July 2022 will mark twenty years since the African Union (AU) officially came into being in Durban, South Africa. A founding principle of the organization is to promote peace, security and stability on the continent. African leaders built a bespoke architecture that would enable the AU to fulfill this mandate. The organization’s twentieth anniversary offers an opportunity for member states to assess its achievements so far, as well as to examine the AU’s role in Africa’s evolving peace and security challenges.
The year 2021 was tumultuous in Africa, with coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan, an orchestrated power grab in Tunisia, protracted fighting in Ethiopia and a rising threat from transnational Islamist militancy. The AU’s response to these crises has been mixed. It has had difficulty acting on two highly pressing conflicts – Ethiopia’s civil war and the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region – largely because the governments have resisted what they perceive as external meddling, insisting that their respective crises are domestic affairs. The AU has remained largely a spectator as Libya’s political transition risks derailing. Chad and Somalia each rejected the AU’s choice of high representative, calling into question whether member states accept its primacy in continental peace and security.
The AU’s inconsistent response to the slew of unconstitutional changes of government has been particularly damaging. Often heralded as a major achievement of its twenty-year history, the AU’s established norm against coups took a significant hit when its Peace and Security Council (PSC) decided to maintain Chad’s membership after the military took power in April, following the sudden death of the long-time president. Although it swiftly suspended Guinea and Mali following military takeovers in September and May, the Council was deeply divided in trying to articulate a response to the October coup in Khartoum. Some faith in the AU’s willingness to uphold this key principle was restored, however, when, after intense deliberations, the PSC decided to suspend Sudan. Most recently, on 24 January 2022, Burkina Faso’s military ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a move which the AU Commission chair swiftly condemned. The country was then suspended by the PSC on 31 January.
The AU has had some wins in the past year. It played a positive role in ensuring that Zambia’s election dispute ended in a smooth, peaceful transfer of power. It has continued its strong response to the Covid-19 pandemic, lobbying for equitable access to vaccines and debt relief for particularly vulnerable countries where the economy has slumped because of the outbreak. The coronavirus crisis is far from over: most countries on the continent face worryingly low vaccination rates as underfunded health systems struggle to deliver what vaccines are available to rural areas, while national government messaging has done little to overcome vaccine hesitancy, even among health workers. Still, the AU helped procure nearly 500 million vaccine doses for the continent, with China pledging to supply an additional one billion shots in the coming year.
February’s summit will see the chair of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State, the organization’s highest decision-making body, rotate from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Senegal (it changes hands every year). Senegalese President Macky Sall says he will focus on Covid-19 during his time as chair, in particular working to secure access to more shots from abroad and accelerate vaccine manufacturing in Africa. His priorities for peace and security will inevitably be driven by events on the ground, but he will likely need to pay close attention to counter-terrorism, given the spiraling threat of jihadism in the Sahel.
The summit will also see a complete renewal of the PSC, as all fifteen members will soon reach the end of their two- or three-year terms. The outcome of the council elections will influence the AU’s direction, in particular around contentious issues like unconstitutional changes of government, at a time when the continent faces many urgent crises. Aside from the conflicts and crises already in train, several elections will require the AU’s attention in the course of 2022, including Kenya’s highly charged presidential contest, delayed polls in Somalia, and votes in Chad and Libya that should mark milestones on the transition to democratic rule. For its part, Mali’s transitional government is unlikely to stick to its commitment to hold elections in February. Ensuring that these processes stay on track will be a challenge for the AU.
The organization’s twentieth anniversary year will also be an important one for multilateral engagement. AU and European Union leaders are due to meet for their triennial summit – postponed from 2020 – on 17-18 February in Brussels. Egypt will host COP27, the next edition of the UN’s annual conference on climate change, providing an opportunity for the AU to steer the direction of global conversations about how climate change drives conflict.
When African leaders meet in February, the continent’s most pressing peace and security crises should be at the top of their agenda. Eight areas to which Sall, his counterparts and the wider AU should direct their energy in 2022 are: First, keeping Chad’s transition on track; second, securing a ceasefire in Ethiopia; third, developing a strategy for the return of foreign fighters from Libya; fourth, promoting a multi-pronged approach to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado crisis; fifth, supporting dialogue in the Sahel; sixth, reforming the AU Mission in Somalia; seventh, helping restore Sudan’s transition; and, eighth, putting climate security on the international agenda.
This list, which is certainly not exhaustive, highlights opportunities for the AU to positively shape trends, curb conflicts and save lives over the coming year. As it celebrates its twentieth birthday, the organization should seek to reinvigorate its role in continental peace and security and redouble efforts to tackle Africa’s crises.
‘Eight Priorities for the African Union in 2022’ — Briefing Paper by a Team of Authors — International Crisis Group / ICG.