Clarifying the roles of the African Union (AU) and subregional organisations is a central element of the AU reforms. It is key in terms of managing expectations about what the AU can or cannot do, as well as coordinating Africa’s responses to avoid duplication of efforts. But this issue is also divisive, and it is unclear whether AU member states will reach a concrete decision on a division of labour at the upcoming extraordinary summit on reforms in Addis Ababa on 17 November.
The AU Constitutive Act and other legal documents, including the Peace and Security Council (PSC) protocol, envisage the AU as playing a leadership role in addressing challenges on the continent. Article 3(l) of the Constitutive Act mandates the AU to ‘coordinate and harmonize the policies between the existing and future Regional Economic Communities for the gradual attainment of the objectives of the Union’.
However, none of the core documents of the various regional economic communities and mechanisms (RECs/RMs), which emerged through different processes, refers to the primacy of the AU. In the area of peace and security, for instance, RECs/RMs claim parallel responsibilities in terms of leading peace processes.
An analysis of the major security concerns on the continent shows that subregional organisations are increasingly at the forefront of addressing security threats.
A diminishing role in peace and security?
Out of 10 major security situations mentioned in the January 2018 decisions of the AU Assembly, the AU is only taking a clear leading role in two: the military intervention in Somalia and the mediation to end the ongoing border dispute between Sudan and South Sudan.
On the other hand, subregional organisations and ad-hoc regional groupings are leading mediations in South Sudan, Burundi and Guinea-Bissau, as well as military interventions against terrorist groups in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and Central Africa. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) also leads the political mediation in Somalia, alongside the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), while the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has taken the lead in the situations in Lesotho and Madagascar.
Yet, in some instances there is strong cooperation between subregions and the AU and United Nations (UN). One such example is the attempt to address the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Finding solutions at the subregional level is in line with the 2008 memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the AU and subregional organisations and mechanisms. However, the memorandum is not clear on what role the AU should play in conflict situations.
Should the AU be restricted to norm-setting?
In July 2018 the reform team led by President Paul Kagame produced a draft paper on the division of labour between the AU and RECs – a paper seen by the PSC Report.
The paper suggests that ‘the AU should set the strategic direction, develop harmonized continental agendas, policies, texts, standards, coordination, lead resource mobilization for continental actions and be responsible for monitoring, evaluation and accountability’.
RECs/RMs are expected to be responsible for the actual implementation of AU decisions, including enforcing member states’ compliance with AU norms. This resonates with a 2010 assessment of APSA that notes that ‘some RECs/RMs are of the view that the AU Commission should not view itself as an implementing agency; it should rather play more of a coordination role’.
This would entail that the AU would act as a norm-setter, which in itself is not an easy task, given the security challenges and the diversity of governance standards on the continent. To be successful in setting norms, the AU will have to make sure these norms and policies are respected.
Therefore, while implementation at the subregional level is important, the AU should be empowered to provide checks and balances, especially when peace processes led by subregional organisations are compromised.
AU’s role when subregional peace processes fail
The CAR, South Sudan and DRC conflict situations show the deep involvement of neighbouring states in such crises. They are often accused of taking sides and arming or harbouring parties to the conflict. This raises concerns about the role of neighbouring countries in crises.
For instance, while IGAD’s mediation in South Sudan has recently seen some progress, South Sudan’s neighbours have been caught up in the conflict itself. Uganda supports President Salva Kiir’s government and sent troops in support of Kiir’s forces from 2013 to 2015, when the peace deal was signed. Sudan is accused of supporting South Sudan’s rebel groups.
Such concerns led UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to warn IGAD and neighbouring states against taking sides in South Sudan's conflict.
It took a lot of international pressure for South Sudan’s neighbours to commit to the peace process, particularly after the resurgence of violence in July 2016. At the same time, these neighbours also blocked efforts to impose punitive measures on South Sudan elites.
An IGAD communiqué on 30 July 2018, for instance, argued that, ‘given the latest developments in the peace process and the need to implement the permanent ceasefire and achieve an inclusive peace agreement, it is not helpful to pursue punitive measures at this stage’. The meeting and communiqué came prior to a meeting by the AU Ad Hoc Committee on South Sudan on 30 July as well as a PSC meeting on 31 July, thereby discouraging any considerations of punitive measures.
Even though a new deal has been reached with the support of Sudan and Uganda, the lack of an international enforcement plan in the agreement raises doubts about its sustainability. South Sudan’s warring parties have violated several other agreements in the past. What stops parties to the conflict from violating the current deal? Indeed, violence is ongoing in several parts of the country despite the peace deal.
As such, AU reformers have to explore options to enable the AU to take over peace initiatives led by subregional organisations when the latter’s efforts are compromised.
When subregional actors are unwilling or unable to address security threats
In some conflict situations, such as those in Libya and Cameroon, subregional organisations tend to be unwilling and/or unable to address the security threats.
In Cameroon, for instance, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) is unwilling to put the issue either on its agenda or on the agenda of the AU. Most member states of ECCAS are led by like-minded elites who want to stay in power. This situation is complicated by the fact that ECCAS is a relatively weak REC when compared to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and SADC, and its member states are facing internal issues of their own.
Given that the AU often takes its cue from subregions before intervening, the AU Assembly and the PSC have not been proactive in considering solutions to the crisis in the anglophone part of Cameroon. The issue continues to be viewed as an internal affair, despite the fact that over 400 people have died.
Such situations present instances where the AU should step up and lead the peace process while co-opting subregional actors and the international community.
Indeed, for the AU to be relevant to the lives of ordinary citizens and its member states, the continental body has to do more than set norms and evaluate implementation. This includes taking proactive steps in situations where member states are unwilling or unable to respond to security threats.
Such a proactive role requires a substantive review of the MoU between the AU and subregional organisations and mechanisms to clarify responsibilities and highlight situations that require AU intervention.