PSC interview: ‘We’re asking too much from the AU’


Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah

Veteran Mauritanian mediator Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah was the United Nations (UN) special representative to Burundi (in the early 1990s), Sudan and Somalia, and headed the UN Office for West Africa.

The PSC Report asked him how successful the African Union (AU) is in dealing with conflicts in Africa.

There are a number of conflicts on the continent where the AU is trying to intervene. Does the AU have the capacity to solve these conflicts?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: The major problem is the AU has very good intentions to solve conflicts, but it doesn’t have the capacity to do so.

This is what we are facing in Burundi, for example. In my view, we speak a lot about prevention [of conflicts], but that’s easier said than done. You need to have a strong moral authority and the material and financial capacity to carry this out.

Burundi remains the best example because it is an old problem. I was representative in Burundi since the 1994 agreements, which led to the Arusha Accord of 2005. But for countries to implement these you need agendarme [policeman], otherwise it won’t work.

Can the AU play the role of gendarme?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: The AU can’t fix this problem [of Burundi], in the same way that the Union of South American Nations can’t solve the problems in Latin America, like in Colombia, for example.

The Arab League can’t solve the problems between the Arab countries. We are asking the AU to do things that don’t correspond to the global reality. We have given the AU a mandate and responsibilities that do not exist in international relations. What I’m saying is very serious.

The AU cannot solve these problems, partly because it doesn’t have the material and financial capacity – it has the moral capacity, which is good – but one has to find a way to strengthen its capacity. Still, the AU can’t be the gendarme, it doesn’t have the means to do so.

Whenever there is a conflict, we see a multiplicity of special envoys, of the UN, the AU, regional organisations. There is also the AU’s Panel of the Wise. How effective are these envoys?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: Today, mediation has become a problem, but it’s not the fault of the AU. There is a multiplicity of external actors in every conflict – some are freelance, some represent governments and organisations. It’s become so bad that we need a mediator to mediate between the mediators. But there is also an advantage to this because every one of these brings their own sensibilities, their own approach. It has really become a problem that has to be sorted out.

When it comes to intervention in conflicts, the last word seems to be with the regional organisations, as we are seeing in Burundi. Is this more effective?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: The question of the relations between the AU and regional organisations is very complicated. Take the case of Burkina Faso. It was very difficult for ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States], which is a very respected organisation, to intervene. In the end the people and the army stood together to solve the problem. The East African Community, to which Burundi belongs, has a lot of expertise, but we always come back to the same problem, the interests of individual states: Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and others.

Is there a country in Africa today that has the moral authority and the means to back it up, to successfully intervene in conflicts?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: The neighbours can play an important role, but the problem is that in many African countries there is not a proper integration of everyone in the country. So it is difficult to give moral and ethical lessons while you have problems at home. You have to set an example. There has to be model recognised by all. Between the desire [to make peace] and the capacity to do so, there is a big gap.

The question of sanctions comes to mind. The AU is doing a good job and it is looking at ways to convince countries to do the right thing, without resorting to sanctions.

One of the perverse effects of these sanctions is that where a leader comes to power through rigging elections, you’re telling him: you’re safe, whatever happens, there won’t be a coup d’état because we’ll impose sanctions.

It is a good rule, but it must be imposed when there are coups against a government that was freely and fairly elected. But when you rig an election and people say you can go on governing, that isn’t good. The AU’s position is good, but it has to be qualified.

Many say that the nature of conflicts in Africa has changed and so it needs a new approach. What do you think of that?

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah: Every region and every country has its own specific problems, but we mustn’t push this too far to make Africa a separate case. Africans, just like all other communities, stand up to defend themselves when their vital material, spiritual, moral or political interests are under threat. Then, when you have irresponsible and populist politicians, they exploit these same political and ethnic considerations. When you have presidents who don’t have a vision for their country, they do the same to marginalise regions or communities. The nature of conflicts is the same everywhere. In fact, conflict forms part of daily life. Only violent and bloody conflicts don’t form part of life.

The specificity when it comes to Africa lies in the level of exclusion. When one group takes power, they simply don’t want to share the power or apply the rules that they helped to make. Secondly, they don’t contribute to the development of the country. The country stays poor, so there is not enough wealth to go around. Besides that, the demographic explosion in Africa is a time bomb. I know people say it could be an advantage for Africa, but it is something we can’t control.

This interview was originally published by ISS Africa on March 10, 2016