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Should the African Union weigh in on the Middle East crisis?

The Israel-Gaza war offers Africa an opportunity to extend its agency and relevance in multilateral spaces.

As Israeli bombardment across the Gaza Strip persists, the world’s attention continues on mounting civilian casualties, mass displacement and wanton destruction of infrastructure. Although not an African crisis, its escalation adds to the growing catalogue of global issues defining the complexity of the current multilateral space. It also accentuates the continent’s economic and political stability matters beyond its borders.

Notwithstanding the impact on the continent, not all African Union (AU) member states see the need for African leaders to be involved in the search for solutions to the Israel-Hamas crisis. They consider it an external issue despite its global context and the major threat it may pose to Africa’s already volatile post-COVID situation. The question remains, however, whether African leaders, with the AU’s increasing global agency, should play any role in the global effort to silence the guns in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Risk to Africa

The crisis is already directly and indirectly affecting Africa’s economic, diplomatic, peace, and security landscape in many ways. The expression of solidarity by citizens of some African countries has added to an already tense relationship between security forces and protesters. In Kenya, for instance, despite prior permission for a pro-Palestinian protest, it was reported to have been violently disrupted by security forces. Similar protests have also been registered in important countries such as Egypt and South Africa.

Given Africa’s multiple COVID-19 shocks, climate change and the Russia-Ukraine war, a significant indirect effect is how a protracted crisis could impede the states’ recovery from prior slow economic growth. Amid Africa’s many challenges, a further slowdown of its already abysmal economic recovery could worsen state-citizen relations and increase the vulnerability of weak states to social tensions, with implications for political stability. Already, trade disruptions, oil and gas price volatility and rising import costs have been reported. Egypt’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, remittances and revenues from the Suez Canal, for example, has been hit hard by the war.

The AU’s challenge lies in balancing its longstanding support for Palestine with some member states’ deepening relations with Israel

Furthermore, the war is complicating relations among African countries, between the AU and Israel and between the major allies of Africa and Israel. As with the Russia-Ukraine war, the conflict is deepening AU divisions between support for Israel’s right to self-defence and the protection of human lives in Palestine. The AU’s challenge lies in balancing its longstanding support for Palestine with the recent deepening relations between Israel and many member states before the onset of the crisis in October 2023. In this context, the already-affected Africa-Israel relationship could be damaged further.

In Sudan, the United States (US), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have been the fulcrums around which diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have been made. Since the onset of the Gaza crisis, the truncation of their focus on resolving the Sudan crisis and other insecurities on the continent cannot be overemphasised.

The crisis is also diverting the attention of development partners and the international community from some of Africa’s pressing short- to medium-term needs. Clearly, the placement of Africa on the priority list of global actors such as the US has changed. For a continent with dynamic threats to peace and security and an established role for its partners, actors’ active involvement must be maintained.

As attention shifts from Africa’s crises, deployment and funding of peacekeeping operations to parts of the continent could also be hampered. Despite the recent adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2719 and its potential for improved funding of African peace operations, resources for peace and security efforts are bound to be limited.

The crisis is diverting the focus of development partners and global communities from Africa’s needs

Increased military spending in support of Israel by the topmost United Nations (UN) contributor, the US, will perpetuate the militarisation of responses to the war. It will also add to an already-worrying trend of rising global military expenditure spending that, in 2023, hovered around US$2 240 billion. This is already felt in the US Congress cap on contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget and the work of the Human Rights Council. The enormous cost of post-war reconstruction in Gaza, which the UN estimates will rise to US$50 billion over eight decades, could compound this risk, with major implications for Africa’s long-term peace, stability and development. 

What role for Africa?

The situation in Gaza is unfolding at a time when the AU’s role as an influential global actor, envisioned in Agenda 2063, is increasingly gaining recognition and appearing on major platforms such as the G21. Solidifying these roles, however, requires that the continent, through the AU, establish its relevance by contributing answers to multilateral questions bedevilling its spaces. This reality informed the AU’s engagement with the June 2023 African delegation’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war. Gaza offers another opportunity for the AU to again project its contribution to the global search for peace and stability.

Unlike its ambiguous response to the Russia-Ukraine war and lack of clear backing, the AU’s position on the ongoing situation in Gaza has been clear. AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has condemned the violence and called for an end to hostilities. He has underscored the need for international cooperation to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to Gazans and end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in line with international resolutions. This stance was reaffirmed at the 37th AU Summit, where the issue received enormous attention and was a major discussion point by successive leaders addressing the opening.

Apart from establishing the importance of the matter to the continent, African leaders condemned Israel’s offensive. They specifically backed South Africa’s case against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), including through an AU delegation led by the organisation’s legal counsel. The AU has also urged Israel to comply with calls for a permanent ceasefire and the decisions of the ICJ and to lift the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.

AU has urged Israel to comply with calls for a permanent ceasefire

Despite the AU’s longstanding support for Palestine – arguably hard-wired in its Pan-African identity – the current situation allows the AU to play a useful short-term role beyond adding its voice to ceasefire calls. The AU should leverage its age-old support and continued pronouncements for Palestine to engage Hamas and its backers to soften their stance on the release of Israeli hostages. While this will be easier for the African block to do, entreating Hamas will go a long way to resolving one of Israel's most fundamental conditions for prosecuting the war.

Israel’s cordial relationship with most African states could be leveraged by the AU for engagements with Tel Aviv to soften the country’s stance on a ceasefire and prosecution of the war. In line with Article 7(k) of the PSC Protocol, the AU could also consider pressing for enhanced international involvement at UN level, through its diplomatic channels at the A3+1 or Africa block. This could also involve support for a robust humanitarian response and renewed diplomatic engagements to avert further escalation of the situation.

Exploring these engagements through the combined good offices of the AU Assembly and AU Commission chairs and drawing lessons from the AU’s previous engagement in Russia-Ukraine would go a long way. Most importantly, however, it will boost Africa’s credibility in multilateral spaces and help to avert a worsening crisis and its implications for the continent.

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