They gather from across the continent. At the United Nations headquarters in New York, special representatives of Somalia highlight their military progress in search of increased aid. And in Ethiopia, where the African Union’s (AU) peace and security council held a special meeting in Addis Ababa, African leaders debate the future of Libya and Côte d'Ivoire. Whether 2011 breaks the AU’s credibility may understate its short but turbulent history.
Yet 2011 is a defining year for the AU, one way or another.
No bloc is hotter than the African Union. Waging a direct ground war in Somalia and dealing with massive upheaval in its heavyweight members - Egypt, Libya, Sudan - the AU is giving off a distinct impression of feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes when the ship catches fire all one can do is keep it from sinking, and the AU seems inclined to steer cautiously through an environment of heightened nationalism and revolution. As it neared an election-filled 2011, the AU did show hints of modernizing by allowing Sudan’s breakup and setting electoral examples in Niger and Côte d'Ivoire.
But now change is coming too fast, generating a backlash against rapid transformation.
The pressure of mixing democracy with political interests has further melted the decision-making process, and Libya’s profile explains why. The AU's 15-member peace and security council approved "a high level AU ad hoc committee" to monitor the ongoing crisis, and expressed in a politically correct manner, “the solidarity of the AU with Libya, and stressed the legitimacy of the aspirations of the Libyan people for democracy, political reforms, justice, peace and security as well as economic and social development."
Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra announced, "The AU has strongly condemned the disproportionate use of force.”
Then the bottom line dropped: "The council reaffirms its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign military intervention... The council took note of the readiness of the government of Libya to engage in the path of political reforms...”
Beyond the military complexities and risks of such an invasion, the AU’s decision has much to do with purchased political influence. Libya, as one of five countries contributing 75% of the AU’s $100 million budget, covers around 15% of the AU’s costs. One senior AU official explained of its special treatment, "Libya makes its full required contribution to AU funds. Not all countries do and that buys it influence.” Muammar Gaddafi is also deeply invested in other African states by the hundreds of millions.
Coupled with a surplus of crises, this political-economic dependency is binding regional change to the AU’s old guard. Algeria and Egypt are among the other four countries contributing 75% of the AU’s budget. Egyptians were lucky enough to override the vast forces opposing them with mass mobilization, otherwise the AU would have left them in Mubarak’s hands. And Algerians aren’t waiting around for AU support.
Conversely Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck and South African President Jacob Zuma, as the final two contributing states, reportedly hope for Gaddafi’s eventual exit.
Thus regime change and the financial consequences are dividing and weakening the AU at a time when it needs unified strength. The council did express "deep concern" over Libya, fearing that its crisis, "poses a serious threat to the peace and security in the country and in the region as a whole.” These same fears forced Mubarak and Gaddafi to cede South Sudan after meeting with President Omar al-Bashir in Cairo, and the AU must similarly override political interests in Libya.
Côte d'Ivoire’s crisis differs in that Laurent Gbagbo holds less influence than Gaddafi, but his removal would be just as costly. Too costly to justify any real attention on Côte d'Ivoire. While the AU finally declared Alassane Ouattara the outright winner of November’s presidential election, this move is unlikely to jumpstart a military operation to remove the entrenched Gbagbo. He’s already rejected the AU’s proposal - for power sharing - and so has Ouattara.
"It's a government that I will form which will include members of other parties that I will select,” he said in Addis Ababa. “It's different to say it's a national unity government as if ministers would be imposed on me, that's not the case."
Côte d'Ivoire’s stalemate, which at one point the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) indicated a will to resolve, now stands a good chance of protracting indefinitely. The argument of just war as “the last resort” came into conflict with the practical urgency of Côte d'Ivoire’s crisis. While sanctions take a limited toll, waiting has allowed Gbagbo to amass his forces, set his defenses, and gain confidence in his invincibility. Yesterday Gbagbo ordered his government to seize Côte d'Ivoire’s cocoa industry, a move condemned by the French government.
He also blocked overnight flights from the UN and France, which Gbagbo spokesman Ahoua Don Melo labeled, "a company for the rebels,” in order to, “stop the transportation of the rebel forces around the country.” By rebels he means Ouattara and his supporters.
The real rebels, Ouattara’s allied New Forces, claim to be unsurprised by any of Gbagbo’s actions. Having seized patches of territory in the north, Ouattara’s political base, spokesman Sekonga Felicien vowed, "The New Forces always knew Gbagbo would never agree to quit power... by the diplomatic route. That is why the New Forces see no other option but force to make him leave.”
"Overall, the situation appears to be deteriorating alarmingly,” warns Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “with a sharp increase in inter-communal and inter-ethnic confrontations.”
It’s admittedly difficult to expect the AU to keep up with widespread regional upheaval, especially when no other bloc has. Under-resourced and politically fragmented, the AU appears to have prioritized damage control. Sadly this reaction inhibits the democratic forces at work during a pivotal moment in the continent’s history. Maybe ECOWAS will handle its part of the yard in the end, but the AU must realize that inaction in Libya could lead to the Western intervention that it publicly opposes.
2011 offers the AU an opportunity to foster regional stability, if only it can grow from Africa’s current transformation.