Since the African Union (AU) replaced the Organisation of African Union (OAU) in 2000, its primary focus has been of fostering development, peace, democracy and good governance on the African continent. The AU acknowledges that there are major stumbling blocks to achieving these goals, including the scourge of conflicts on the continent. In line with aspiration 4 of the AU’s ‘Agenda 2063: the Africa We Want’ Framework (Agenda 2063), ‘A peaceful and secure Africa’ and goal 14 ‘a stable and peaceful Africa’, the AU’s target was to ‘silence all guns by 2020’. The sounds of gunfire, however, grew louder with numerous conflicts on the African continent including the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia and the Cabo Delgado conflict in northern Mozambique; and at the end of 2020, the timeline for this target was extended to 2030. The recurrence of conflicts in Africa has reignited debate on the role that the AU and its Regional Economic Communities (RECs) respectively play in addressing this problem. In responding to conflict on the continent, the AU is guided by the principle of subsidiarity in terms of which the REC concerned takes a leading role in trying to resolve the conflict.
The Tigray conflict
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has not taken a leading role in trying to resolve the Tigray conflict, but Kenya and Uganda have made efforts to negotiate a ceasefire between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Horn of Africa region, which has been described as a hotspot for conflict, was already volatile prior to the Tigray conflict, with IGAD failing to resolve the border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia, and the maritime border dispute between Somalia and Kenya. Some analysts have argued that IGAD has lost its relevance and that it has been ‘locked out’ of the Tigray conflict. Against this background, the AU has been at the forefront, trying to resolve the conflict in Tigray.
In response to the onset of the conflict on the 4th of November 2020, the then AU Chairperson, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed three special envoys to Ethiopia. The envoys are former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano and former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe. In June 2021 a commission led by former International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was appointed by the AU to investigate reports of human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by all parties to the conflict. In August 2021 the AU Commission Chairperson appointed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa. Obasanjo told the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that the differences between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) are political and required a political solution including an unconditional ceasefire.
Following the “indefinite humanitarian truce” declared by the Addis government in March 2022, and the rebels’ subsequent agreement on a cessation of hostility, rumors of secret talks between the two sides spread. By mid-June 2022, the government dismissed such rumors but at the same time opened at the possibility of peace negotiations. Since the African Union itself is on record as saying that solutions which foster peace should be pursued first, a military intervention based on the principle of non-indifference envisaged by article 4 (h) of the AU Constitutive Act, which allows the AU to intervene in a member state where there is evidence of human rights violations, has become even more unlikely.
Cabo Delgado: SADC on the ground
The conflict in the Cabo Delgado region in northern Mozambique started in 2017, and it was triggered by the local peoples’ perceived marginalization and poor governance following the discovery of natural gas in the region in 2010. The conflict escalated in August 2020 when the Al-Shabaab insurgents took control of Mocamboia de Praia town from government forces. In March 2021 the insurgents attacked the town of Palma, leading to the company Total declaring force majeure on its liquified natural gas (LNG) project in the region. It has been reported that all parties to the conflict i.e. government forces, insurgents and the Dyck Advisory Group, a private South African military company hired by the Mozambican government, have perpetrated human rights violations.
In line with the principle of subsidiarity, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been at the forefront of efforts to find a solution to the conflict and on the 23rd of June 2021, the REC approved the deployment of the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) in Cabo Delgado. Although not a SADC member state, Rwanda deployed 1000 soldiers to Cabo Delgado before SADC’s own troops were deployed. Tanzania has also been particularly instrumental in efforts to quash the insurgency, mainly because it is directly affected due to some of its nationals having crossed to Mozambique to join the conflict. As the deployment of SAMIM was authorized by a SADC summit, the authorisation was based on the provisions of the SADC Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security. Because Mozambique consented to SAMIM’s deployment and subsequently entered into a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) with SADC in July 2021, there was no need for SADC to obtain the authorisation of the United Nations (UN) Security Council before the deployment in accordance with article 52 of the UN Charter. In October 2021 and January 2022 SADC approved the extension of the mandate of SAMIM , and on the 12th of April 2021 a SADC summit approved the downgrading of the force from an enforcement operation to a peacekeeping operation. It is hoped that SADC’s continued efforts to end the insurgency in Mozambique will yield positive results.
Anticipating would be better than reacting
The AU and SADC ought to be commended for their intervention in the Tigray conflict and the Cabo Delgado conflict respectively. The role played by the AU and SADC highlights the commitment by both the continental body and RECs to find ‘African solutions for African problems.’ For the goal of silencing the guns on the African continent to be a feasible one, however, it is important for the AU to look at ways to address the root causes of conflict, rather than concentrate on reacting to conflicts. As long as the factors which trigger conflicts including governance deficit and unequal distribution of resources persist, the African continent will continue to be afflicted by conflict.
This contribution was written whilst I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the South African Research Chair in International Law, University of Johannesburg. I am grateful to Professor Hennie Strydom for his mentorship. Any errors are mine.