An African Paradox: Mediating Foreign Wars While Ignoring Homegrown Turmoils

May 20 , 2023.

The pungent irony wafting from Pretoria last week was hard to miss. Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, grandly announced a peace mission to Moscow and Kyiv, offering to mediate the end of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This comes with notable colleagues in tow; the leaders of Egypt, Zambia, Senegal, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Yet, as these African statesmen prepare for their peace-seeking journey, their absence in addressing conflicts within their own continent is glaring.

In Sudan, a country trapped in a tempestuous “war of the Generals”, escalating from mere boardroom brawls to a catastrophic militarised conflict, the cry for solidarity is deafening. A lamentable human crisis looms, hundreds of thousands are displaced, and the death toll rises with no African “peace mission” in sight. The African Union (AU) has failed the Sudanese in their times of desperate need.

It is not to be the first or the only failure of grand proportion, unforgivable in history.

The African Union Commission, helmed by Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, has been anything but effective in managing crises in the continent, causing pain and suffering to its population. Mahamat, a former Prime Minister of Chad, has his legacy marred by his utter failures to prevent civil wars that wrought havoc, including on the country his office occupies. Seating in a Chinese-built office enveloped by glazy windows, his indifference displayed when society was mobilised for a war that eventually claimed the lives of nearly a million people in Ethiopia will define his legacy.

As he prepares to exit next year, he will bequeath a troubled institution, ironically failing to uphold its mantra: “silencing the guns.”

The African Union (AU), birthed from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), was meant to usher in an era of reform and redefined purpose. The OAU had remarkably fulfilled its mandate by the end of the 20th Century, freeing the continent from the shackles of Western colonialism, with South Africa prevailing over a vile regime of segregation and discrimination.

Progressive leaders like Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia initiated the transformation to AU. Their ambitious vision incorporated mediation in conflicts, fostering cooperation, and promoting peace, security, and stability within Africa. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya pushed for a unified and peaceful Africa, although the pragmatist lot in the African leadership club frustrated his impatience to see it occur in his lifetime.

The African Peace & Security Architecture (APSA), established as part of this vision, aimed to coordinate the Peace & Security Council, the Continental Early Warning System, and the African Standby Force. Initial interventions under Chairperson Alpha Oumar Konare, the founding chairperson from Mali, promised success with peacekeeping forces deployed in Sudan, Somalia and the Comoros Islands.

However, the wheel of fortune spun erratically under Mahamat’s reign, and the lofty ideals of “silencing the guns” seemed hollow. While the rhetoric flourished, so did militarised conflicts in regions such as the Sahel, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Great Lakes region, and the Lake Chad Basin. Mahamat’s reluctance exacerbated the situation to push heads of state to decide on interventions, creating an institutional paralysis that belied the AU’s bold vision.

It is fair to remember that the AU’s limitations in handling internal conflicts are not exclusively a product of Mahamat’s tenure. Despite the AU’s mediation efforts, the protracted civil war in South Sudan should serve as a potent example. The AU’s inability to broker peace deals has resulted in a crisis, with more than 400,000 lives lost and millions displaced.

The Libyan crisis and the rise of extremist groups in the Sahel region reflect the AU’s persistent struggles and limited influence.

Its apparent impotence could be attributed to financial constraints, external geopolitical influences, an outdated principle of non-interference and its leadership’s characteristic indifference in the face of human tragedy.

The AU, still heavily dependent on foreign funding, grapples with maintaining peacekeeping operations and investing in conflict prevention. Sovereignty is often invoked to shield member states, and from taking decisive action against human rights violations, undermining the duty to protect enshrined in the AU’s Charter. The AU’s outdated emphasis on non-interference needs reconsideration. A delicate equilibrium between respecting state sovereignty and intervening in severe human rights abuses needs to be struck.

Sovereignty should not be a cover for inhuman acts sanctioned by the global community. Upholding more straightforward criteria for intervention remains imperative to lend credibility and legitimacy to the AU, particularly in the eyes of the African population.

The AU’s financial independence needs bolstering. Member states should be urged to meet their financial obligations, and new funding avenues should be explored. The proposals tabled by Rwanda’s Pual Kagame to tax every flight from and to Africa deserve a review. Enhancing financial autonomy could fortify the AU’s capacity to carry out effective peacekeeping and conflict prevention initiatives, as building strategic alliances with other regional organisations and influential global powers could boost its influence on the international stage.

A more assertive AU could go a long way to ensure its decisions are respected and upheld.

The AU would benefit from renewing its focus on preventive measures. Expanding early warning systems and mediation mechanisms could help detect and mitigate conflicts before they escalate. Education and capacity building in peace and security must be emphasised to foster a culture of peace from the ground up. This may not be an easy task, but the journey towards “silencing the guns” should be a mission the AU cannot abandon.

While the irony of Africa’s predicament is unmissable, it is not insurmountable. Though not entirely successful, the AU’s past efforts serve as essential learning opportunities for improvement and growth. In addressing these challenges head-on, the AU can hone its capabilities and reassert its commitment to peace and stability. For a continent as diverse and vibrant as Africa, a robust and effective AU is not merely desirable but a necessity.

In the face of contemporary security risks, the AU must remain committed to its mission and adapt accordingly. Time will tell whether the African Union will seize the moment and transform these trials into triumphs.

However, competent and visionary leadership is indispensable; regrettably, Mahamat has proven to be far from this ideal. To paraphrase a popular African proverb, smooth seas do not make skilful sailors. Prolonging his time in office any longer than he has would only be a tragedy for Africa.

PUBLISHED ON May 20,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1203]

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