Reality check: the AU’s limited ability to respond to crises

During their annual summit in February 2021, African Union (AU) heads of state will be reviewing the progress made in implementing its peace and security priorities for 2020.

By December 2020 the Peace and Security Council (PSC) had discussed nine of the 14 country-specific situations highlighted in the February 2020 AU Assembly decision, despite significant challenges posed by COVID-19. The PSC’s planned field visits to the Lake Chad and Sahel regions were, however, cancelled owing to the pandemic.

The PSC’s track record in responding to emerging crises in 2020 has been marginal. This is primarily because the AU’s ability to intervene in crises is restricted by its principles of national sovereignty (non-interference) and subsidiarity, rather than being spurred by the principle of non-indifference set out in Article (4h) of the Constitutive Act.

The PSC’s track record in responding to emerging crises in 2020 has been marginal

These challenges were articulated by AU Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat in his reply to former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who had asked the AU to intervene in what he called the unconstitutional candidature of Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara ran for a third presidential term in October 2020.

The AUC chair, after acknowledging the lack of consistent implementation of the AU’s legal and policy provisions, highlighted the inter-governmental nature of the AU, and that member states head all decision-making organs.

He also highlighted the limitations put on the AU by the principle of subsidiarity. This principle recognises the primacy of regional organisations in leading interventions in member states, thus limiting the AU’s interventions in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.

If the AU is to overcome these challenges and implement its mandate, member states have to agree to limit the provisions of these principles, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Therefore, even as the continent continues to grapple with peace and security challenges, the AU’s own principles will continue to diminish its ability to prevent and respond to conflicts in 2021 and beyond.

This is a major reality check for Africans who expect the continental body to intervene in all crisis situations.

Crisis response and post-conflict reconstruction

The PSC, tasked with overall coordination and oversight of the implementation of peace and security-related Assembly decisions, has discussed the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, The Gambia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Libya. The AU is directly engaged in supporting these countries via different missions and representatives.

While the PSC also discussed the situations in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, it recognised the leading role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in finding a solution to the political and institutional crises in the two countries.

Mali had twice been on the PSC’s agenda (in April and June 2020) before a military coup in August 2020 removed president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power. The PSC suspended Mali and held monthly situation updates until a civilian-led transitional government took over power in October, after which Mali was reinstated.

Political situations that were discussed by the AU Assembly in 2020 but were not tabled for discussion by the PSC included those in Burundi, Cameroon, Mozambique and Comoros. The first three countries are all members of the PSC, which significantly diminishes any chance of being included in its agenda.

The council nonetheless congratulated the four countries on organising peaceful elections when it met in July 2020 to discuss the state of elections in Africa.

With regard to Burundi, the AU Assembly had expressed concern over the challenges facing the Inter-Burundian Dialogue and preparations for elections in May 2020. The AUC chairperson also called for dialogue between political actors following the announcement of election results. However, the PSC did not table Burundi for discussion to follow up on these matters.

Mozambique is another PSC member the AU Assembly discussed in February 2020. The PSC is yet to deliberate on the threat the country is facing from terrorism and violent extremism, despite previous decisions and declarations highlighting the urgency of responding to terrorism in Africa. The PSC’s oversight is underlined by the fact that it met four times to discuss issues related to countering terrorism and violent extremism.

The PSC is also yet to discuss the situation in Cameroon. In February the AU Assembly commended Cameroon for organising a national dialogue and asked the AUC chairperson to help find a lasting solution to the crisis. The PSC is yet to request a briefing from the AUC chair in this regard.

Conflict prevention and early response

The PSC did not discuss any crisis situation it had not already flagged in previous years. It is therefore difficult to say that it fulfilled its critical role in conflict prevention and early response, as per its mandate. The AU chairperson and the AUC chairperson played a much more pronounced role in drawing attention to potential crisis situations in 2020.

The PSC did not discuss any crisis situation it had not already flagged in previous years

AU Chairperson President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa was instrumental in convening an extraordinary meeting of the Bureau of the AU to facilitate negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. While negotiations are ongoing, the AU’s involvement has helped to de-escalate tensions that had run high following a failed mediation attempt by the United States.

Ramaphosa also appointed three former presidents – Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Kgalema Motlanthe – as Special Envoys of the AU to Ethiopia. Acting on a statement by Mahamat in November that expressed concern over the escalating military confrontation between the Ethiopian government and the regional administration of Tigrai, Ramaphosa tasked the three with helping to mediate between the parties.

The envoys met Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde. While the Ethiopian government has invoked the principle of non-intervention, it is nonetheless an exceptional response to a potential crisis situation by the AU.

While in this instance the statement by the AUC chairperson managed to draw attention to a potential crisis and led to a high-level engagement by the AU chairperson, in most instances early warning by the AUC is overlooked by AU policy organs, including the PSC.

Why doesn’t the AU intervene in crises?

The AU in general and the PSC in particular have the mandate to prevent potential conflicts and respond to crises. While this means that the PSC may put any issue on its agenda, it does not necessarily translate into an intervention by the AU.

The AU’s and, in particular, the PSC’s ability to intervene in a crisis is restricted by the principles of national sovereignty/ non-intervention and subsidiarity (both upwards with the United Nations and downwards with regional economic communities).

The PSC’s ability to intervene in a crisis is restricted by the principles of national sovereignty and subsidiarity

AU member states strongly defend the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention when confronted with potential involvement by the AU. In such instances, PSC members prefer not to put a country situation on the agenda if it is unlikely to lead to any support from the AU.

PSC and AU member states in general are reluctant to discuss countries without their consent, lest it sets a precedent for interventions in their own countries. Ethiopia’s explicit rejection of any external involvement in its internal affairs is the latest demonstration that any intervention by the AU is by the invitation or consent of member states, even when the AU tries to intervene at the highest political level.

The AU’s principle of subsidiarity puts another restriction on its ability to intervene in crisis situations, as demonstrated by the situation in Mozambique. Having acknowledged the threat of terrorism and violent extremism in Mozambique, the AU is letting the Southern African Development Community (SADC) lead the response to the crisis. SADC’s intervention has also been limited, as Mozambique did not formally ask for support.

The limitation that the principle of subsidiarity puts on the AU was also evident from its involvement in Guinea. The AUC chairperson, having acknowledged the controversy surrounding the electoral process, announced on 1 March 2020 that the AU election observation mission would be withdrawn from Guinea ‘aligned by virtue of the principle of subsidiarity’. This followed the cancelation of ECOWAS’s election observation mission.

Similarly, the chairperson highlighted the lack of consensus during Côte d'Ivoire’s presidential election held in October 2020 and endorsed calls by international actors for political dialogue to preserve peace and stability in the country. Yet in the end, the AU, in line with ECOWAS’s position, congratulated Ouattara on his re-election.

Thus, while different AU organs might try to discharge their duties as per their mandate, the AU is not at liberty to intervene in crises as it deems necessary, despite the provisions of Article 4(h). The principles of subsidiarity and national sovereignty/non-intervention will continue to dictate the AU’s role in conflict prevention and response in Africa. 

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