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Promoting Peace: the African Union at 50 years

May 16, 2013

This blogpost draws on a short paper prepared by a group of International Alert colleagues and I, which we have just published on Alert’s website. A shorter version was also published in Huffington Post. 2013 is the 50th anniversary of formal collective action in Africa, first through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and more recently the African Union (AU).  African history is also at a kind of “hinge moment”: the post-colonial period is over and the African Renaissance is underway, economic growth has been steady for a decade, and the number of wars and coups d’état has declined. This anniversary year is an opportune time to take a look at how the AU can enhance its contribution to sustainable peace.

The OAU was a vehicle for pan-African solidarity at a time of liberation struggle. Its successor the AU is part of the international peacebuilding system. It has made a significant contribution to peace in Africa, but so far this has been focused primarily on preventing and reacting to large scale violence – what is sometimes known as “negative peace”.

Negative peace is when people have stopped fighting, but have not necessarily addressed their conflicts or differences, often because they lack the institutions or capacity to do so. Negative peace is thus often temporary. Positive peace on the other hand is when people and societies are successfully dealing with the unavoidable differences and conflicts which are part and parcel of human coexistence, without violence. It is recognisable not just by the absence of violence, but by the presence of functional relationships between people and peoples, between people and the state, and between states; and by the existence of dynamic institutions capable of mediating those relationships. Peacebuilding aims above all to strengthen these, which requires a sustained, long-term approach.

In our paper we explore how Africa is looking, from a peace perspective. The AU has made important contributions, but we suggest that it could do more – and perhaps also work differently – to promote the conditions for “positive peace”.

Peace in Africa

The incidence of major violence in Africa has decreased, but many challenges remain, not least because it takes years to build positive peace. Coups d’état have become more rare. Elections are becoming more and more normal, but alone they do not make democracy, and large parts of Africa are still governed through clientelism in ways which entrench structural violence. The period of transition when governance is neither autocracy nor democracy but somewhere in between, sometimes known as anocracy, is often marked by instability. This will be a feature for some time to come, its effects exacerbated by tensions between “traditional” and “modern” systems of governance.

Economic growth has recently been spectacular, boosted by increased natural resource revenues. Real income per capita has gone up by more than 30% and foreign direct investment has tripled in the past decade to $50bn per year, roughly equivalent to the value of remittances and to the value of aid. The consumer market is growing slowly too, e.g. there are roughly three mobile phones for every four people.

The challenges of peace include sustaining this growth, adding new economic sectors, and increasing economic participation. Much of the rural economy is dominated by smallholder farming and extensive livestock rearing. There is a tension between the short-term need for stability, maintained by the prevalence of peasant farming, and the need for agriculture to become more commercially oriented, which would entail a rationalisation of land ownership which risks causing instability. Current growth depends on inherently unsustainable commodities; this will not create or spread wealth without more value-added processing or production in the country of origin. Many countries are susceptible to the “resource curse”, making them prone to instability.

The number of people will roughly double between now and 2050, putting pressure on resources especially where climate variability makes agriculture unpredictable. Because of the “youth bulge”, the dependency ratio is high, which is a drag on entrepreneurship and growth. But sometime after 2025 the dependency ratio should become more conducive for economic growth – the so-called demographic dividend. Already young people are claiming political, economic and social space, but there are limits to what they are allowed to achieve or what is available. Ever-increasing numbers of educated young people with high expectations of economic and social improvement are chasing too few jobs. This is a source of frustration and has been linked to conflict. And there is no obvious prospect of full employment in the near future. Where political systems are inadequate to contain and manage their frustration, instability can result.

With their reliance on commodities and their relatively fragile governance, African countries are vulnerable to external trends and influences. Globalisation has undermined the power of the state internationally, and empowered licit and illicit international economic actors whose activities often undermine livelihoods and governance. International mining, oil and agribusiness companies help increase GDP but often reinforce clientelist governance. International peacekeeping has proven critical in helping stop wars in several countries, but has also prevented the resolution of some conflicts. International aid provides important funding and expertise but also distorts policy, exchange rates and governance. Global terrorists and criminal networks increase rates of violence and undermine governance, as do Western actions and policies against them; and liberal international trade norms impede African governments from nurturing their economies.

Africans are dealing with an enormous amount of change; with opportunity and frustration, both of which need good management to maximise the potential for progress and avoid instability. Many of the countries which emerged blinking into the sunlight at the end of the colonial era have now arrived at a point where their people are better educated and informed, and have higher expectations of the political economy. Economic growth means most governments are less dependent on aid, but face rising inequality among people with increasingly democratic expectations. The number of active conflicts has decreased. And from a positive peace perspective, progress is being made. Yet significant challenges remain.

The AU and peace

Peace and security are major priorities for the AU, and are highly subsidised by the donors whose support is crucial given the limited funds available from member states.  The AU’s founding documents reinforce the idea of positive peace: its vision is of an Integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena. Its Constitutive Act clearly identifies democratic governance, the rule of law, equality and human rights as critical public goods to be promoted and safeguarded by the AU; and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is implicitly included.

The AU has made important contributions to peace. It has led or co-led peacekeeping missions or similar interventions in Sudan, Comoros, Somalia, Madagascar, Mauritania, the DRC and Burundi. It has brokered and mediated talks and agreements between Sudan and South Sudan, in Guinea, Kenya, and Ivory Coast. It has responded quickly to coups d’état, facilitating a swift return to constitutional rule. It maintains an early warning watch across the continent. It has developed a series of charters, outlining norms in areas relevant to peace including governance, gender equality, human rights and youth – though many of these still need to be ratified and domesticated by member states. The AU is spearheading work clarifying international borders. It has articulated a framework for post-conflict reconstruction and development. It is working with the UN and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to develop the African Peace and Security Framework, including an Africa Standby Force, comprised of military and police units ready to respond in crises. Its African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) plays an important role, promoting and monitoring progress towards good governance.

Alongside this progress, the AU faces three important, interrelated challenges.

Getting the balance right between crisis response and peacebuilding    Despite its mandate, the AU has been overwhelmingly reactive and crisis-oriented, often more in line with the concept of negative peace than with building positive peace. This reflects the need and understandable desire among member states to prevent fighting and bring it to a speedy end when it occurs. It also reflects the interests of the wider international community, including donors, for “African solutions to African problems”.

Peacebuilding is highly political. The AU’s member states, represented by incumbent governments, understandably prefer not to have outsiders interfering in their internal affairs. Thus some aspects of peacebuilding are seen as off-limits. It is unlikely a member state government would be willing to accept outside interference in its mining or oil sector, even though mining and oil often contribute to instability. Similarly with other aspects of governance: 40% of member states have not yet signed up to the APRM, and of those who have, only half have been peer-reviewed. Positive peace implies a need to rebalance the AU’s peace efforts away from crisis anticipation and response, towards a longer-term, more societal orientation which promotes better quality and more equal access to decision making, the economy, justice and security.

Finding the right niche   The AU is part of a complex international governance system along with the UN, RECs and states, each with more or less clearly defined normative roles. In an imperfect, rather than a normative world, this is complicated, for example by unequal influence among member states, by the relatively undemocratic nature of some member states, by unequal capacity among different RECs, and by the influence of external powers whose preferences have an influence on those of the AU, including their desire to reduce external military involvement in peacekeeping operations in Africa. It is also complicated by differences in peacekeeping doctrine between the AU and the UN. At times the AU seems to be replicating or replacing both the UN and the RECs, when it could be playing a more complementary role. Differences between the positions of member states, and tensions between the AU and RECs, UN, and Western powers have complicated approaches to crises in Ivory Coast, Somalia and Libya. No other regional intergovernmental organisation tries to promote peace and security on such a massive (perhaps impossible) scale as the AU, with 54 relatively underdeveloped member states.

Linking up with African civil society    The APRM’s executive director recently bemoaned that the APRM was “unknown to the majority of [African] peoples and the rest of the world”, and this is true of the AU more generally. There are numerous obstacles to African civil society engagement with the AU. Few Africans are able to visit the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa; African civil society and the AUC both lack resources to improve their mutual engagement easily; and it is not always in the interest of member state governments to promote the AU’s priorities like democracy and good governance, at home. Although the AU has liaison offices in around a dozen countries, these lack the resources to represent the ideas and mission of the AU in its entirety. The voice of each member state in the AU is primarily the voice of its incumbent government – which tends to exclude important perspectives and groups in society. Women’s voices are particularly ill-represented, and the AUC has few staff with expertise in gender issues.

Tentative conclusions

The AU has already shown it makes a significant contribution to peace, but it could do more. E.g. by:

Getting the focus right   The AU is resource-constrained, covers a huge continent, and sits within a complicated international architecture, so it is most effective when focused on the right issues and the right niche. Arguably its comparative advantage is less in implementing expensive and complex peacekeeping missions and technical programmes, than in operating politically and in close collaboration with the UN and the RECs. Within these relationships, the AU is well-placed to mediate, provide political and analytical support to others, and promote common peacebuilding frameworks.

Emphasising a long-term peacebuilding approach   The AU is well-positioned to help member states put in place the norms, institutions and other conditions for positive peace. Its charters provide a basis for sustained AU leadership promoting improved governance and other peace-supporting goods, such as access to justice, security and economic opportunity, conflict-sensitive trade and the implementation of free movement across borders. The AU can help Africans work out how to meet the challenges of anocracy, for instance by adapting and implementing the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.

Strengthening links with civil society   The AU is distant and little-known. This disempowers Africans who have little idea of what their governments have agreed to on their behalf. The AU can improve collaboration with civil society, for example in promoting good governance. To do this with limited resources means using creative methods, for example allying itself with NGOs and using social media to publicise its various charters, enabling citizens to push for the charters to be ratified and put into practice by their governments. It can make better use of its Liaison Offices.

Anticipating new threats to peace   Africa faces common and/or new threats to peace, such as how to engage young people as effective citizens; international terrorism, piracy and organised criminality; and the risks attendant on anocracy, natural resource exploitation and climate change. All these need to be addressed at least partly at a supranational level – even anocracy, since porous borders and the Responsibility to Protect means my neighbour’s instability is my problem too. The AU can take a lead in helping member states and RECs to work out how to respond to these and other emerging threats.

Providing African leadership   African states, citizens and businesses will benefit from further visionary political leadership at a continental level to help protect them from external influences which might undermine progress towards positive peace, and to help seize opportunities for progress. This means coming up with African solutions where feasible and, where not, negotiating joint solutions with external agencies and powers – such as on Islamist terrorism and the illegal drug trade.

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