1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is the AU failing in its role as a mediator?

May 25, 2023

Sixty years ago, the Organization of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union, was established. Observers criticize that the organization has become a paper tiger.

Plenary hall of AU in Addis Abeba
Image: Tony Karumba/AFP

It was an era of awakening 60 years ago: Many African countries had just gained their independence, while others were about to.

"When the Organization of African Unity was founded on May 25, 1963, it was a symbol of the liberation of African peoples and their hope for a happy future," Adriano Nuvunga, a human rights activist and chairman of the Mozambican non-governmental organization CDD (Center for Democracy and Development), told DW.

Much of that spirit of awakening can be felt in the speeches that were shared at that time: "We must now unite or perish," Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, announced.

Putting an end to foreign interference - this was the main message being shared; a unified Africa was supposed to help make that happen, with a strong voice on the international stage. The organization was designed to help safeguard peace and stability on the continent.

Leaders sitting in a semi-circle at the founding conference of the OAU
31 African heads of state and government attended the founding conference of the OAU in May 1963Image: picture-alliance/dpa

No peace, no security

Sixty years later, however, its successor organization, the African Union (AU), has repeatedly come under fire for failing to achieve that objective.

Nuvunga agrees, saying that "(t)oday, the African Union is an organization that primarily represents the interests of the powerful. It is toothless and ineffective, and it repeatedly proves itself incapable of ensuring prosperity, security, and peace for all Africans."

Many in Africa share this criticism: Various civil society groups have attacked the AU on a regular basis for failing to fulfill its chief objective of ensuring peace and security on the continent.

Nuvunga says there are countless examples for this, especially in the present, highlighting that the AU has not been resolute enough in addressing the crises in Sudan, Tigray, or the Sahel.

The AU also keeps postponing bringing any resolution to the crisis in Cabo Delgado, a region in the northern part of Mozambique, which faces a jihadist insurgency: "There are armed conflicts in about 20 countries in Africa. However, the African Union seems not to feel responsible. It appears overwhelmed."

Chancellor Olaf Scholz with AU Commission President Moussa Faki Mahamat
At the beginning of May this year, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with AU Commission President Moussa Faki Mahamat in Addis Ababa for talksImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

AU as a partner

In stark contrast to this kind of criticism, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expresses a different view: When he traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya for talks in early May this year, he suggested that the AU should have a seat at the G20 - the informal group consisting of 19 economic powers and the European Union, founded in 1999.

"There are several states that have signaled their support for such a seat in conversations with me, and I am very confident that my proposal can be realized as soon as possible," Scholz said after a meeting with AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.

The AU is a significant power on paper, especially when considering the number of people it represents in theory: since the African Union now includes all 55 internationally recognized states on the continent, it acts on behalf of approximately 1.4 billion Africans today.

Hager Ali
Hager Ali, researcher and North Africa expert at the Giga Institute in HamburgImage: Hager Ali/Privat

African countries fearful of interventionist policies

Ensuring prosperity, security, and peace in Africa appears to be a tall order, with conflicts, violence and wars holding the continent back. Against this backdrop, there is litle the AU can do: Its peacekeeping missions involving African troops have proven to be relatively ineffective, says Hager Ali, a North Africa expert from the GIGA Institute for African Studies in Hamburg.

"The problem of the AU's toothlessness arises from factors that fundamentally exist in other international organizations as well," she told DW. "From a legal perspective, international organizations like the African Union cannot simply bypass the sovereignty of other states in order to intervene or resolve conflicts."

Considering Africa's colonial past, most African nations frown open the idea of having any external force intervening in their business - even if this is the AU. Ali stresses that African nations are vary of interference precisely because colonial powers in the past systematically deprived their peoples of their autonomy.

All that remains is the role of mediator

This leaves the AU with little options but remaining passive and hesitant in responding to wars and conflicts, such as in Tigray, Mali, or Sudan.

In Ethiopia's troubled province of Tigray, the African Union made some efforts to play a role as a mediator. However, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) repeatedly rejected the African Union as a negotiator. Since the organization is based in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, it was automatically seen as biased.

Nevertheless, talks were held in November 2022 at the invitation of the African Union, ultimately resulting in a ceasefire.

"According to its statutes, the African Union can and should do no more than take on a mediating and supportive role in conflict resolution. This also applies to peacekeeping operations when the AU becomes militarily active," Ali told DW. 

This is why peacekeeping operations in which the African Union was involved in Sudan and Mali were not intended to resolve regional conflicts by going over the heads of states, but rather to protect civilians and secure the conditions for conflict resolution, the scholar adds.

Human rights activist Adriano Nuvunga
Human rights activist Adriano Nuvunga expresses his disappointed with the AUImage: Sitói Lutxeque/DW

Setting the stage, but not acting on it

Ali believes that assessing the role of the AU and its success rate is a difficult task: "In negotiations, it is not about the African Union itself, but rather about whether and how it provides the platform and framework for other actors and parties to engage in negotiations.

"Whether these negotiations are successful often depends on the actors themselves."

However, the organization can still fail, she stresses, for example by bringing the wrong actors to the table: "For example, in the case of Sudan, the African Union is now at risk of neglecting civil and non-state actors and only providing a platform for the actual perpetrators of violence, such as de facto President Al-Burhan and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo."

Yet it is precisely the non-state actors and civilians who suffer the most in such crises: By definition, the AU faces the risk of failing these people as well as its remit in all African conflicts involving non-state actors, including those in Mali or the Tigray region.

Ali further stresses that the AU's negotiation framework is designed in favor of state actors only - the very state actors who, 60 years ago at the estabishment of the organization, forbade any outside interference.

AU logo
Theheadquarters of the African Union (AU) are located in Addis Ababa, EthiopiaImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Edited by Sertan Sanderson