Picture: Phill Magakoe / AFP – Redwan Hussein, Representative of the Ethiopian government, and Getachew Reda, Representative of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) shake sign peace agreements between the two parties during a press conference regarding the African Union-led negotiations to resolve conflict in Ethiopia at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) offices in Pretoria on November 2, 2022.
By Dr Sizo Nkala
The AU-backed peace agreement signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was meant to end the deadly fighting that has been going on in Ethiopia’s northern region for the past years, is a genuine cause for celebration.
The peace agreement will bring relief to millions of vulnerable people in the East African country who had been upended by the conflict.
More importantly, the successful conclusion of the peace deal restores hope and trust in the utility of the continental body in ensuring a peaceful and stable continent and putting out fires wherever they are burning.
The eruption of the Ethiopian conflict, in a year that had been designated by the AU seven years earlier as the deadline for silencing the guns, left the continental body with an egg on its face. Indeed, one of the principal objectives of the AU, as stated in its founding document, the Constitutive Act, is the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent.
As a demonstration of its commitment to peace, the formation of the AU in 2002 was followed by the establishment of the AU Peace and Security Council. The PSC was tasked with co-rdinating the African response to conflict situations and intervening in cases of unconstitutional change of government or gross violation of human rights. However, the body’s performance in the area of peace and security in Africa in its 20-year history has left a lot to be desired. Africa has been disproportionately affected by armed conflicts.
In the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, there were 630 armed conflicts across the continent, involving both state and non-state actors. Regions such as the Sahel, Lake Chad basin, Horn of Africa and Great Lakes have been home perennial conflicts which the AU has been inadequately equipped to stop. Violent insurgencies perpetrated by extremists in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Nigeria and the Western Sahara have been raging on for years, unabated.
Despite the Constitutive Act granting the AU the power to intervene in conflict situations that put human rights in danger, the institution has failed to intervene in countries like Cameroon and Libya were violent conflict has become the order of the day. Some conflict areas, Libya being a case in point, have been further complicated by the presence of foreign military forces which has rendered the AU’s intervention and conflict resolution efforts ineffective. Ensuring peace and security on the continent has, at times, seemed like an insurmountable task for the AU and its organs.
While the signing of the Ethiopian peace deal under the mediation of the AU may be a source of renewed confidence in the ability of the continental in building peace and preventing conflict, more work needs to be done to make the institution more effective in this regard.
First, the AU’s PSC should be more proactive and not reactive when it comes to peace and security. In most cases, the AU begins to take action after the guns have been fired instead of intervening earlier to prevent the guns being fired in the first place. To do this, an effective early warning system must be developed to ensure swift and timely intervention that will stem the eruption of violent conflict.
Second, the AU is chronically under-resourced in terms of funding, equipment, and human resources. Intervention in conflict areas is a resource-intensive affair and cannot be effectively executed on a shoe-string budget. The AU itself cannot independently fund half its own budget and has to rely on external players such as the EU, the UN, China and the US, among others. The AU member-states routinely skip their membership fees. At one point, almost a third of the AU members incurred penalties which included the suspension of some rights due to non-payment. Without an adequate resource base, the AU’s conflict prevention efforts will be severely handicapped.
Third, the structure of the AU also militates against effective peace and security intervention. The body is essentially a loose association of independent and sovereign states, with no supranational or legally binding powers over the member-states. It has little scope to act independently. Its intervention in conflict areas is based on the invitation of the state where the conflict is taking place. At times, states can be reluctant to invite external forces for political reasons which becomes detrimental to the AU’s ability to act swiftly.
Finally, the AU must also pay serious attention to issues of governance which, in most cases, are at the root of conflict. The continental body tends to treat issues of misgovernance with soft gloves, casting a blind eye on human rights abuses, unconstitutional change of governments and breakdown of the rule of law in its member-states which later precipitate armed conflict.
Hence, while the Ethiopian peace deal is a shot in the arm for the AU’s conflict prevention and peace-building record, serious reforms are needed to build on this recent success.
Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.