Resistance in times of crisis: The African Union’s opposition to foreign intervention


In recent months the world has seen some significant changes. These have been inspired in large part by the overthrowing of former President Ben Ali in Tunisia, an event which triggered similar uprisings against the regimes of numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Of these, two that stand out are Egypt and Libya. In Egypt, unrelenting protests led to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. In Libya, however, protests were met with violence threatening civil war between Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and rebels who opposed him.

At this point, the African Union (AU) began to play a mediating role In Libya, advocating a cease-fire but opposing foreign intervention. At the same time, the international community was considering its response, which ultimately resulted in a no-fly zone implemented and enforced by Britain, France and the United States. Since then, NATO has been given the responsibility of enforcing the no-fly zone in accordance with a corresponding United Nations Security Council resolution. This CAI discussion paper looks closely at the AU and its opposition to foreign intervention on the African Continent.


The crisis in Libya

Inspired by the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, protests dubbed the “Day of Anger” were planned in Libya for mid-February 2011 to oppose the 41 year rule of Muammar Gaddafi. When the day arrived, violent clashes between protesters and government forces resulted in the deaths of at least 19 protesters.(2) In the days that followed, protest action continued and was met with an even more violent government response. This sparked an organized rebel movement against Gaddafi’s regime, threatening to plunge Libya into civil war. The conflict has only worsened in the weeks since, with both sides making gains and conceding loses: essentially a stalemate.


Where is the AU?

As this violence raged, the response of the AU was somewhat muted with the AU encouraging peaceful dialogue between all the parties involved. An unexpected response came from Gambian President Yahya Jammeh who criticized the African Union for what he called an “unacceptable silence” furthermore calling for Libya’s Gaddafi to step down immediately. In a statement he read on national television, Jammeh added that “It is a shocking reality that in all the happenings, beginning with the crisis in Tunisia, to that in Egypt, and now Libya and countries in North Africa, the leadership of the AU neither made a statement nor took action despite the fact that these were uprisings affecting member states.”(3)

Jammeh continued, “If the AU cannot stop the carnage taking place in some of its member states, then it cannot be in a position to bring a continental government capable of lifting Africa out of abject poverty and underdevelopment. Whether Black or Arab Africa, we are all Africans without discrimination.”(4) This indicates that Jammeh not only expects the AU to speak out against African leaders but he also expects the AU to intervene and resolve the crises directly.


The response of the international community

As clashes in Libya intensified, the international community first condemned the violence against demonstrators and then under the leadership of British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Burlesconi, and US President Barack Obama put in place both economic sanctions and a military-imposed-no-fly-zone. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 18 March 2011 stated that the UN is able to take “all necessary measures… protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force,” – adding that the UNSC condemns the “gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions.”(5) With this move, the AU was driven to act and take its own steps to influence the situation.


The AU makes its move

Formed in 2000, with the aim of developing and integrating Africa, the AU aims to assist Africa to transform into a prosperous and stable continent commanding more respect on the international stage. According to the AU’s Constitutive Act, it strives for economic, social and political integration, as well as the promotion of peace and security on the conflict torn continent, using its “right and power to intervene in the internal affairs of its member states in grave circumstances, such as war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. It is tasked with ensuring respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance.”(6) Yet in its 11 years of existence, the AU has been regularly criticised for its performance in achieving these objectives.(7)

Confronted with the crisis in Libya, the AU’s Peace and Security Council appointed a panel to review the situation, and did not come to the same conclusion as the Arab League and the Western allies who supported the no-fly zone. The panel, named by the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ramtane Lamamra, expressed the AU’s valuation of the aspirations of the Libyan people, that their country reform into a democracy emphasizing “justice, peace and security as well as economic and social development.”(8) This respect for democracy mirrors some of the fundamental parts of the African Union’s founding documents.

The panel, which included President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, President of the Republic of Congo Sassou Nguessou, President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was established with the sole objective of engaging with the parties involved and mediating a peaceful dialogue between them to resolve the conflict.(9) Mauritanian President Ould Abdel Aziz decried any foreign military intervention in Libya. Aziz added that any solution to the crisis must note “our desire that Libya’s unity and territorial integrity be respected as well as the rejection of any kind of foreign military intervention.”(10) The AU panel presented an African roadmap for peace which included an immediate cease-fire, an end to NATO bombings, a truce between the rebels and Gaddafi’s forces which would be supervised by the international community and negotiations between the rebels and Gaddafi to reach a political settlement.(11)


What role should the AU play and why does the AU oppose foreign intervention in Africa?

The African Union’s Constitutive Act makes provisions for intervention under certain conditions. This is also related to the framework of a “responsibility to protect”(R2P). While intervention and the responsibility to protect are separate concepts, with the latter not enshrined in any AU document, they do have a relationship which cannot be ignored. The case of Libya illustrates that while the AU opposes foreign intervention, its motivation to act as a mediator could very well be influenced by R2P to safeguard the wellbeing of Libya’s citizens impacted by the conflict. The AU’s role as mediator illustrates how the AU is not reluctant to intervene when problems arise. But at the same time, the crisis has illustrated – again – the reluctance on the part of Africans to criticize other leaders in Africa, and to fully embrace certain human rights’ principles as articulated in various international conventions and the AU’s own founding documents.(12)

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has argued that a possible reason behind the AU’s reluctance to criticize certain leaders is that the AU is not as financially independent as its Western counterparts. The African Union relies on funds from the European Union, the United States and other African states. In 2009, it was noted that Libya (currently embroiled in a conflict) had contributed at least 15% of the AU’s budget. Also, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council still lacks the military capacity to deal with crises that develop in the African continent. Often, the role of the African Union is thus limited to mediation between parties involved in a conflict.(13)


Concluding remarks

The AU has not been outspoken against certain leaders which is something that the organisation will continue to receive criticism for, but as the case of Libya illustrates, the AU is willing to play a role in resolving a crisis. The AU has acknowledged the importance of conflict resolution and has taken steps to achieve this through mediation. Not only must there be both military power and resources that can be brought to bear, the institution must also have both the political will and the mandate to speak out and intervene where needed. While the AU’s Peace and Security initiatives have improved steadily, the AU still lacks the military power and the political will to extensively intervene in a crisis on the African continent.

At best, the crisis in Libya has shown that mediation is the only real role the AU is willing and able to play. As for the AU’s position on foreign intervention, the AU and many African leaders are not likely to change their position. The AU will want to play a leading role in determining the future of the African continent without external influence.


(1) Contact David Madlala through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Finance and Economy Unit ( [email protected] This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )
(2) Caroline Alexander, ‘Libya’s ‘Day of Anger’ Protests Reported to Leave at Least 19 people dead’, Bloomberg, 18 February 2011
(3) Melissa Rudd, ‘Gambian President hits out at African Union over Gaddafi Protests’, African Business Review, 26 February 2011
(4) Melissa Rudd, ‘Gambian President hits out at African Union over Gaddafi Protests’, African Business Review, 26 February 2011
(5) Richard Roth, ‘U.N. Security Council approves no-fly zone for Libya’, CNN Online, 18 March 2011,
(6) Mathews, K. 2008. ‘The Renaissance of Pan-Africanism: The AU and New Pan-Africanists’. In The African Union and its institutions (pp. 25-39). Cape Town: Fanele-Jacana. Centre for conflict resolution
(7) [AU Summit 2002 Online], 2002. ‘Constitutive Act of the African Union’.
(8) [Panapress Online], 2011. ‘AU names panel on Libya crisis’, Panapress, 11 March 2011,
(9) Mu Xuequan, ‘AU panel says opposed to foreign military intervention in Libya’. Xinhua News Online: English, 20 March 2011,
(10) Ibid.
(11) John F. Burns, ‘Qaddafi and Zuma meet but no agreement’, New York Times, 30 May 2011,
(12) Kwame Akonor, ‘Assessing the African Union’s Right to Humanitarian Intervention’. Criminal Justice Ethics. 1 August 2010,
(13) Wangari Maathi, ‘AU not making itself heard on the recent troubles of North Africa’. Sunday Times, 20 March 2011,