If your main source of information about the world is the Canadian media, you probably did not register that the African Union’s 26th Summit took place in Addis Ababa this weekend. Causing barely a ripple on the Canadian airwaves, it might be tempting to dismiss the summit as an irrelevant gathering of dithering heads of state. After all, the AU’s predecessor, the OAU, was commonly seen as a talking shop, or even a trade union, for dictators. This AU summit too was rife with contradictions and challenges, and a fair degree of political theatre. But do not be fooled; this is an organization of growing importance for Africa and for international security.
Meeting under the official theme of Human Rights, reflecting the AU’s declaration of 2016 as the year of Human Rights, contradictions abounded. Among the attending heads of state were two presidents who have had close encounters with the International Criminal Court. Both Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Omar Bashir of Sudan mingled happily with other dignitaries, despite the former only narrowly escaping trial at the ICC and the latter still wanted for war crimes related to the conflict in Darfur. At the end of the summit, the assembled heads of state backed a proposal by President Kenyatta to move towards a withdrawal from the ICC.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe stepped down from the chair of the AU, only to be replaced by President Idriss Déby of Chad, a former military commander who ousted the brutal dictator Hissène Habré in 1990 and subsequently won four presidential elections. Freedom House, an organization that ranks freedom and democracy in the world, gives Chad a rating of 6.5, with 7 being the worst possible grade. So much for the year of human rights!
The biggest piece of political theatre was provided by President Mugabe, whose 10-minute speech turned into an hour of lambasting the UN and the West for their neocolonialism, paternalism, racism — and “their white faces and pink noses.” Go tell the UN that “Africans are also human, not ghosts,” he instructed a rather uncomfortable-looking UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For a Western audience, Mugabe’s more serious point about the need to reform the UN Security Council might have been somewhat lost in his rhetorical flourishes. If proof was needed that he is not alone in being fed up with Western paternalism towards Africa, however, it came in the form of a standing ovation from the assembled heads of state.
While Mugabe’s political theatrics could be seen as either comedy or tragedy, depending on your point of view, there was nothing amusing about the absence of Presidents Salva Kiir of South Sudan and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi from the summit. These two countries topping the agenda pose some of the biggest challenges for the AU. Yet, President Kiir announced that he had urgent matters to attend to in the capital, Juba, thus avoiding pressure from African leaders and the UN Secretary-General to implement a peace agreement and end the suffering of the South Sudanese people. President Nkurunziza also stayed at home, having bluntly declared that the AU’s stated intention to send 5,000 peacekeepers to the country was unacceptable, and that any peacekeeping force would be treated as an invasion. After prolonged deliberations behind closed doors, the AU retreated from its previous commitment to send troops, announcing instead that it would seek dialogue with the government and dispatch a high-level delegation to the country.
The retreat from the commitment to send peacekeepers to Burundi is widely seen as the biggest disappointment of the summit. Burundi has been embroiled in conflict since the president abolished term limits in April last year. At least 439 people have died, 240,000 have fled abroad, and there is fear that conflict will form along ethnic lines. The AU charter has a clause that allows for intervention in a member state in the grave circumstances of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Only a month ago, the AU Peace and Security Council made the unusually bold decision to send troops to prevent further escalation of the violence, an action strongly encouraged by the UN Secretary-General.
The change of heart at the summit, however, was hardly surprising; getting approval for sending troops without the consent of the host government would have been difficult at the best of times. Getting that approval from heads of states, many of whom (including the new chair, President Déby) have themselves long since abolished presidential term limits, would have been something of a miracle. Yet again, the AU has sided with those in power and not with the people.
Contradictions, theatrics, and disappointments aside, do not be fooled. The AU matters — and increasingly so — for both Africa and for international security. African countries are increasingly relied upon as the world’s peacekeepers. Of the top 15 countries contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions, nine are African. Of the top 15 contributing police to missions, 10 are African.
Put differently, without Africa many of today’s peacekeeping missions would grind to a halt. The AU plays a central role here, in terms of its relationship to the UN, their joint missions, and its own peacekeeping missions. The AU Peace and Security Council decides on military action, sanctions after military coups, and the mandates and budgets of missions like that in Somalia — hardly the stuff of an irrelevant talking shop. On other issues too, from Ebola to terrorism, from food security to women’s rights, the AU is playing an increasingly prominent and confident role, both in its own right and as a mediator between Africa and the rest of the world.
To be sure, it is frequently contradictory, inefficient, and deeply frustrating, but then again, among international organizations the AU can hardly claim a monopoly on ineffectiveness and contradiction. Yet as this summit shows, the organization is still struggling to come to terms with its potential significance.