ISS: The reality of the AU’s response to crises


National sovereignty and subsidiarity limit the African Union’s intervention in the continent’s conflicts.

The African Union Peace and Security Council’s (PSC) response to emerging crises in 2020 was marginal. This is primarily because the AU’s ability to intervene in crises is restricted by its principles of national sovereignty (non-interference) and subsidiarity. This despite the principle of non-indifference set out in Article (4h) of the Constitutive Act.

At their February 2021 annual summit, AU heads of state will review the progress made in implementing its peace and security priorities for 2020. By December 2020 the PSC had discussed nine of the 14 country-specific situations highlighted in the February 2020 AU Assembly decision. The PSC’s planned field visits to the Lake Chad and Sahel regions were cancelled due to COVID-19.

The problems posed by national sovereignty and subsidiarity were expressed by AU Commission (AUC) chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. He was replying to former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who asked the AU to intervene in what he called the unconstitutional candidature of Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara ran for a third presidential term in October 2020.

Mahamat acknowledged the lack of consistent implementation of the AU’s legal and policy provisions. He highlighted the inter-governmental nature of the AU, and that member states head all decision-making organs. He also highlighted the limitations put on the AU by the principle of subsidiarity. This principle recognises the primacy of regional organisations in leading interventions in member states, limiting the AU’s interventions in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.

The PSC’s track record in responding to emerging crises in 2020 was marginal.

If the AU is to overcome these problems and implement its mandate, member states must agree to limit the provisions of these principles, which is unlikely. So as the continent continues to grapple with peace and security challenges, the AU’s own principles continue to diminish its ability to prevent and respond to conflicts in 2021 and beyond.

In 2020, the PSC, tasked with overall coordination and oversight in implementing peace and security-related Assembly decisions, discussed the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, The Gambia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Libya. The AU is directly engaged in supporting these countries via different missions and representatives.

It also discussed the situations in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, but recognised the leading role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in finding a solution to their political and institutional crises.

Mali was twice on the PSC’s agenda before a military coup in August 2020 removed president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from power. The PSC suspended Mali and held monthly situation updates until a civilian-led transitional government took over power in October, after which Mali was reinstated.

Political situations discussed by the AU Assembly in 2020 but that weren’t tabled for discussion by the PSC included those in Burundi, Cameroon, Mozambique and Comoros. The first three countries are all PSC members, which significantly diminishes any chance of being included on its agenda. The council nonetheless congratulated the four countries on organising peaceful elections when it met in July 2020.

The PSC didn’t discuss any crisis situation it had not already flagged in previous years.

Regarding Burundi, the AU Assembly expressed concern over the problems facing the Inter-Burundian Dialogue and preparations for elections in May 2020. Mahamat also called for dialogue between political actors following the announcement of election results. However the PSC didn’t table Burundi for discussion to follow up on these matters.

Mozambique is another PSC member the AU Assembly discussed in February 2020. The PSC is yet to deliberate on the threat the country is facing from terrorism and violent extremism, despite previous decisions and declarations highlighting the urgency of responding to terrorism in Africa.

The council is also yet to discuss the situation in Cameroon. In February the AU Assembly commended Cameroon for organising a national dialogue and asked the AUC chairperson to help find a lasting solution to the crisis. The PSC is yet to request a briefing from Mahamat in this regard.

The PSC didn’t discuss any crisis situation it hadn’t already flagged in previous years. It’s therefore difficult to say that it fulfilled its critical role in conflict prevention and early response, as per its mandate. The AU chairperson and AUC chairperson played a more pronounced role in drawing attention to potential crises in 2020.

AU chairperson, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, was instrumental in convening an extraordinary meeting of the Bureau of the AU to facilitate negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The AU’s involvement has helped to de-escalate tensions that ran high following a failed mediation attempt by the United States.

In most instances early warning by the AU Commission is overlooked by AU policy organs.

Ramaphosa also appointed three former presidents – Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Kgalema Motlanthe – as Special Envoys of the AU to Ethiopia. Acting on a statement by Mahamat in November that expressed concern over the escalating military confrontation between the Ethiopian government and the regional administration of Tigray, Ramaphosa tasked the three with helping to mediate between the parties.

The Ethiopian government has invoked the principle of non-intervention, but it is nonetheless an exceptional response by the AU to a potential crisis.

While in this instance the statement by the AUC chairperson managed to draw attention to a potential crisis and led to a high-level engagement by the AU chairperson, in most instances early warning by the AUC is overlooked by AU policy organs, including the PSC.

The AU in general and the PSC in particular have the mandate to prevent potential conflicts and respond to crises. While this means the PSC may put any issue on its agenda, it doesn’t necessarily translate into an AU intervention.

The AU’s and, in particular, the PSC’s ability to intervene in a crisis is restricted by the principles of national sovereignty/non-intervention and subsidiarity (both upwards with the United Nations and downwards with regional economic communities).

So while different AU organs might try to discharge their duties as per their mandate, the AU is not at liberty to intervene in crises as it deems necessary, despite the provisions of Article 4(h). The principles of subsidiarity and national sovereignty/non-intervention continue to dictate the AU’s role in conflict prevention and response in Africa.

Written by Shewit Woldemichael, Researcher, Africa Peace and Security Governance Programme, ISS Addis Ababa. Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.