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AU’s Refrain: “Never Again”



The role, or lack of, therefore, of the African Union (AU) in the ongoing brutal conflict in the very nation that hosts it is one that has drawn much comment.  Appeals to the AU have cited the Constitutive Act which allows the intervention of the AU, in a Member  State and the “Never Again” principle, which appears to have been the reason for the adoption of the  Constitutive Act. It bears looking at this Act more closely. 

The Constitutive Act is described in The African Peace and Security Architecture: A  handbook by Alhaji Sarjoh Bah and others (2014). In its introduction, it states that the AU:  “has embarked on an elaborate normative and institutional transformation” since its inauguration in 2002 in Durban, South Africa. It goes on to cite that some have called the 21st century  Africa’s century, but warns that such a label can only be so if the continent’s persistent challenges (e.g., security and economic woes, among other things) are dealt with “a holistic and deliberate manner.” By saying so, the writers not only appear to indicate the difficulty surrounding implementation but also cast reveal their doubts as to what appears to be a premature label. 

AU heads of states in Adddis Ababa for the AU summit 2022

The handbook indicates the adoption of the Constitutive Act, dubbed as the groundbreaking principle, and specifically highlights the section which allows the African Union to intervene in the event of grave crimes:

…the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in  respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity

The AU Constitutive Act Article 4 (h)

Moreover, a subsequent article also allows for the possibility of a member state to request intervention as well.

The right of Member states to request intervention from the Union in  order to restore peace and security

The AU Constitutive Act Article 4 (j)

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994, by implication, the never again principle, is cited as the reason for the shift from non-intervention to non-indifference. In fact, this is a general trend as intrastate, as opposed to inter-state, conflicts have become more common after the cold war,  requiring a move from state-centered to human-centered security. This shift was made to prevent a Rwanda-like tragedy, but the AU chose the former principle and let another tragedy take place in the country where its Headquarters is found. 

As a key member of the international community, the AU was alerted to the imminent crisis, including by the leaders of Tigray. The expectation at the time was that the  African Union would regularly utilize its own mechanisms and tools to identify warning signs. However, not only did it fail in that regard, but it wholeheartedly embraced Abiy Ahmed’s war and the narrative fabricated to rationalize conflict. HE Moussa Faki declared

In Ethiopia, the federal government took bold steps to preserve the unity, stability, and respect for the constitutional order of the country; which is legitimate for all states.

Opening Remarks of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat, at 38th Extraordinary Summit

This led to the AU being rightly criticized for going the extra mile to show its commitment, in the name of sovereignty or “keeping the country united” and strangely in the spirit of Pan-Africanism seemingly heeding the call by Abiy Ahmed on Africans to join in the fight against Tigray.

The dismay on the part of Tigrayans, therefore, is not the silence per se, but the unexpected support for the PM. This has been the case since Day I, not to mention the lack of effort to anticipate such a conflict prior to November 2020, you know, being in Addis and all. Sadly, no amount of argument and evidence seems to be convincing enough to change its stance.  

As seen in the case of the Rwanda Genocide,  news outlets continue to report about graphic images and  scenes (of course, warning their audience); researchers report the facts  that depict the realities published in reputable journals, but those who have the moral and  legal duty will just meet and talk, possibly about the same failures, just like the former President Chad and the AU Idriss Deby said a decade ago:

 “We often meet and meet…; We often talk  and talk…”  

The absence of a normative and legal basis to intervene back in 1994 is cited as a  possible explanation for the failure. Fortunately, the shift was made possible and with that the means to engage proactively during the said circumstances. The document also cites the lack of capacity as the main problem, implying statements like the one in Article 4 (h) may not suffice. 

This seems to be consistent with Bellamy (2010) who noted that “no state wanted to risk its own  troops to save strangers from genocide.” In fact, many organizations (including the UN) are often criticized for their incompetence, inability, or unwillingness to prevent genocide, massacre, etc.  That said, Sarjoh Bah et al (2014) have the following to say: 

It [the Union] embraced the principle of non-indifference, a more pro-active norm, which if implemented [emphasis added] would ensure that the terrible crimes committed in Rwanda in 1994  would never be repeated anywhere on the continent (p.16).  

In line with the shift, the handbook outlines the “adoption of the Protocol Relating to the establishment of the Peace and Security Council (PSC)”, lauded as “the nerve center of APSA” – African Peace and Security Architecture. APSA gives the AU “the necessary instruments to fulfill the tasks in the Constitutive Act and the Protocol establishing the PSC” (p.17). In his  forward to the handbook, Arne Schildberg, a representative of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Addis,  says “… the African Union has shown its commitment to non-indifference by acting as a fire brigade in a conflict situation, where others have hesitated.” Like the “Africa’s Century” label,  Schildberg appears to be lavish in his praise of the AU.  

Simply put, the AU has everything in place – the ways and means to be alert to warning signs and trigger the article(s) to prevent a Rwanda-like tragedy from happening. That said, it has not lived up to the Never Again principle. Thus, never again will just be a refrain – the AU’s refrain – that will keep on echoing in the spacious Chinese-made AU halls and corridors in Addis Ababa. Whether or not the AU has the will to do so and embark on a course that might lead to fruition is, as the saying goes, left to history. 

Tazena (a pen name) is an Assistant Professor in Mekelle University.

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