The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established in 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. African leaders adopted a new charter in 2001 and the OAU became the African Union (AU).
The principal organs of the AU are the Assembly, the most important component that consists of the heads of state and government from each of the 54 member states. The Assembly meets twice a year. The Executive Council consists of ministerial-level representatives from each country and is responsible to the Assembly. The Commission is the secretariat that has a permanent staff and handles the day-to-day management of the AU. The Peace and Security Council is a 15-member elected body that manages strategic and operational decisions related to conflict. The Peace and Security Council began operations in 2004 as “a collective security and early-warning arrangement to facilitate timely and efficient response to conflict and crisis situations in Africa.”
The AU is different in two important respects from the former OAU. The AU charter underscores that it will not tolerate “unconstitutional changes of government.” The OAU did not engage on this issue until the late 1990s when it condemned coups in Burundi and Sierra Leone. The AU also claims the right of humanitarian intervention, which the OAU charter did not address. The AU Assembly has the right to intervene in a member state “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”
The Peace and Security Council has been preoccupied with trying to end armed conflicts after they break out and to reverse illegal changes of government. It has spent little time on conflict prevention or promoting good governance. The AU Peace and Security Department supports the Peace and Security Council. It is divided into 4 divisions: Conflict Management, Peace Support Operations, Peace and Security Council Secretariat and Defense and Security.
Part of the AU security architecture is the Continental Early-Warning System based in Addis Ababa. Although it is still a work in progress, it includes a situation room to collect and analyze data for monitoring political instability across the continent. The AU also created a Panel of the Wise in 2007 to advise the Peace and Security Council; it held its first formal meeting in 2009.
A critical component of the security architecture is the African Standby Force (ASF). The ASF hopes to establish five standby lists, each with about 5,000 troops, 720 police officers and 60 civilians. The ASF is intended to respond to six different crisis scenarios ranging from small-scale observation at one end of the spectrum to active military intervention at the other end. The goal was to be fully operational by mid-2010. The ASF is not a standing army; rather the force is pre-designated and is designed to be ready to move into a particular crisis. Each regional list of designated personnel is expected to be on standby for six months at a time.
The ASF has faced a number of problems. First, there are no clear rules on who has the authority to deploy the ASF, in what circumstances and who needs to give approval. Second, funding is a serious issue. Other AU military operations have been largely funded with money from outside Africa. African countries have not yet identified enough money to fund the ASF and it remains a concept on paper. The AU has a Peace Fund to pay for conflict management activities; it has not been a success. Implementation of the ASF will require a huge investment of political will and commitment of financial resources.
Since 2003, however, the AU has conducted nine peace operations: a medium sized and small one in Burundi, four relatively small ones in the Comoro Islands, a fairly large one in Darfur followed by a hybrid mission with the UN in Darfur, and a very large one in Somalia. The AU operations in Burundi and the Comoro Islands have generally been considered a success. The initial mission in Darfur accomplished very little and even the hybrid AU/UN mission has had limited success. The large mission in Somalia had a slow and difficult start but has done surprisingly well in the past year.
Paul Williams, a professor at George Washington University, has studied peace operations in Africa and come to four conclusions. First, AU operations depend on the participation of a small number of troop-contributing countries, which reflects the uneven levels of support for peacekeeping in Africa. Second, AU peace operations depend on non-African funding. For example, the cost of the AU mission in Somalia is conservatively estimated at $600 to $800 million annually and most of the funding comes from Western donor countries. Third, the AU has difficulty agreeing on mandates for peace operations, especially when the host state is a member of the Peace and Security Council. Fourth, with the exception of the operations in the Comoro Islands, the AU has designed peace operations as interim measures with the intention of passing the operation to the better financed and equipped UN.
The AU has struggled to marshal the required military assets for larger and more complex operations such as those in Darfur and Somalia. To its credit, however, it has taken on the challenge when the UN was unwilling to accept responsibility. The AU has also done a good job of sanctioning illegal changes of government in Africa. Since 2003, mainly as a result of military coups, it sanctioned the Central African Republic, Togo, Mauritania (twice), the Comoro Islands, Guinea, Madagascar and Niger. It sanctioned Eritrea for its support of insurgents in Somalia and sanctioned the Ivory Coast when the incumbent regime refused to step down after an electoral defeat.
The current crisis in northern Mali is now under review as a possible peace operation. The AU has asked the UN Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali from Islamist extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda. The AU Peace and Security Council endorsed a plan to send 3,300 troops to Mali to join 5,000 Malian troops. The plan envisages 600 or 700 troops from Nigeria and 500 from Niger with the remainder from other African countries. It expects the US and/or France will provide technical, intelligence and logistical support. No date has been set to launch this peace operation and, if it happens, it probably will not occur until well into 2013.