Global Policy Forum

Don't Blame the AU


By Abdul Mohammed

June 5, 2007

Last week, President Bush tightened US sanctions on Sudan. There's an underlying message: the existing African Union peacekeepers are not up to the job. It's easy to knock the AU. But working in Darfur, we are shocked by the attitude of people towards the AU. It is routinely demeaned and written off. Like its big sister, the United Nations, the AU Peace and Security Council is a repository for insoluble problems. If a government can solve a problem it does so. If it can't it sends it to the AU - which is left with a caseload that includes Ivory Coast, Somalia and above all, Darfur. Pundits and politicians alike have described the errors and missed opportunities of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) and the AU mediation effort that produced a peace agreement for Darfur but failed to bring complete peace. The AU is an easy target as it doesn't employ spin doctors to answer back. The unwritten job description of its chairperson and its commissioner for peace and security is to take the jibes and carry on with the job, confident that if the work is well done Africa is better for it .

Some of the criticisms ring true, as the AU is indeed an overstretched institution, struggling to build its capacity at the same time as it grapples with some of the continent's most complicated problems. The most senior staff in the organisation frankly admit that the AU has often failed or remained inert when it should have acted, and that its internal procedures are often agonizingly inadequate for the challenges it faces in Darfur. But the biggest disservice to the AU is the condescension of those who give lip service to supporting the organisation but in the same breath label it as second best.

The AU responded to Darfur with its heart and not its head. The Darfur crisis was almost the first issue to come in front of the newly set up Peace and Security Council. In accordance with the dictum, African responsibility for African problems, the AU assisted with mediating a ceasefire in N'djamena, Chad, in April 2004 and then volunteered to send ceasefire monitors and a protection force. This was a bold and courageous decision. The N'djamena ceasefire agreement is a faulty document - it exists in two contradictory versions, one possessed by the government and the other by the rebels and doesn't map the positions of the forces - and the mandate given to AMIS is absurdly restricted. The AU responded with alacrity to Darfur because it knew what was at stake. The future of Africa hinges on finding a resolution to Sudan's crisis. Sudan is Africa's largest country, where most of the continent's problems converge. The Sudanese crisis has the potential to unravel Africa.

The UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations would never have sent troops into such a situation. But AMIS responded with energy and improvisation. Africa didn't have financial resources but it contributed what it could--people. AMIS's first year was a success. Levels of violence dropped sharply, humanitarian operations improved and Darfurian people's confidence that their problem could be solved surged. It was ad hoc and the AU force commander routinely went beyond his strict mandate, but it worked.

The UN would not have readily taken on mediating a conflict with so many fractured warring parties, none of whom had shown any real goodwill towards the others, and most of whom continued to pursue a military solution in preference to a negotiated peace. The AU took on the job. In a shorter period of time than for any comparable war, the AU got the parties around a table, talking about a declaration of principles for how to resolve the conflict - and then (in July 2005) signing it.

Instead of building on this success, the world's leaders and opinion makers insidiously implied that the AU was only a second best option - they called for a UN peacekeeping operation to replace AMIS. Without saying it, they were condemning AMIS as not up to the job. The campaign to bring the UN to Darfur has been conducted at the expense of the AU. Without a strong mandate and with very modest infrastructure, the AMIS troops had worked Darfur on their wits, showing a personal commitment far in excess of what we normally see in international peacekeeping operations - only to be told that they weren't good enough. Darfurians were quick to seize on this vote of no confidence and to treat the African troops with low regard. Little did the Darfurians know that the US-British proposal was not to send Nato special forces but instead for African troops to be placed under joint AU/UN command. The damage was done - AMIS morale plummeted.

What happened next was alarming. The AMIS force was not built up, but run down. It wasn't funded. Sometimes the troops weren't even paid. Some of the troop-contributing countries rotated out their contingents and didn't replace them - strength is now under the 7,000 mandated. Instead of the AU giving AMIS a new mandate, it spent its time and energy discussing how to wind down and hand over. In effect, AMIS was put under sanctions. Instead of the AU and UN working together as sibling multilateral organisations, they were mired in a fruitless and complicated discussion on a handover. For its own reasons, the Sudan government supported AMIS continuing - simply because it didn't want the UN - and pundits began to sneer that the AU was siding with Khartoum.

The same happened with the Abuja peace talks that led to the Darfur Peace Agreement. The mediation may have made errors, but the international community - led by the US - was deeply involved and instrumental at all stages, including producing the final document and playing a decisive role during the last stages of the talks. Yet the failure of the DPA to bring peace to Darfur is pinned solely at the door of the AU. Because Khartoum signed while two of the three rebel groups didn't, many commentators infer that the peace deal was slanted to Khartoum.

The slow drip of condescension and allegation is undermining the AU in tangible ways. It has reduced AMIS to a shadow of its former self and has hobbled the AU in its efforts to deal with the continuing crisis in Darfur. This is not just a crisis for Darfur and Sudan, but a profound and damaging legacy for Africa. Damaging the AU serves only one purpose: giving an alibi for those who wish to pursue war and destruction in Africa or forget the continent altogether.

Darfur is an exceptional crisis demanding an exceptional response. The UN and AU must work together, playing to their respective strengths. The dictum on which the AU is based that Africa should deal with its own problems, must not be buried in the sands of Darfur. The principle of multilateralism must also emerge from Darfur enhanced. The AU is not above criticism. It needs to respond to some very real critiques of its performance on Darfur. But when the history of Darfur is written it will, like King Lear, win the verdict of "more sinned against than sinning". The AU is a strategic institution for Africa, which embodies the continent's quest for unity. Today's attack on the AU has serious implications for Africa's future. The people of Darfur don't want the AU to emerge from the crisis defeated. Darfurians are angry at their predicament and at the AU for failing to solve their problems - but they want a successful AU, not a needless failure. It's time to stop sniping and support the AU, both for what it has done for Darfur with limited resources, and for what it must be able to do for Africa.

Underappreciated AU efforts in Darfur may lead to prolonged conflict there and on the rest of the continent. Both AU and international mediations of the Darfur conflict resulted in agreements. The N'djamena, Chad ceasefire in April 2004, and the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006, respectively, constituted these results. But despite the similar achievements and shortcomings of these agreements, the UN Security Council's deliberations over sending peacekeeping forces to Darfur implicitly and unjustly shift blame for continued conflict in Darfur to the AU. This condescending UN Security Council attitude results in diminished AMIS morale and thereby jeopardizes future peace in Darfur and potentially Africa.

More Information on the Security Council
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