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Africa's priorities

February 2, 2011

The African continent is being rocked by protests, political upheaval and long-standing conflicts. DW spoke to Africa expert Dominic Johnson on whether the African Union can play a role in resolving these difficulties.

flags of african union states flying
The African Union consists of 53 states with very diverse interestsImage: picture-alliance/landov

Dominic Johnson is the Africa editor for the Berlin-based left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung and has spent considerable time in Africa. His latest book "Afrika vor dem großen Sprung" ("Africa ready for the great leap") will be published this month.

DW: The African Union (AU) summit ended in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa earlier this week with the appointment of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema as the new AU chairman. Critics have condemned the choice, saying Obiang's authoritarian rule and questionable human rights record are at odds with the AU's democratic aspirations. Was Obiang a wise choice for this position?

Dominic Johnson: He was probably the worst choice that could have been made if the African Union wants to send a signal out that it's adapting to modern times and to more democracy and rule of law. He was chosen simply because he offered to host the next summit. It's AU convention that the presidency goes to the person who prepares the next summit in his own country. And he has a lot of money, so he said, why don't we have it at our place - and Central Africa was due anyway.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema
Obiang seized power in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in a 1979 coupImage: picture-alliance/ dpa / dpaweb

But politically, it sends completely the wrong signal that the African Union doesn't distinguish between good and bad leaders. And that everyone who's part of the African Union is to be placed on the same level regarding official positions and ability to speak for Africa, which is clearly not the case.

At the summit, AU leaders set up a panel to work out a strategy for settling Ivory Coast's leadership crisis. But there's already been criticism from Ivory Coast that Burkina Faso's president Blaise Compaore, who is on the panel, is not welcome there.

I wouldn't say he's as controversial as Obiang at all. He has brought a certain amount of stability and wealth, and a multi-party system to Burkina Faso. He's done the country a lot of good and he's well-accepted as a mediator in West African conflicts, including Ivory Coast. Blaise Compaore is one of the facilitators of the Ivoirian peace process which led to the elections last year, the results of which are now in dispute.

But the fact that they were held is something that all Ivoirians welcome and that was only possible because of the peace process mediated in Ouagadougou some years back. And all parties accepted what Compaore did at that time. So now, in his capacity as a facilitator who needs to take an interest in the success of his own venture, of course, he has a place on that panel.

Is there hope for success by this panel?

That's a more difficult question. For one thing, the most questionable fact about its composition is that it's headed by the president of Mauritania, who much more than the president of Burkina Faso is of questionable democratic legitimacy, who came to power in a coup not many years ago.

But also the panel of five presidents includes people who are pro-Gbagbo and people who are pro-Ouattara in Ivory Coast. So it encompasses all the divergence of opinion on the level of African heads of state regarding the Ivory Coast. But that makes it difficult for that panel to reach any kind of consensus and any kind of line to take, which is why both parties after having initially welcomed the panel are now fairly skeptical as to what it can actually achieve.

What sort of message would it send if they don't reach any sort of agreement and nothing really happens?

That's precisely the point. It would send the message that Africa doesn't know what to do about Ivory Coast. Don't forget that the AU already appointed a mediator, the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who went to Abidjan and talked to the parties several times. I think the second time around, he broke off his mission and went home, saying 'there's nothing I can do here.' So in response to that, the AU now sets up this panel which has an inbuilt lack of clout because the contradictions of the AU are within the panel. So they can only come up with the lowest common denominator and that's not likely to be taken seriously by either of the parties.

Ivory Coast is one major crisis. Another one that was talked about at the summit was Somalia, although it seems the AU stuck to a watered-down statement saying that Somalia's interim government had made little headway in restoring stability. So can a body like the AU even have an impact on pressing issues, such as the chronic instability in Somalia?

AU troops in armored car in mogadishu
African Union peacekeepers patrol the streets of MogadishuImage: AP

Well, it has a peace force in Somalia, which is active in Mogadishu. But I think the Somalia issue shows the limits of the African Union. It cannot act on its own because it doesn't have the financial and military means to do so. The peacekeeping force in Mogadishu is financed by the international community, the logistics are operated by the US military and its mandate is from the UN Security Council.

So it's not really an independent African force, which projects any kind of power of the African Union. That's the problem with most of the things the African Union does. It can take a political position on an issue, but it doesn't have the capacity to push toward the implementation of that decision if the country or person concerned doesn't agree anyway. Other than Somalia, we're seeing it in Ivory Coast and we may very well see it in other countries in the future.

So what does that mean for the future of the African Union?

The summit now was dominated, of course, by what's happening in North Africa, in Tunisia and Egypt and the fear that there might be some contagion of popular revolt spreading south. Many of the leaders there know that their legitimacy is questionable and they can see that some governments, which are much more powerful and much more wealthy than their own, are finding it very difficult to resist popular pressure. Ben Ali in Tunisia had to go. He was seen as a model of stability in Africa. Mubarak may be going the same way. But of course many African presidents feel, well, if those two can be toppled, what about us?

So there seems to be a general feeling of let's close ranks, let's not squabble too much amongst ourselves, let's not do anything which undermines anyone's legitimacy. Things like democracy and the rule of law will fall by the wayside if the AU reverts to being a club of presidents, which, when it was founded over eight years ago, it explicitly didn't want to be that. So it is likely to become more irrelevant and become more of a self-serving body of African heads of state.

Interview: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge