The African Union and its Peacemaking Paralysis

Despite its elaborate structures aimed at peacemaking, the African Union (AU) is clearly failing to end conflicts on the continent. Last month’s annual AU summit in Addis Ababa should have been an opportunity for heads of state to tackle the many raging conflicts. Leaders at the event on February 17 and 18, 2024 said they were extremely concerned about the war in Sudan, armed groups threatening lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and jihadist violence in the Sahel. However, they made little progress. 

There are several factors behind this. One is the AU’s institutional weakness. It is mired in bureaucracy and often doesn’t have enough money to send mediators to conflict zones or pay extra staff for the AU’s offices in various African capitals. Or else it has to wait for funding from donors, who often try to influence the AU’s priorities. Another obstacle is competition between member states. Many don’t agree on how to tackle conflicts or where the AU should be heading. And like the UN, the AU is an intergovernmental organization that can only take action on conflict when member states authorize it.

The lessons from Sudan

The AU’s inability to hold successful ceasefire talks to end the fighting in Sudan is a glaring example of where the institution got things wrong. The AU Commission acted speedily following the outbreak of the war on April 15, 2023, but it seemingly tripped on its own procedural problems. It called a meeting on April 20, of all the major African and international players to forge a single mediation track to negotiate a ceasefire. This included all of Sudan’s neighbors, the League of Arab States, the UN, the U.S., the EU and others. But this AU ‘expanded mechanism’ then ran into problems, mostly because there were too many competing interests taking sides in the war. The AU also didn’t follow up and delayed meetings for months.

Heads of state of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) bloc meanwhile tried a parallel mediation, starting in June 2023, cutting out the AU. This mediation attempt has now stalled. Other mediating tracks are also struggling to make progress.

Fighting is intensifying and humanitarian organizations warn that hundreds of thousands of Sudanese will face famine if the destruction of the country doesn’t stop. After many months of delay, AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat in January appointed a high-level panel for Sudan, led by former UN envoy Mohamed Ibn Chambas. The panel only started its work shortly before the February summit. But as the devastating war drags on, both the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces say they are not interested in peace negotiations.

Conflicts in Ethiopia and the DRC

The growing insecurity in Ethiopia is another example of where the AU isn’t able to fulfill its peacemaking mandate. The organization very often hesitates to speak out about crises in important member states, especially the one hosting the headquarters of the AU. While the AU was instrumental in mediating a peace agreement to end the war in Tigray at the end of 2022, it hasn’t put the conflicts involving armed groups in the Amhara and Oromia regions on the table. No officials at the February summit even mentioned those conflicts in Ethiopia as crises the AU should help to solve.

Leadership, however, can make a difference. If one head of state or high official at the AU decide to take an initiative, it could create momentum towards peace negotiations. At the summit, Angola’s President João Lourenço managed to get President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Félix Tshisekedi of the DRC in one room to discuss the escalating conflict in eastern DRC. The leaders blame one another for stoking war and supporting hostile armed groups. Although they did not reach an agreement, Lourenço committed to further engagement with the two leaders to contain the situation on the ground and prevent looming interstate conflict in the Great Lakes. Lourenco is the AU champion for peace and reconciliation and has attempted mediation between the DRC and Rwanda since the Luanda roadmap was adopted in July 2022. This shows that the AU can be a vehicle for stopping wars given the necessary political will from its member states.

The future role of the AU in peacemaking

Despite the AU’s current problems, it may soon be required to step in and organize military deployments as big UN peacekeeping missions on the continent are withdrawing. That makes the need for improvements to the AU’s structures in Addis Ababa even more urgent. In December, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution allowing for UN assessed contributions to pay for AU-led peace missions. The UN and the AU will need to go through lengthy processes such as joint assessments and planning, and the AU’s institutional weakness could again be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to AU-led missions. The AU department overseeing peace operations, for example, is small and would need big financial and other boosts to handle these new responsibilities.

More importantly, African states need to agree where to put their resources and which conflicts are most important. With so many crises in Africa, countries want to prioritize those that matter most to them. The AU Commission, individual African leaders and regional blocs should be bold and show greater leadership to rally all the organization’s member states to support its peacemaking efforts.

AU Commission chair Mahamat, speaking at the February summit, called upon heads of state to make courageous decisions and show greater solidarity to deal with crises such as terrorism. He asked those in attendance to revive the spirit of pan-Africanism that was present during the fight against colonialism. But the challenges facing the AU and African countries are immense, and many governments are very inward-looking.

In the coming months, the AU’s 55 member states will have to take important decisions, such as choosing the new leadership for the organization. While the AU clearly doesn’t have the means to solve all the continent’s problems, it remains a valuable instrument of collective decision-making. AU members should choose carefully and shore up the organisation, which they have been building for the past two decades. They also should strengthen the AU’s peacemaking efforts where the organization can realistically make a difference.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran is the Senior Advisor, African Union, at the International Crisis Group. She has worked on issues relating to peace, security, and governance in Africa for over twenty years. She has participated as a panelist in numerous public events focusing on the AU and has written extensively about the AU, Regional Economic Communities and Africa’s broader peace and security challenges. She is also a board member of In Transformation Initiative, a not-for-profit organization focused on peacemaking in Africa and globally.

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