The African Union turns ten: time for a reality check*

An image of the 17th African Union Summit held last year in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (Photo: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea)

The 19th African Union Summit starts today, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the pan-continental body. Despite this symbolism, African leaders will most likely close the summit next Monday with an anti-climatic message that will be met with a collective yawn across Africa. They may even fail – for the second time – to elect a new head the African Union Commission. An underwhelming performance that contrasts with events across the continent: South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, also turns one today amidst important development and security challenges. Egypt and Senegal have overcome domestic turmoil and peacefully elected new Presidents, and Libya just held its first elections in over 60 years. Less positive developments are also visible in Nigeria, increasingly threatened by terrorism; eastern DRC, where conflict has flared up; and Mali, where a coup d’état back in Marchled to the country’s partition.

The AU certainly lacks capabilities but also, more worryingly, appears out of sync with most Africans’ preoccupations. Its focus on continental economic growth is welcome, but it needs an accompanying political narrative. The “United States of Africa” discourse that gave birth to the AU in 2002 belonged to a generation of leaders such as Thabo Mbeki and Olesegun Obasanjo that have now exited the scene. Continental unity has been reduced to a motto of “African solutions to African problems”, which struggles to translate into real actions. The EU supported this new impetus through the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy (JAES) but progress remains limited. Even where greater progress has been recorded, in the peace and security domain, challenges persist with an AU dependent on sub-regional and extra-regional actors. Mali is a case in point: ECOWAS is leading the political dialogue and putting forward a 3,000 strong military contingent. And the recent UN resolution on Mali was drafted by France – a country which supported intervention in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire against the AU’s criteria.

These and other challenges have put the AU on a defensive position that converts the demand for “African solutions” into a flat rejection of external interference. This makes the AU defend regimes that not only are undemocratic, but also face domestic opposition. Sudan is a good example: whilst protesters are taking the streets against al-Bashir’s government, the AU provided him with an inestimable backing in choosing to move the location of the AU summit from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa after the Malawian President refused to host the ICC-indicted Sudanese president. This reflects the inability (or unwillingness) of the AU to recognise the magnitude of the changes taking place across the continent.

External partners also need to clarify their approach vis-à-vis the continent. The EU supports continental integration through the JAES, but carries out substantial negotiations with Africa (e.g. Economic Partnership Agreements ) on a sub-regional basis. And its vocal support for democracy and human rights is often contradicted by moves to strengthen EU ties with African regimes of questionable democratic legitimacy. Global reordering and domestic transformations will make Africa a very different continent ten years from now. The AU, the African leaders that form part of it, and its external partners should all recognise this and act accordingly or risk sinking the institution into irrelevance.

* This post was originally written for The FRIDE blog

The EU asserts itself in Somalia*

Lynx helicopter photographed from the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen (Photo: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep / Flickr)As EU leaders prepare to travel to Chicago to attend the NATO summit this weekend, it has been pointed out that they won’t have much to brag about regarding the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Nonetheless, Tuesday’s news coming all the way from the Somali coast may give them something to show.

According to the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) website:

EU forces conducted an operation to destroy pirate equipment on the Somali coastline…in accordance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1851 and has the full support of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The focused, precise and proportionate action was conducted from the air and all forces returned safely to EU warships on completion…At no point did EU Naval Force ‘boots’ go ashore. Rear Admiral Potts went on to say “The EU Naval Force action against pirate supplies on the shoreline is merely an extension of the disruption actions carried out against pirate ships at sea…

Here you can read the NYT’s more vivid account of the operation (with helicopters involved). And here is the statement by the HR/VP Catherine Ashton’s spokesperson.

This is the first operation on the Somali coastline carried out by EUNAVFOR , and it was made possible thanks to Seguir leyendo

North Africa and the Sahel should be the EU’s #1 priority

This post originally appeared on The FRIDE Blog‘s IDEA of the Week section:

The European Foreign Affairs Council approved a «European Union Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel» almost a year ago, recognising the importance of the region for the EU. During recent months however, violence in Syria and the build-up of tension between Iran and Israel have moved the EU’s attention to this corner of the Middle East. The region’s geo-strategic importance justifies the EU’s attention, but not at the price of neglecting the North African “chapter” of the Arab spring. In fact, events such as last week’s controversial declaration of semi-autonomy for the Eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica reminds us that this should be considered as the EU’s external action top priority. Seguir leyendo

There’s a new war raging in the Horn of Africa, does the EU know about this?

Catherine Ashton addresses the media after an EU foreign ministers meeting yesterday (Yves Logghe / AP)

We, Europeans, often feel frustrated at the way the EU – the most important and cohesive regional body in the world – is unable to punch its weight on international affairs. And all the more so at present, given our internal economic and political woes. However, when reading things like Catherine Ashton’s remarks following yesterday’s Foreign Affairs Council, the surprising thing is that the EU is able to do anything at all. The Foreign Affairs Council discussed: Syria, Libya, Tunisia, the Common Security and Defense Policy, and the Horn of Africa. Here’s the extract on what Baroness Ashton had to say on the topic of the Horn: Seguir leyendo

«It’s not only about Libya» – article for EurActiv

Below I re-post an article about current protests and instability across Africa, and what ought to be the EU response. The original article can be found here

It’s not only about Libya

As oil-rich Libya moves dangerously towards full civil war and all eyes continue to focus on the north of Africa, the question of how events on the shores of the Mediterranean relate to other political processes and crises across Africa should not be completely overlooked.

In fact, throughout last month, protests took place in numerous African countries up the Nile, from Gabon to Cameroon and Djibouti. In Senegal a man set himself on fire in an attempt to emulate Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia.

In Sudan, new protests have been called for this month after the first demonstrations were violently dispersed by security forces. In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, regimes have acted pre-emptively to avoid confrontation, including the arrest of 46 people in Harare for watching videos on events in Egypt and Tunisia.

In Uganda, demonstrations have been banned following the 18 February presidential elections, with President Yoweri Museveni declaring there would be ‘no Egyptian-like movement’ in the country after opposition candidates announced plans for nationwide protests after alleging that the elections were rigged.

But it is unlikely that massive revolts will really spread south and that an unstoppable ‘freedom virus’ triggering democratic transitions will affect the rest of Africa.

First, as violence takes hold of Libya, potential protesters seeking bloodless overthrows are starting to think twice. Second, many countries further south are less urbanised, have higher illiteracy levels and less access to the Internet and media.

Most significantly, however, in sub-Saharan Africa most countries have ‘hybrid’ regimes, where powerful patronage is commonplace and opposition or civil society is weak. Many countries abandoned single-party authoritarianism in the early 1990s and now do have a formal multi-party system, and so in a way justifying demands for democratic reform is not so straightforward.

But this does not mean that there will be less instability throughout the continent. Given Muammar Gadaffi’s numerous connections with many African states, his fall in Libya could further destabilise many poor African countries and the African Union itself.

In planning for this scenario, it is critical for the European Union and the rest of the international community to keep engaged in Africa. However, the disappointing outcome of the last Africa-EU Summit held in Tripoli at the end of 2010 suggests that the EU’s channel for its relations with the continent – the EU-Africa Joint Strategy – is still ‘stuck’ in the paper phase (except for some peace and security elements).

Libya contributes a significant portion of the African Union’s operational budgets and also helps many states to pay their own membership fees.

If the country’s contribution were to diminish greatly, the EU should be ready to provide the funds necessary to maintain AU peacekeeping in countries such as Somalia, where progress against the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab has been reported, and Sudan, where violence is rapidly increasing in North-South border regions.

But most importantly, the EU should not neglect the situation in Côte d’Ivoire, where failure to resolve the post-election stalemate is pushing the country towards civil war.

Already 40,000 refugees have crossed into Liberia as the economic and security situation worsens. Also, recent clashes between the pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara armies in the west of the country, as well as reports of a possible violation of the arms embargo, call for greater international engagement to prevent an escalation of violence.

In Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe, long-standing political stalemates are entering a critical few months too, and 2011 could also see instability in countries like Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, all of which have forthcoming electoral processes.

The EU should move beyond continent-wide schemes when dealing with crises. Given the complex nature of most conflicts and the need for rapid reactions, it would be wise to complement existing agreements with somewhat ad-hoc arrangements on a case-by-case basis.

The European Union needs to learn to respond in an agile and firm manner. While the long-term objective should be to deepen economic cooperation, politics is unlikely to go away any time soon in EU-Africa relations.

In this respect, the common thread running through all European policies from Brussels and member states should be a firmer stance on human rights: from the most blatant cases (Equatorial Guinea) to those with a strategic importance (Morocco).

This commitment should be accompanied by a varied political tool-box that favours fast and effective action. It is important to establish dialogue with regional bodies and key states (South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya or Angola) and to balance sanctions and engagement with complicated partners.

In the long term, it is crucial to support civil society across the continent, defending media freedom and helping civic organisations, and backing also new forms of citizen mobilisation, advocacy and monitoring, which are becoming more and more prominent throughout Africa.