security issues in Africa.

As African leaders meet this week for their bi-annual African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, the world will be watching to see whether the continent is united and pro-active in solving its own problems. The question is whether leaders can find common ground on strategies to fight terror groups like Boko Haram and to deal with the implosion of Libya. Will the AU be willing take the unpopular step of imposing sanctions on South Sudan’s belligerents? And will countries like South Africa and Tanzania carry out their threats to attack the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo?

These issues will be hotly debated during some of the plenary sessions at the AU headquarters’ impressive conference hall – but also in smaller meetings and in the corridors.

Disunity and a lack of coordination amongst the AU’s 54 member states have plagued the organisation in recent months, despite efforts of the AU Commission to intervene and initiate mediation on several fronts. Its recent success in imposing a civilian government in Burkina Faso following a military take-over has been seen as a good example of what can be done if the AU, regional organisations like the Economic Community of West African States, and the United Nations (UN) work together.

Disunity and a lack of coordination have plagued the AU in recent months

Clearly, the AU Commission can’t do much without buy-in from African leaders. Many countries are still reluctant to ratify the instruments drawn up by the AU to further democracy on the continent. One example is the AU’s 2007 Charter on Elections, which still only has 23 ratifications. The Commission can’t do much to impose free and fair elections if the countries do not agree on the rules of the game. And with no fewer than 11 presidential elections this year, this should be a huge issue for the continent.

All eyes, though, are likely to be focused on how the continent’s leaders will deal with the increasing threat of Boko Haram. The Nigerian terror group has made world headlines as they intensified their campaigns in northeast Nigeria and in neighbouring countries. After threatening Cameroon’s President Paul Biya with reprisals if he attacked the group’s fighters, Boko Haram spokesperson Abubakar Shekau also launched a tirade in a new video against Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou (whom he wrongly named Muhammed Yusuf). Niger organised a high-level meeting on Boko Haram in the capital Niamey last week, which was attended by Smail Chergui, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security. Nigeria only sent an ambassador to the meeting.

‘Unless and until Nigeria is at the centre of this process and is leading these regional initiatives, there is no way that the region can move forward [in the fight against Boko Haram],’ says Solomon Dersso, Head of the Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) Peace and Security Council (PSC) programme in Addis Ababa. ‘The continental response is plagued by mistrust and lack of coordination, and no progress is expected to be made before Nigeria’s elections are concluded’ he says. Chad’s President Idriss Déby, who is firmly establishing himself as the leader of the most pro-active military force in the region, has sent 2 000 troops to Cameroon to fight against Boko Haram.

Many countries have still not ratified AU instruments to further democracy on the continent

Whether Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan will turn up at the AU summit is not yet clear. The hotly contested presidential elections in Nigeria, which will take place on 14 February, might just keep him away from the Assembly Meeting on 30 and 31 January. Jonathan, however, has been a regular feature at AU summits since being elected in May 2011, and the absence of the leader of one of Africa’s heavyweights will be missed if he doesn’t turn up.

Dersso says that although the summit will add impetus to the continental effort of forming a unified regional response against the group, it will only be after the elections that Nigeria will engage meaningfully, and any serious progress would be made in effectively implementing the continental response.

Another notable figure at the bi-annual AU gatherings is another man sporting a hat: South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. Kiir was warmly welcomed into the club of African leaders after South Sudan gained independence in 2011. However, a few years down the line, his country is engulfed by civil war, at a huge cost to the country and its neighbours.

The long-term cost of war and the impact on human development is difficult to quantify. Where would South Sudan have been if all the millions of dollars that poured in from the international community had been put to good use to build the fledgling country? In a new report, three non-governmental organisations estimate the cost of war in South Sudan could be as high as US$28 billion in the next five years. That is even if Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar sign a peace deal, and stick to it, in the next couple of months.

The Ugandan-based Centre for Conflict Resolution, the Centre for Peace and Development Studies at Juba University and risk-analysis consultancy Frontier Economics have called on the AU to use this week’s summit as an opportunity get the stakeholders in the crisis to move towards resolving the conflict.

How will the continent’s leaders deal with the increasing threat of Boko Haram?

The organisations are asking the AU to make public a report on human rights abuses in South Sudan that was drawn up by a team led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. The contents of the report might not sit well with either of those now being cajoled to the negotiating table. The 15-member AU PSC will meet on 29 January, when the report is expected to be tabled. The PSC has in past threatened to impose punitive sanctions on both sides if they don’t abide by the Cessation of Hostilities agreement, which was signed early last year. Yet it hasn’t done so, despite the looming threat of famine and nearly 500 000 refugees who have fled to Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Having complained bitterly at being sidelined during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi, the AU has probably got used to not seeing Gaddafi dominate AU meetings with his flamboyant costumes and female guards. In his place, however, the continent now sits with the spill-over effects of the near disintegration of Libya. The international contact group on Libya, initiated by the AU, will meet at the summit.

The ISS’s Dersso, however, says that the deep divisions between international partners like the AU, the European Union and the UN on the issue of Libya will make it very difficult to find common ground towards a solution. ‘The policy divisions seem to be very serious, partly thanks to the legacy of the NATO intervention which has affected the various actors very deeply.’

Besides the potentially divisive security matters, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, AU Commission Chairperson, is likely to find consensus on long-term development issues that she has been championing since her election in 2012. The main theme of the summit is ‘women’s empowerment and the development towards Agenda 2063’. There will be a dedicated session on this theme, and 2015 is expected to be declared ‘the year of women’s empowerment’.

On 29 January, the day before the Assembly meets, the heads of states of the 36 member countries of the African Peer Review Mechanism are also expected to meet, under the chairpersonship of Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The 20 member states that form part of the New Partnership for Africa Development (Nepad) coordination unit, lead by Senegal’s President Macky Sall, will also meet on the same day.

Special guests at the summit are Dr Nabil el-Arabi, Secretary-General of the Arab League and Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestine, who will speak to African leaders during the closing session on 31 January.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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