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AU's efforts to tackle problems 'strained'

24 May 2013, 14:06

Addis Ababa - The African Union, celebrating this weekend 50 years since the launch of a continental bloc, regularly repeats the mantra: African solutions to African problems.

But AU efforts to tackle those problems - especially the conflicts that plague the continent - are strained by a shortage of cash, poor organisation, lack of capacity and often reluctance to get involved, analysts warn.

The key AU policy of intervening in the internal affairs of member states emerged in the wake of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, as the international community recoiled at its own failure to intervene.

Set up in 2002, the AU adopted a firm policy of finding internal solutions to African problems, and gave itself the mandate to intervene in the case of "grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity."

The AU is the successor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which held its founding congress in May 1963.

The original goals of the OAU were to rid the continent of the remaining vestiges of colonization and apartheid and to promote solidarity and development among African States.

But today the AU's Peace and Security Council (PSC), the bloc's body for tackling conflict, remains hampered by financial constraints, with military missions largely funded by western donors.

"It wants control of the mission, but it doesn't bring the resources to the table to do so," said J Peter Pham, from the US-based Atlantic Council, adding that even when member states have the resources, the willingness to chip in is limited.


The AU "doesn't want to bear the cost of ownership, and I think you can't have your cake and eat it", Pham added.

Some analysts say this impedes its ability to respond to crises efficiently and compromises the AU's authority on peacekeeping missions.

The AU was criticised for not responding fast enough in Mali, when after rebels took over in a coup in March 2012, rapidly crumbling one of Africa's longest standing democracies and prompting a French military intervention in January.

"Where was the PSC in Mali, for example, where France intervened militarily earlier this year?" asked Liesl Louw-Vaudran, writing for South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Divisions revealed by the recent conflict in Libya - when members squabbled between those wanting to recognise rebels and those backing Moamer Kadhafi - showed its disunity.

"Its sidelining during the Libyan crisis in 2011 and almost total absence that year during the Arab Spring that engulfed North Africa indicated the limits of the AU's capacity to play a role in conflicts," Louw-Vaudran added.

African commitment to peacekeeping roles strong

Nevertheless, AU leaders themselves are keen to take the praise for achievements in Africa, which, despite still being riddled with troubles, has seen a decline in major conflicts in recent years.

"Africa has made remarkable progress over the last decade in terms of promoting peace and stability on our continent," said Teodros Gebreyesus, the foreign minister of Ethiopia, the current AU chair, praising the bloc for its efforts.

Key achievements include the force in Somalia, where 17 700 AU troops from five nations are fighting to claw back territory from al-Qaeda linked Shabaab insurgents from the government.

High casualty rates - one senior UN official recently estimated as many as 3 000 African troops had been killed since 2007, similar to the numbers of UN peacekeepers killed worldwide since 1948 - show the AU force's willingness to take the risk of active combat roles, but also reflect the cost of success.

Although funding for that mission comes mainly from Western backers, its role in Somalia shows the potential for an AU force.

The commitment of African nations to peacekeeping roles is clear: the peacekeeping mission in Sudan's war-torn western Darfur region is a hybrid AU-UN force, while Mali now has a - belatedly deployed - African-led international support mission.

Five of the top ten contributors of soldiers and police officers to UN missions are African.

However, some say the AU's labyrinthine bureaucracy - which with 54 members has double the number of the European Union - hampers a rapid response to a crisis.

"There is a management structure within the AU that shies away from delegation and seeks to micro-manage...this makes responding to rapidly changing events difficult," Alex Vines, from Britain's Chatham House, wrote in a recent report.

The AU's "African Standby Brigade" to intervene in sudden crises - a proposed force of 32 500 troops and civilians drawn from five regions of the continent - has made little headway since preparations for it started a decade ago.

"The Malian crisis, for example, is over a year old....and we are still scrambling to cobble together some peacekeeping force for when the French draw out," Pham said.


Regional politics can hamper efforts too, with smaller or weaker nations eyeing sometimes resentfully the lead taken by more powerful neighbours, such as South Africa, or in the west, Nigeria.

Adding to the challenge of any would-be response is that the nature of conflict is also changing.

While the number of wars have dramatically dropped - there were 11 wars in 2000, and four in 2012, Chatham House calculates - numbers of small scale insurgent groups often operating across borders have grown.

"Today conflict in Africa is increasingly fragmented, tending to be fought on a smaller scale and on the peripheries of states," said ISS analyst Jakkie Cilliers.

One example is the AU force in central Africa hunting down the Ugandan-led Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, supported by US special forces in their efforts to end the decades-long insurgency.

International terrorism has also added to security threats, boosting the need for African nations to seek outside support.

The AU "needs intelligence, it needs cooperation, and it can't just be done at the domestic level", Vines said. "Sometimes you need international solution to global problems."


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