In 2001, the African Union (AU) was established to distance itself from its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which had been formed in 1963 to rid the continent of the “remaining vestiges of colonization and apartheid” and encourage solidarity among African nations. The OAU was corrupt and ineffective however, and the AU claimed a fresh start through a renewed a commitment to economic, political and social development that prioritized the needs of its member states and citizens over leaders. However, despite this expressed mandate, the AU has often been unable or, in some cases, unwilling to get involved in the issues that matter most. These include the precarious political situations in Libya, Zimbabwe, and Côte d’Ivoire. But, more recently, there have been noted shifts in the organization’s behavior, as it seeks an increased role in continental emergencies such as the Ebola crisis and the civil war in South Sudan.
December 2013 saw the start of the deadliest outbreak of Ebola the continent has ever experienced. In response to an increasingly grave situation, the AU began its intervention through the holding of the 1st African Missions of Health Meeting, held by the AU Commission (AUC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in Luanda, Angola in April 2014. In a follow-up to this meeting, The Peace and Security Council met in Addis Ababa on August 19, 2014 and adopted several protocols as a means of addressing the current crisis. Most importantly, at that meeting the AU authorized the immediate deployment of an AU-led Military-Civil Humanitarian Mission to the affected countries. This meeting also led to the formation of the AU Support to EBOLA Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA), comprising of representatives from multiple AU departments, UN agencies, and partners.
The first mission was deployed on December 3, 2014. This mission began with 196 Nigerian health workers who were soon joined by 187 Ethiopian health workers, 81 from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 170 from Kenya. In-country efforts vary but it remains apparent that the efforts on the part of this mission are not evenly spread amid funding challenges, especially regarding the delayed deployment of donor funds. Yet the mission was a concrete step and future plans include the establishment of an African Center for Disease Control, to support efforts at managing epidemics across the continent.
The Ebola crisis is not the only crucial intervention in which the AU is currently involved. Another pressing issue includes the continuing crisis in South Sudan, in which the AU’s role is not without controversy. The AU has not released the findings of the October 2014 Commission of Inquiry into the civil war there, due to concerns that these findings will disrupt the peace process in Addis Ababa. Calls for a full release have intensified following a supposed leak of the report, despite claims on the part of the AU that this document is a fake. However, any claims purported to have been made in this document have serious implications for any future action in Africa’s youngest nation. Along with criticizing the role that the United States, Britain and Norway played in supporting the 2005 peace deal, the draft recommended that the members of the South Sudanese government, prior to the cabinet’s dissolution on July 13, 2014 – including the president and vice-president – not be allowed to participate in the transitional government. Most significantly, it “called for an AU-appointed and UN-backed three-person panel to oversee a five-year transition and the creation of a transnational executive that would place all oil revenue in an escrow account overseen by the African Development Bank” along with the recommendation for the establishment “of an African Oversight Force… that would be under AU command and ‘the overall charge’ of a UN peacekeeping mission.”
Whether or not the AU has the capacity to fully undertake these missions, which would effectively see the organization govern Africa’s newest nation, these situations do set a precedent for its handling of crises on the continent. The Ebola crisis indicates its increasing mandate and willingness to get directly involved in the handling of domestic affairs when they pose significant threats to regional stability. South Sudan suggests that the regional body has the authority to take over governance in a nation that has shown no ability to do so itself. These two, very significant, developments reveal the AU’s attempts to reduce its reliance on foreign entities by separating itself from the “international agenda” and highlight its intentions to take on more of an authoritative role when it comes to regional interventions.
Of particular interest, though, is the nature of these current interventions, as all members can agree that Ebola and South Sudan are humanitarian crises with regional ramifications. However, the AU is often criticized for not acting in situations with significant political salience. So, while I applaud the AU’s efforts and its re-commitment to regional development, the true test of its willingness to engage and “redefine” its current image on the continent, will be its involvement in the more politically tense situations. Until then, these current interventions can only be viewed as deviations from the norm.