African Union falls behind the times as regional conflicts rage

Get with it: AU chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (left). GovernmentZA

When the South African president, Jacob Zuma, returned from the African Union summit last weekend, his press statement said almost nothing that could not have been written before he left. The summit decided nothing. Nor did the preceding 22nd session of the African Union Assembly. This was partly because the summit realised it could decide nothing about the burning issues, and partly because the AU Commission had prepared nothing by way of scenarios and options and costings for anything it thinks it could do about them.

The AU summit was a curious marriage of personalities – or perhaps a remarriage, since Zuma, anxious in 2012 to imprint the AU with a South African stamp, had by electoral power-play installed his ex-wife Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma as the commission’s chair. The South African power struggle against Jean Ping, the former Gabonese foreign minister who was chair of the AU Commission from 2008 to 2012, was fought because there was someone waiting in the wings; not someone better, but someone South African.

Ironically, the half-Chinese Ping would undoubtedly have made more sense as commission chair in an era where the Chinese loom larger than ever over Africa, and at a summit held in the gaudy Chinese-built complex that now houses the African Union in Addis Ababa. In addition, as a member of the Francophonie, Ping is someone with who the meltdowns in Mali and Central African Republic resonate strongly.

Behind the curve

The summit showed that African Union officials simply have not moved with the times. They didn’t recognise, even for a minute, the speed with which rebel formations in the Central African Republic and Mali were able to move, a pace that conventional armies with heavy equipment could never meet. Speed and mobility across borders are the essence of rebellion now. Interestingly (and for murky reasons still unexplained) it was South African commandos that were guarding CAR president Francoise Bozize when the Séléka – or Muslim rebels – struck at Bangui last year, cutting through the crack South African troops like a knife through butter. The mobility and concentration of the Séléka tactics left the South Africans and the very orthodox CAR army with no response.

Another lesson the union has yet to learn is that conflicts unfolding in this part of Africa are now almost always regional wars, not national ones. This was the case in Mali, where rebels drove down from Algerian mustering points, and were linked with Algerian rebels.

Similarly, Chad is at the epicentre of many simultaneous central African conflicts. It borders Nigeria to its west, and the nearest Nigerian city, the university town Maiduguri, has experienced severe problems with jihadist group Boko Haram in recent months. It borders Sudan to its east, via its fraught western province of Darfur; indeed, when the French drove out Gaddafi’s forces from Chad in the 1980s, they crossed into Darfur and there became the antecedents of the Janjaweed, the militia used with such brutal ruthlessness by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Chad was also where the Séléka rebels mustered, with a core of hardened Chadian fighters, for their onslaught on CAR to the country’s south.

But the African Union summit recognised none of this regional complexity, which it instead stubbornly depicted as a set of problems for individual countries. The diplomacy needed to grapple with multiplicities is beyond the commission’s chairman, and beyond the assembled presidents of a continent that knows it must settle its conflicts – but which cannot, in hard and fast terms, explain how.

As the presidents left Addis, a donor conference began which was meant to discuss how to finance peacekeeping and peacemaking forces. But, frankly, the commission should have had a whole set of financial options on the summit’s table well before it convened. The official theme of the summit was food security. Zuma spoke of that as he landed back in Johannesburg. But there are no actual plans laid about that either -– just some fine words about its importance.

As for that burning issue that confronted the assembling presidents: the question of what to do about South Sudan – the irony was that just a week before the summit, Addis Ababa was home to negotiations between the South Sudanese factions, with Ethiopian and Kenyan negotiators doing the work. In the city of the African Union, Madame Dhlamini-Zuma was nowhere in sight. Does she do anything? Can Jacob Zuma do anything? Can the union do anything? Right now, under the Chinese golden statue of President Nkrumah, no one does enough – and no one seems to want to.