African leaders will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week for the annual African Union (AU) summit. This year’s theme “Silencing the Guns”, is reviving an aspiration to end war and prevent genocide on the continent by 2020 set out by African leaders in 2013, during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity.
Though the aim of resolving all conflicts in seven years set the bar incredibly high, the AU has scored some successes. Just this past year it stepped in at critical moments to preserve Sudan’s revolution and stop it from descending into violence; and helped produce an agreement between the government and rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR). Elsewhere, however — from Cameroon to the Sahel to South Sudan — it has fallen short.
Moreover, African leaders today appear warier than in the past about collective peacemaking, with some apparently wanting to restrain the continental body’s peace and security role. South Africa, which will assume the rotational AU chair when the summit starts, could use the meeting to reinvigorate African efforts to calm the continent’s deadliest crises.
The AU made notable interventions in two major crises in 2019. The Peace and Security Council (PSC), the continent’s standing decision-making body for conflict prevention, management and resolution, showed its mettle after President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in Sudan. Despite opposition from the AU chair, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the PSC suspended Sudan’s membership in early June after the military putschists massacred peaceful protesters. The AU then helped mediate between civilian and military leaders.
The AU also asserted its primacy in CAR’s peace process, sponsoring an agreement between the government and 14 rebel groups while absorbing a Russo-Sudanese initiative that threatened to become a parallel dialogue. The deal may not have significantly reduced violence, but it renewed outside attention to the crisis and united diplomats behind a single mediation effort.
In other countries, the AU has not been so successful. It failed to prevent the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon from spiralling into almost full-blown civil war; it has largely been a bystander to the instability sweeping the Sahel; and it has taken a back seat in efforts to end South Sudan’s brutal conflict. More broadly, while it has spoken out strongly against coups, it has struggled to respond to rigged elections or to leaders’ schemes to change rules in order to hold on to power.
Particularly worrying is that African leaders’ commitment to multilateral efforts to tame conflicts across the continent seems to have waned. The PSC meets less often at the heads of state level. Despite the supposed focus on “silencing the guns”, the summit’s draft agenda suggests that discussions on peace and security will not take centre stage and that the number of planned high-level side meetings about individual conflicts will be fewer than in past years. If true, that would be cause for regret, as many crises on the continent would benefit from greater and more sustained engagement from African leaders.
AU housekeeping in 2020 also risks sapping attention from peacemaking. First, preparations for the 2021 selection of a new commission (the leadership of the AU’s secretariat) begin in March and could significantly hamper work. Commission chair Moussa Faki and other commissioners will be eligible for re-selection under new, more rigorous recruitment procedures. They will likely campaign to retain their posts, which is reasonable, but they ought not to let core business slide during the process.
Secondly, a merger of the political affairs and peace and security departments is under way. The amalgamation makes sense, as the two departments’ tasks are inextricably linked: politics lie at the core of most of the continent’s conflicts and efforts to resolve them. But African leaders view the merger as an opportunity to axe jobs, save money and weaken the commission, whose influence in the area of peace and security many regard warily. Current proposals envisage a more than 40 per cent cut in positions. Such a large cull of already understaffed departments would be devastating to morale and reduce the AU’s ability to respond to continental crises. Member states should reverse course and ensure that the commission is adequately staffed and resourced.
South Africa will take over the rotational chair from Egypt when the summit starts and has made silencing guns a priority for its term at the organisation’s helm. South Africa has punched below its weight abroad for more than a decade, but simultaneously holding the AU chairmanship and a seat on the UN Security Council should provide Pretoria with a rare opportunity to focus attention on conflicts that are important not only to its national interests but also to the AU and UN agendas. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa should seek to spur African leaders into more rigorous efforts to promote peace and security on the continent.
The summit provides an opportunity for the AU and African leaders to make a clear statement of intent toward ending some of the continent’s worst crises. International Crisis Group has identified eight issues on which the AU can have the greatest impact in 2020. A number of these involve elections — 22 African countries, including many suffering or recovering from conflict, are due to hold presidential, parliamentary or local polls this year. Others involve getting warring parties to the table, stalled peace agreements or delicate transitions, all of which would benefit from sustained engagement from African leaders.
The AU should seek a compromise with the UN over co-funding of peace operations. Neither the AU nor the UN, is well positioned to face the continent’s rapidly changing conflict dynamics on their own.
An agreement would help both institutions fulfil their common mandate to prevent, manage and resolve conflict in Africa.
Elissa Jobson is the director of Africa Regional Advocacy, International Crisis Group