African Multilateralism is in Crisis – Can the AU Fix It?

The African Union must be bold, decisive and consistent in resolving tensions and competition among its members and regions.

Posted on 02/16/23
Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS
The annual African Union (AU) summit will be held this week for the first time since 2020 without COVID-19 restrictions. It coincides with the fragile return to peace in northern Ethiopia, the resurgence of widespread instability in the Great Lakes and the ongoing war in Ukraine, which continues to raise questions about African positions.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council’s paralysis over Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine illustrates a crisis of global multilateralism. While this observation is rarely extended to Africa, several developments suggest a similar crisis of African multilateralism.

These include the failure to manage post-coup transitions and the impasse surrounding regional sanctions and suspension regimes, confusion about AU vs regional bloc responsibilities and the practical implications of subsidiarity, and the difficulties regional security systems face in tackling violent extremism.

The AU is Africa’s most representative international organization. Through consensus, it establishes means for states to cooperate and sets norms of accepted behavior. Its capacity to provide pragmatic solutions to key summit agenda items will show its resolve to fix the crisis of multilateralism.

During the summit, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) will meet to discuss the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) crisis and its regional implications. This will be the PSC’s first meeting at heads of state level on the issue since 2016. The main challenge will be to agree on the AU’s role in resolving a crisis in which it has had little direct involvement.

Alongside the UN, mediation is currently dominated by the Nairobi Process initiated by the East African Community and the Luanda initiative launched by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. The PSC has a role in coordinating regional efforts, but several of its member states have a seemingly narrow conception of subsidiarity. As a result, the AU, especially the AU Commission, are sidelined as soon as a regional bloc is involved.

Beyond harmonizing initiatives in the Great Lakes, can the PSC create a consensual solution given the regional tensions and competition? South Africa, which is convening the PSC meeting, wants to regain a foothold in the Great Lakes since the DRC joined the East African Community. (The DRC is also part of the Southern African Development Community.) This will test the capacity of regional powers (Angola, Kenya and South Africa) to collaborate for peace and security rather than compete for influence.

Another challenge facing African multilateralism is the AU’s struggle to manage disagreements between member states. Last year’s accreditation of Israel to the AU – which complied with AU regulations – stirred up fierce debates and divisions.

Consequently, the issue was excluded from the summit’s agenda, raising questions about how consensus can be achieved in an organization that refrains from voting. Had a vote taken place, about two-thirds of member states would likely have approved Israel’s accreditation – showing how vocal but influential minorities can silence a less powerful majority.

Competition between states for positions in the AU is a growing trend. It took almost a year for the eastern region to determine who between Kenya and the eventual winner, Comoros, would take over the rotating AU presidency in 2023. This year, the looming contest between Algeria and Morocco for the vice-chair of the AU could further fracture the organization and deliver an incomplete Bureau of the Assembly.

The AU’s indecisiveness often leads to inconsistencies. This is symbolized by the participation of Chad’s transitional President Mahamat Kaka Déby, in this week’s summit, despite his disregard of commitments made to the PSC in 2021. Disagreement among states has meant that no communiqué was issued after the PSC’s last meeting about Chad on 11 November 2022.

The current AU Commission has reached mid-term. As the chairperson won’t run for a third term, what are member states’ expectations of the commission and its president two years after Moussa Faki Mahamat’s near-unanimous re-election? In 2022 he experienced two major setbacks – on Israel’s accreditation and Chad. He had called for the country’s suspension following the transitional military regime’s violation of commitments to the PSC.

AU Commission chairs have often faced headwinds from member states. However, the current volatile international context and requests for a greater AU role call for a stronger, not weaker, commission chair.

Finally, it is time to interrogate the impact of AU institutional reform that started five years ago. While all such processes are disruptive, several reports indicate poor morale among staff. So it’s not surprising that many have joined the African Continental Free Trade Area secretariat in Accra, thereby further weakening the AU Commission.

The merger of the former peace/security and political affairs departments was one of the reform’s highlights. Has it improved the AU’s ability to manage and prevent conflict? The sidelining of the AU in the Great Lakes, the Sahel and Mozambique raises many questions, as does its treatment of the Cameroon conflict.

The unclear and inadequate practice of subsidiarity also affects peace support operations. Recently, troops sent by the East African Community to eastern DRC and the Southern African Development Community to Mozambique were mandated at a regional level and only presented after the fact to the PSC. This is in contrast to the handling of the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin and the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

The AU’s 36th summit could be an opportunity to break with institutional and bureaucratic routines and address the organization’s potential crisis 20 years after its creation. While AU reforms have mainly addressed the body’s structures (its ‘hardware’), little has been done to its software, particularly in governance, peace and security.

Reducing the AU Commission to a mere secretariat whose competencies are regularly eroded by member states when their interests clash is a sign of an organization searching for its raison d’être. That doesn’t bode well for African multilateralism.

Paul-Simon Handy, ISS Regional Director for East Africa and Representative to the AU and Félicité Djilo, Independent Researcher

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS

This article was first published in ISS Today. Click here to go to the original.

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