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African Union, useful or useless?

By Lindelwe Dube

The continent has recently seen an increase in the number of attempted coups. The list includes Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast and now the Central African Republic (CAR). While Africans themselves and the international community may look to the African Union (AU) to facilitate peace and stability, the AU has struggled to fulfil this mandate despite having mechanisms aimed at pre-emptively detecting possible conflicts. Funding has often been blamed as the AU’s main obstacle to carry out missions on the continent but there are other underlying problems that have limited the AU’s ability to resolve major conflicts.

Africa needs to be made more aware of the work the AU does. Often we hear of stories of western interventions in states such as the Ivory Coast, Egypt and Libya. This can be attributed to the influence the west has on the international arena. But this predominance undermines the AU’s own legitimacy: when Africans do not see AU intervention it is increasingly likely that Africans will not have faith in its ability to intervene. The perception created is that there is lack of capacity and this in turn inspires Africans to look to the west rather than the AU. One could even argue that the lack of reliance on the AU makes it less likely to develop and implement schemes to avert conflict because it is “crowded out” of the intervention market.

This compounded by the AU’s delays in responding to African countries’ domestic conflicts. When the AU dithered over whether to intervene in Libya, the reality created by the AU’s non-action is that African leaders back their old allies even when they may be guilty of committing human-rights violations and other such atrocities. This pattern is on-going: the AU has failed to decisively to deal with leaders such as the late Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and now Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic.

The question that arises is if the AU can be trusted by Africans to resolve conflicts. Considering that non-action in many instances is inspired by political allegiances between political elites, much doubt is cast over the AU’s ability to act as an impartial actor in unstable regions. This is especially the case where AU leaders have adopted politically convenient but worryingly inconsistent positions on internal democracy, human rights and so on.

In assessing the approaches that have been taken to deal with attempted coups in Mali and in the CAR, the AU usually suspends offending states from the organisation until the situation is resolved. Suspending a state may be a step in the right direction but it is not enough. There has to be greater emphasis on the enforcement of deals that not only take into account the interests of the warring parties, but of the people as well.

The AU was able to broker a truce between Bozize and the rebels in January 2013, the peace deal has now been broken. The rebels have accused Bozize of having failed to honour his obligations. Considering that the AU has already created early detection mechanisms, it is concerning that no effective monitoring and detection of this problem occurred. The AU was caught sleeping on duty. Their silence has had the effect of angering the rebels further.

The possibility of attempting to reinstate Bozize has passed. Much like the rebels in Syria who want peace without Bashar al-Assad, CAR rebels’ actions indicate the possibility for peace only with Bozize gone. But the AU should take immediate action to stabilise the country. It could do so by deploying Nigerian and Kenyan troops to the region. Nigeria and Kenya have escaped being tainted by the perception of being partisan, unlike the South Africans, who were there as part of a bi-lateral deal and are now seen to protect and bolster Bozize more than anything else.

It is important that the AU does not simply reinstate leaders that have been the root cause of their country’s problems. It is preferable the AU facilitates a process that will lead to democratic elections and installing a politically accountable government. The willingness of the CAR rebels to comply with the peace deal brokered in January is a unique opportunity for the AU. It is possible that the AU may facilitate the elections happening sooner. But this will not happen if they continue to be seen to stand in support of yet another dictator.

The AU has the ability to step up in CAR and improve its standing, not only among Africans but among the international community too. It is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

It is high time AU leaders condemn their fellow leaders who neglect the interests of citizens, as well as ignore democratic and humanitarian principles. A failure to do so will not only plunge the continent into further conflict, it will limit the AU’s ability to play a meaningful role in the future of African people.

Lindelwe Dube is a master’s student in conflict transformation with the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is passionate about conflict resolution and development in Africa. She is a university debater who takes part in community development programmes and loves to teach high school children how to debate and more importantly be conscious of the environment they live in.

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