Perhaps the most succinct assessment of the AU comes from Royal Africa Society Director Richard Dowden. “Its main problem is that the heads of state are loath to criticise each other,” he claims. “Therefore it is the sum of its parts, and nothing more.”
A glance at the Union’s recent history would suggest this is largely true. Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki made for an effective partnership, but after the former’s departure Mbeki’s presidency descended into ‘lame duck’ status, refusing to be critical of any other leaders on the continent – especially Robert Mugabe. The lack of unity within the organisation means there is rarely enough of a consensus for collective action, a situation feeding into its structural weakness. Both within and outside the continent, faith in the AU’s effectiveness has waned, particularly over its inability to prevent conflicts such as Darfur.
The AU certainly has a chequered legacy in East Africa. With predictions that violence will continue in Kenya, few have confidence that Union will provide a competent peacekeeping force. Yet this is not always rooted in ineptitude. Rather, a lack of logistical capacity has hindered its abilities militarily. This was demonstrated in Darfur, where the AU was only able to deploy 12,000 soldiers in a region the size of Germany. Appeals for help fell from the international community on deaf ears, with no helicopters or other military assistance sent.
The AU in the Horn
Yet blame for the Union’s military failures cannot always lie with the West. In Somalia the AU launched AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, in 2007 so as to help create better government structures and secure smoother aid flows. NATO agreed to assist the mission by providing air and naval assistance. Yet the scheme has faced immense problems, including the threat of troop withdrawals from the two biggest suppliers, Uganda and Burundi, after assaults by the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab left high numbers of casualties. March 2011 in particular saw a considerable death toll, with 50 soldiers being killed in the space of a fortnight after a major offensive was launched against the militants.
In Eritrea, the AU is often regarded with little more than contempt. The AU has accused the government of giving support to militant Islamic factions within Somalia, demanding in 2009 that sanctions be imposed. For an organisation that so very rarely criticises its member states, this was an unprecedented move indeed – something the Eritrean government was fully aware of. It responded by breaking off diplomatic ties. Although they were reinstated in January this year, the fact that the AU HQ is based in Ethiopia will probably continue to be a sore point, as in the past the Eritrean government has criticised the AU’s silence on the conflict that flared up between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990s.
In terms of Somaliland, the country is still angry at the AU for refusing to recognise its sovereignty. The government there has accused the Union of wasting its resources trying to rescue a failed state like Somalia whilst ignoring the progress made by Somaliland since it broke away in 1991. Accusations of skewed priorities have done little to bolster the AU’s reputation, and it would be difficult to make the case that across the Horn that the AU is seen as a force for good.
A need for structural change
All this makes for a host challenge that spans well beyond the reach of the current AU summit. The will to make the organisation work is not absent. But serious structural changes need to occur if it is to be taken seriously as a mediating force – including greater support from the West if it is required. In 2009, the Eritrean Information Minister described the African Union as “toothless.” The organisation needs to work hard to avoid further damning statements from its own member states.