African leaders have met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week for the annual African Union (AU) summit. This year’s theme is “Silencing the Guns”, reviving an aspiration set out by African leaders in 2013 to end war and prevent genocide on the continent by 2020. Though the aim of resolving all conflicts in seven years set the bar high, the AU has scored some successes. Just this past year, for example, 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 cagier 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 fourteen 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 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 rarely meets 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 AU’s secretariat, could hamper work. Commission Chairperson 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. 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 4o 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.
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. South Africa has taken over the rotational chair from Egypt when the summit started and has made “silencing the 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.
There are eight areas where he and the AU can focus during the course of the year: First, seeking a compromise with the UN over co-funding of peace operations; second, supporting pivotal elections in Ethiopia and standing ready to mediate in the event of disputes over results; third, deterring leaders in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea from using constitutional amendments to hold onto power; fourth, helping calm Burkina Faso’s insurgency and avert election violence; fifth, pressing Yaoundé and separatists toward more inclusive dialogue to help end the crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions; sixth, pushing the Somali government and regional leaders toward a compromise ahead of Somalia’s elections; seventh, pressing East African heads of state to step up their efforts to keep South Sudan’s peace process on track; eighth, supporting Sudan’s transition by offering to act as a guarantor of the deal between the security forces and civilian leaders. While not exhaustive, this list represents opportunities where the AU likely can have the greatest impact over the coming year. These steps will not silence the guns across Africa, but they would go some way toward curbing the destruction and trauma wrought by the continent’s worst wars.
‘Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2020’ – Article by Team of Authors – International Crisis Group.