How the AU threatens to fail in its role as mediator

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The OAU, the predecessor organization of the African Union, was founded 60 years ago. Observers complain that the organization has become a paper tiger. This also has to do with their self-image.

It was an age of new beginnings. Many African countries had just become independent. “When the Organization of African Unity was founded on May 25, 1963, it was a symbol of the liberation of the African peoples and their hope for a happy future,” says Adriano Nuvunga, human rights activist and chairman of the Mozambique NGO CDD (Centre for Democracy and development), in a DW interview. Much of this spirit of optimism can be felt in the speeches: “We must unite now or perish,” said Ghana's first President Kwame Nkrumah. Important at the time: foreign interference should be over, united Africa should have a strong voice on the international stage.

The African Union (AU) is based in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa

Sixty years later, the successor organization African Union (AU) has repeatedly received harsh criticism. Nuvunga does not hold back either: “Today, the African Union is an organization that primarily represents the interests of the powerful. It is toothless and ineffective and has repeatedly shown itself to be incapable of ensuring prosperity, security and peace for all Africans .” A criticism that can be heard in one way or another all over Africa.

No peace, no security in Africa

Above all, the AU rarely does justice to the task of ensuring peace and security on the continent, according to representatives of civil society groups. Adriano Nuvunga gives examples: The African Union is the crises in Sudan, in Tigray or not tackled with enough determination in the Sahel. The AU is also putting off solving the crisis in the region of Cabo Delgado, threatened by jihadists, in the north of his home country Mozambique: “There are currently armed conflicts in around 20 African countries. But the African Union doesn't seem to feel responsible. They seems overwhelmed.” In view of this, the activist asks: “Can the AU be reformed at all, or should one rather think about a reset?”

Germany sees the AU as an important partner

The Federal Chancellor expressed a completely different opinion Olaf Scholz, when he traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya for talks in early May 2023: At a press conference in Addis Ababa, he brought up a seat for the AU in the G20, i.e. the informal association of 19 economic powers and the European Union that has existed since 1999.

“There are several states that have signaled in talks with me that they support such a seat, and I am very firmly convinced that my proposal can be implemented as soon as possible,” said Scholz after a meeting with the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz also met in Addis Ababa at the beginning of May for talks with AU Commission President Moussa Faki Mahamat

In fact, the AU is a significant power on paper, especially considering the number of residents the organization theoretically represents: around 1.4 billion. Today, all 55 internationally recognized African states belong to the African Union.

AU problems are the international organizations

But is the AU living up to its main goals of ensuring prosperity, security and peace? The peacekeeping missions in which African troops are involved have actually proven to be ineffective, agrees Hager Ali, North Africa expert from the GIGA Institute for Africa Studies in Hamburg, in an interview with DW.

But she makes it clear: “The problem of the toothlessness of the African Union results from factors that also exist in other international organizations.” This is evident from the way the organization sees itself, for example in relation to intervening in conflicts: “From a legal perspective, international organizations such as the African Union cannot and must not simply circumvent the sovereignty of other states in order to intervene more invasively in conflicts or to settle them.”< /p>

Particularly against the background of colonial history, it is not at all desirable for an external force like the African Union to intervene in a state, precisely because in the past colonial powers had systematically robbed peoples in Africa of their autonomy, he said Hager Ali.

What remains is the role of mediator

The AU is repeatedly criticized for reacting too passively and hesitantly to wars and conflicts, for example in Tigray, Mali or Sudan. In the troubled Ethiopian province of Tigray, the African Union has tried to play a mediating role. The People's Liberation Front of Tigray, TPLF, has repeatedly rejected the African Union as chief negotiator. The organization based in Addis Ababa is too partisan, it was said again and again. After all, talks were held in November 2022 at the invitation of the African Union, which led to a ceasefire.

GIGA expert Hager Ali: “According to its statutes, the African Union cannot and should not do more than a mediating and supporting role in conflict management. This also applies to peacekeeping operations when the AU becomes militarily active.”

A start full of euphoria: the founding conference of the OAU in May 1963 with 31 African heads of state and government.

Peacekeeping operations in which the African Union was involved in Sudan and Mali had no sense and purpose, regional The scientist explains that conflicts should be settled without going beyond the heads of states, but above all by protecting civilians and creating and securing the framework conditions for conflict management.

“Don't neglect civil society”

Overall, it's very difficult to judge whether the African Union is living up to its role as a mediator in conflicts, says Hager Ali: “Negotiations aren't about the African Union itself – it's about whether and how it can provide the platform and the negotiating framework for others actors and conflicting parties. Whether these negotiations then actually succeed is often up to the actors themselves.”

The North Africa expert adds: “Now, for example in the case of Sudan, the African Union is running concrete danger of neglecting civil and non-state actors and only offering a platform to the actual violent actors, i.e. de facto President Al-Burhan and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohammed Hamdan Daglo.”

The Dream of an African internal market

It is precisely the non-state actors and civilians who are suffering most from this crisis. It is precisely this risk that the AU encounters in all conflicts in which non-state conflict parties are involved – such as in Mali or in the Tigray region. Negotiating frameworks of the AU are always designed in favor of state actors, explains Hager Ali. The same states that 60 years ago, at the beginning of a new era, forbade any outside interference.