Late last week, a screen grab went viral in the corridors of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and in the WhatsApp chats of AU staff members on the continent.
It showed an extract from an article published in the Indian Ocean Newsletter, which covers politics and business in the region and is read widely in diplomatic circles. The headline read: “Crisis meeting to discuss Smaïl Chergui”, and the article detailed how the future of the AU’s peace and security commissioner would be up for debate at the 33rd AU Summit taking place this week.
Specifically, the article said African leaders are unhappy with Chergui’s handling of funds for the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), and are worried that this might affect relations with the European Union, the AU’s biggest funder.
Several sources in the AU sent the screen grab to the Mail & Guardian. “This is the talk of the town,” said one. “Maybe his time has come,” said another.
A career diplomat in Algeria, Chergui has headed up the AU’s peace and security department since 2013. With the possible exception of the chairperson, this is the most influential position in the AU Commission, making Chergui one of Africa’s most powerful diplomats.
His department is responsible for all African peacekeeping initiatives, including military interventions such as Amisom. As a result, much of the AU’s budget flows through him.
But Chergui has never been far from controversy. Any heads of state that might be agitating for his removal — and he has made many enemies — will have lots of ammunition at their disposal.
The most serious charge against him is in a report released in late 2018 about sexual harassment, fraud, nepotism and corruption in the AU Commission. The report was compiled by a three-person panel led by Bineta Diop, the AU’s special envoy on women, peace and security. Its findings were that sexual harassment is “pervasive” in the institution and corruption is “systemic, entrenched and widespread”.
The report named 40 people who are implicated in these offences. The Mail & Guardian was able to confirm last year that one of those individuals is Chergui, although the exact nature of the allegations against him are not known; and that 30% of the specific offences detailed in the report happened in the peace and security department, under his watch.
The full report has never been made public. At the time, Chergui told the M&G that he had not read the report, but that he believed the allegations against him relate only to contract and salary disputes.
Another factor that will count against Chergui this week is his nationality. His predecessor, Ramtane Lamamra, was also Algerian, which means the AU’s most important portfolio has been run by an Algerian for the past 12 years. Some countries believe it is time for a change. This sentiment has grown stronger ever since Morocco — Algeria’s arch-rival — rejoined the continental bloc.
Failure in Somalia
Perhaps the most significant argument against Chergui is that he has been ineffective in his position. Conflict and insecurity on the African continent has increased on his watch. The AU’s slogan for 2020 is “Silencing the Guns in Africa” but, as many commentators have noted, those guns are only getting louder. From the Sahel to Somalia, the numbers show that incidents of armed conflict are on the rise.
Somalia is a particular problem. Through Amisom, the AU has taken the lead in peacekeeping operations there since 2007 — and it is not going well. Al-Shabaab remains entrenched in its strongholds, with the capacity to launch deadly attacks in other parts of Somalia and in neighbouring Kenya.
Amisom itself has been plagued by reports of sexual abuses, corruption and mismanagement. Once again, these alleged offences have occurred on Chergui’s watch, and the peace and security commissioner has appeared to be unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
Behind the scenes, Western diplomats say that they are losing faith in Amisom’s ability to execute its mandate. Last year, the United Nations security council, which provides the bulk of the funding for Amisom, resolved to cut 1000 troops from the mission. This takes effect later this month, according to France24, and will leave the mission with a contingent of 19626 troops.
This leaves the AU’s flagship peacekeeping operation significantly weaker, and this can only weaken the position of the AU’s head of peace and security.
The M&G contacted Chergui for comment. He declined a telephone interview, but he did say in a text message that the report in the Indian Ocean Newsletter is “fake news”. He pointed out that he had recently been awarded the Rwenzori Star Medal, a Ugandan military order, by President Yoweri Museveni.
Chergui blamed France for the drawdown of troops in Amisom (even though it was the United Kingdom that proposed the motion at the security council). “The French are behind the drawdown … at a time [when] Somali forces are not yet ready to take over,” he said. “Unfortunately we are going to quit positions that we gained with heavy sacrifices, they might be taken immediately by terrorists.”
The French ambassador to South Africa, Aurélien Lechevallier, denied that France was responsible for the drawdown, and said France had always had a professional working relationship with Chergui, despite the odd tough conversation.
Even if Chergui does survive this AU summit — the AU is notoriously slow to take action against one of its own — his mandate expires next year, along with that of AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. This may be the perfect opportunity for African leaders to revitalise the peace and security department with strong, effective leadership.