African Union at 50: Has It Been Good for Peace?

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 22 May 2013

This week, Africa marks 50 years of collective action: first through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and more recently the African Union (AU). This is also a critical juncture in African history: the post-colonial period is over and the "African Renaissance" is underway; economic growth has been steady for a decade; and the number of wars and coups has declined. At the same time, Africans still face many challenges. This is therefore an opportune time to examine how the AU can enhance its contribution to sustainable peace.

At its onset in 1963, the OAU was a vehicle for pan-African solidarity at a time of liberation struggle. Its successor, the AU, is part of the international peacebuilding system. It has made a significant contribution to peace in Africa, leading or co-leading peacekeeping missions or similar interventions in Sudan, the Comoros, Somalia, Madagascar, Mauritania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. It has brokered and mediated talks and agreements between Sudan and South Sudan, in Guinea, Kenya and Ivory Coast. It has responded quickly to coups and maintains an early warning watch across the continent. AU Mission in Somalia, 2011. Photo by UN Photo/Stuart Price

However, as these examples show, the focus has been mainly on addressing large-scale violence - what is sometimes known as "negative" peace. By contrast, "positive" peace requires a more sustained, long-term approach. This is not characterised by the absence of war alone, but requires individuals and societies to deal with their differences - which are part and parcel of human coexistence - without violence. The AU's vision reinforces this idea.

In practice, the AU can do much more to promote the conditions for the kind of long-term, sustainable peace it outlines in its founding documents. This includes addressing some of the key issues facing Africans, such as disaffected youth, international terrorism, organised crime, and the risks accompanying transitional political systems, natural resource extraction and climate change. At the same time, it can provide leadership to protect Africa from ill-adapted external "solutions" and exploitation, which undermine peace.

Broadly speaking, the AU faces three interrelated challenges. The first is getting the balance right between crisis response and peacebuilding - a challenge which reflects the need and understandable desire among member states to prevent fighting and bring it to a speedy end. But after the fighting has ceased, the AU could help member states put in place the norms, institutions and other conditions to ensure the peace lasts.

Second, the AU should consider narrowing down its focus. The AU is resource-constrained, covers the second largest continent in the world, and sits within a complicated international architecture, so it is most effective when focused on the right issues and the right niche. Arguably its comparative advantage is less in implementing expensive and complex missions, than in operating politically and in close collaboration with the UN and Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Within these relationships, the AU can mediate, provide political and analytical support to others, and promote common peacebuilding frameworks.

Finally, the AU should explore ways to link up with African civil society to make sure important voices and groups are heard. The AU is distant and little-known for many Africans, which can disempower ordinary people who have little idea of what their governments have agreed to on their behalf. To address this, the AU can improve collaboration with civil society, for example in promoting good governance. To do this with limited resources means using creative methods, like allying itself with NGOs and using social media to publicise its various charters, enabling citizens to push for the charters to be ratified and put into practice by their governments.

In our paper, Promoting peace: The African Union at 50, International Alert explores these challenges and opportunities further. While the AU has made important contributions, we suggest that it could do more - and perhaps also work differently - to promote the conditions for positive peace in Africa.

Find out more about our African Union programme here.

Photo: AU Mission in Somalia, 2011 © UN Photo/Stuart Price