The African Union Becomes a Dictator’s Best Friend
Annual summit decides to live with, not solve, the continent's conflicts
“African Solutions to African Problems” has been a rallying cry for both African governments and citizens — for good reason. Western nations and international powers, disillusioned by the lack of progress managing conflict on the continent, make ill-informed decisions which affect millions of people.
But a more perverse meaning of this vision has begun to take shape — courtesy of the African Union and the current crop of geriatric would-be presidents-for-life running the show. The new cry is for keeping these leaders, many of them corrupt and authoritarian, in power for as long as possible.
Take the recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa. A.U. summits are never the most revolutionary events in international politics, and nobody expected any major deviations from the norm during this year’s meeting.
But there were still a few agenda items with far-reaching implications. The assembly elected a new chairman after Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s year-long tenure came to an end. The continent also faces its share of conflicts. Tensions are running high in Burundi, which continues to be on the brink of a civil war. Boko Haram is far from defeated in the Lake Chad Basin and the A.U. runs a peacekeeping mission in Somalia that has experienced extraordinary casualties while fighting the Islamist rebel group Al Shabab.
Add to that the desperate need of many countries to turn around their resource-dependent economies after the complete bust of commodity prices on world markets — and a continent-wide electricity crisis — and you would think that Africa’s leaders would be ready to make some bold moves.
In reality, the focus seemed to have been on creating mutual assurances that each and every one of those heads of state will be able to attend future, equally non-consequential, African Union summits indefinitely.
Above — Chadian president Nkurunziza, center-right, and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe at the African Union summit. At top — a Burundian peacekeeper aims a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Somalia. African Union photos
Right of the bat, the African Union chose Chadian president Idriss Déby to succeed Mugabe for the job of chairman, a largely ceremonial role.
Déby represents another generation of leadership only in the sense that he is about 30 years younger than the 91-year-old Mugabe. Just like Mugabe, Déby is one of Africa’s longest reigning autocrats. A brilliant military strategist famed for defeating the Libyan army in the 1980s, Déby overthrew the Chadian government in 1990.
To be fair, Déby has also thrown Chad’s military might behind efforts to defeat Islamist rebels in Mali and Nigeria. But Africa has certainly produced a number of leaders in recent years who would have communicated a commitment to democracy and rule of law much better than Déby ever could.
Of course, these are not necessarily the current priorities of the African Union, anyway. In a decision sending a strong signal to those planning and perpetrating atrocities, the African Union backed a Kenyan proposal to develop plans for a coordinated withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute, the ICC’s underlying international treaty.
Déby criticized the ICC, which is tasked with helping to “end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community,” as focusing only on African leaders.
“Elsewhere in the world, many things happen, many flagrant violations of human rights, but nobody cares,” he said, with backing from Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is the driving force behind the diplomatic push to ban the ICC from the continent.
This argument, which essentially boils down to “if nobody cares about atrocities in the rest of the world, we demand that you don’t care in Africa, either,” is hardly convincing. It serves to shield perpetrators of crimes, not their victims.
It is of course no accident that Kenyatta and his vice president William Ruto were both indicted by the ICC for their role in Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence.
Tirades against “neo-colonialism” by the ICC could be taken more seriously if the African Union was busy building its own strong accountability mechanisms for crimes against humanity. But except for Senegal’s current trial of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, a purely national initiative on part of the Senegalese government, there are no indications that Africa’s weak regional or continental criminal justice institutions will receive substantial support.
Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza speaks to reporters with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. MONUSCO photo
The African Union could have balanced its undermining of international institutions by acting to prevent atrocities from happening in the first place. A prime candidate would have been Burundi, which has been driven into chaos by president Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for an unconstitutional third term.
The move plunged Burundi into violence. Hundreds of people have died at the hands of the security forces, with the alcoholic Nkurunziza becoming increasingly capricious and influenced by a belief in his divine right to rule.
In reaction to new allegations of Nkurunziza loyalists committing massacres — and reports of mass graves — the African Union before the summit threatened to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers. The African Union’s constitutive act allows it “the right … to intervene in a Member State” even against the will of the state’s government.
Nkurunziza didn’t hesitate to call the bluff, threatening to treat any peacekeeper as an enemy to be “attacked.”
Instead of doubling down on its demand, the African Union recoiled and scrapped any plans for the forceful deployment of peacekeepers, instead agreeing on sending a high-level delegation to Bujumbura to plead with Nkurunziza to accept peacekeepers voluntarily. The Burundian government didn’t even wait for the delegation to arrive, declaring that the matter was finished.
To add insult to injury, Burundi was then re-elected into the African Union Peace and Security Council, the very institution which would have to decide on any deployment of peacekeepers.
Next, the head of the African Union Mission in Somalia, which includes a sizable contingent of Burundian soldiers, took the opportunity at the summit to lament a recent decision of the European Union to cut payments to African soldiers deployed in Somalia by 20 percent.
Burundian soldiers on duty in Somalia receive $1,028 per month in payments, of which the Burundian government deducts $200 per soldier in “administrative fees.” Apart from the direct financing, these are better salaries than what Burundian soldiers normally receive, and continued participation in AMSIOM has helped Nkurunziza to keep the army neutral in the current crisis.
Based on these and other decisions, there is little cause for optimism that the African Union will be able to achieve what it has asked for for years — take care of African problems without meddling and interference from outside. At the moment at least, Africa’s highest political institution has decided to live with, not resolve, African problems.