The African Union starts a heads-of-state summit in Addis Ababa on Thursday seeking to bolster the body’s capacity to solve conflicts such as the crises in Darfur and Somalia.
Since its inception in 2002, the pan-African body has lacked the funds and political drive to take effective action on the continent’s flashpoints.
It intervened in 2004 in the strife-torn western Sudanese region of Darfur, but has relinquished leadership to the United Nations to form a joint peacekeeping force.
The AU also dispatched a force to Somalia and has missions in Burundi and the Comoros.
”We want to give a meaning to Africa solidarity. This is why every time there was a crisis in Africa, we took the lead,” AU spokesperson Assane Ba said.
”The AU cannot allow crises and wars to spiral out of control without intervening because behind all these deaths tolls, figures on displaced and refugees, you have people, Africans, who are suffering and are simply trying to survive,” he said.
The AU mission in Sudan (Amis) deployed in August 2004 was the first time the continental body had succeeded in imposing a military deployment on the soil of one of its member states.
But the force has suffered from a lack of funds and equipment. Its 7 000-plus troops have been paid intermittently and been unable to have a serious impact on the ground.
Darfur is a territory roughly the size of France and fighting between government forces backed by militia and myriad rebel factions has continued unabated.
The new joint force approved by the UN will consist of 26 000 personnel, but fewer than 10 000 are currently on the ground.
AU peace and security commissioner Said Djinnit said he was trying to obtain guarantees for ”a closer coordination with the UN through chapter 8”. The UN charter’s chapter 8 says the world body can lean on regional organisations to solve conflicts and still provide funding to the operation.
”This idea is not popular with the UN Security Council’s permanent members, who argue that they should lead the peace operations they finance,” said one Addis-based African diplomat.
In Somalia, the AU finds itself in an equally uncomfortable position, having pledged 8 000 peacekeeping troops in 2006 to stabilise the restive Horn of Africa country.
So far, fewer than 2 000 have arrived, with Burundi only recently dispatching troops to support the 1 600-strong Ugandan contingent that deployed in early 2007.
The force is generally considered to have performed well in a number of specific duties, although it has been unable to quell the fighting pitting Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces against Islamist insurgents.
The AU has requested that the UN take over, but UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is expected in Addis Ababa, has consistently ruled out the option.
For Timur Goksel, a former spokesperson for the UN mission in south Lebanon and a lecturer in international relations and peacekeeping issues at the American University in Beirut, the immediate future of African peacekeeping is bleak.
”There are very few armies in Africa who can take on the big jobs … These contingents know the continent, but they lack experience, the chain of command is not effective and there are often conflicts of interests,” he said.
”I think they can be useful in small conflicts, such as the Comoros, for example, but I don’t think they can be effective in the major conflicts,” he said.
Three hundred Tanzanian troops are stationed in the Comoros as part of the AU’s mission in the Indian Ocean archipelago, where the rebel island of Anjouan is defying the federation’s central authority. — Sapa-AFP