After 50 Years of the OAU-AU: Time to Strengthen the Conflict Intervention Framework

2013 marks 50 years since the birth of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which became the African Union (AU) in 2002. This week, as the continent’s leaders and other Africanists meet to commemorate this special occasion, it is also the appropriate time to reflect on some of the principles, successes and shortcomings of the organization. In particular, we would like to consider why the organization has been particularly slow in intervening in situations where the “responsibility to protect” is clearly mandated. The “responsibility to protect” is a United Nations (U.N.) principle endorsed by the AU (in what has come to be known as the “Ezulwini Consensus”) and represents the right to intervene in a member states’ internal affairs in situations where citizens’ welfare has been significantly undermined. Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Acts of the AU state that “[T]he Union has the right to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the general assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” While the AU has been lauded for its multilateral peace-keeping initiatives, notably in Sudan, its ambivalent, and at best muted, response to the humanitarian crises in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and, most recently, Mali—very similar to the OAU’s inaction in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia—has drawn much criticism. On the other hand, the AU has been quick to express reservations about the intervention of Western nations in its member states’ affairs, notably, with the recent French movements in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, and NATO in Libya. This controversy about the timing of international interventions suggests the need for a fine line to be drawn between the AU’s long cherished principle of non-interference (stipulated in Article 4(g) of the Constitutive Acts) and the AU’s “responsibility to protect” framework, without which the continental body will increasingly lose its relevance. Following the AU’s inertia to respond to these situations, pundits have speculated on what would have happened to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali or Libya had France or NATO not intervened at all.

Although it is probably too early to pass judgment on the efficacy of the AU’s revised peace and security framework, the evidence over the past two decades does not suggest the pan-African body has been effective at mitigating humanitarian crisis on the continent. The reasons for the ineffectiveness of AU’s intervention are both ideological and logistic. On the ideological front, it seems that the principle of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs has had a preponderant influence on the organization’s decision-making process, and for genuine reasons. Many African states have weak governance structures, and cases of widespread human rights violations are still rampant on the continent. The evidence suggests that civil wars and most of the parameters which define a failed state are the result of poor governance. Similarly, Africa is the only continent that continues to experience famines in the 21st century, and the evidence linking famines to poor governance is compelling. Unfortunately, the AU lacks oversight over most of its member states with respect to governance, which continues to be treated as a domestic affair. As evidence, only 26 of its 54 member states have ratified the protocol establishing the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights—the arm of the AU charged with ensuring the protection of human and peoples’ rights on the continent. This fact suggests that arriving at a consensus decision to intervene in a member state is often problematic. Thus, at the level of the AU general assembly, when it comes to voting in favor of or against an intervention to avert a humanitarian crisis, it can be expected that the overwhelming majority of governance-deficient AU member states would oppose such an intervention, even if the need is glaring. This difficulty in achieving consensus partly explains why the AU has been less proactive in mitigating conflicts and also why its response to crisis situations has been sluggish. Thus, a more proactive conflict prevention, mitigation and management strategy necessarily involves early warning monitoring, which includes the ability to identify governance failures and systematically address them. A good point of start in upholding continental best practices in governance could be by imposing on its member states the requirement that presidential term limits must not exceed two terms of a maximum of seven years each.

Logistical issues linked to inadequate resources, lack of technical know-how and poor planning have also impaired the AU’s ability to respond in a timely manner in order to avert humanitarian crises. To be able to prevent civil wars, there is need for a credible assessment of war signals. Also, a built-in system for evaluating success and failure has to be designed into the intervention process. Further, part of the problem with intervention in African conflicts is poor planning: An inadequate assessment of what it takes to succeed in each particular intervention often leads to huge casualties and resentment from member states to support future initiatives. Poor planning is also evidenced in unrealistic timetables for intervention. Sometimes, it is the lack of a critical diagnosis of the root cause of a conflict that hinders effective intervention. Considering the U.N.’s superior resources and comparative advantage in early monitoring, evaluation and conflict mitigation in general, the AU stands to gain from continued collaboration with the U.N. Sudan and the DRC are clear cases of the benefits of such collaboration. Of course, these examples do not necessarily suggest that the U.N. should take the front role in crisis prevention in Africa. Rather, the AU must be at the forefront of this prevention by stengthening the role of its regional economic communities (RECs) in transparently providing early warning signals. With proper coordination and collaboration, the RECs have proven to be an effective channel of intervention in conflicts as was seen in the recent case of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) intervention in the Central African Republic.

The case for strengthening the AU’s conflict intervention framework is further buttressed by the fact that, in Africa, transnational corporations (TNCs) compete with state institutions in the economic, political and social spheres. With increasing globalization, TNCs with more and more power and influence may be problematic for individual African states to handle in isolation. For instance, TNCs have been big players in fueling conflicts in mineral-rich African countries. Also, a recent phenomenon that is yet to be acknowledged is the potential role of big TNCs’ tax haven practices in further weakening the governance capabilities of African states, which would in turn nurture future conflicts. For instance, an investigation headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has concluded that the practice of tax havens by TNCs is costing Africa $38 billion a year in lost revenue. Such activities clearly undermine the quality of life of African citizens, and therefore some structured intervention by the AU is warranted given the limited ability of individual African states to effectively address them.

In conclusion, although it is difficult to envision an AU where every domestic issue would be discussed and picked apart, there are certainly areas where some structured regional intervention is mandated. For this continental body to remain relevant, it will have to transparently restructure and strengthen its intervention framework to allow it to swiftly respond to humanitarian crises as well as enable it to cope with new challenges posed by a globalizing world economy.