With their attention largely focused in recent months on the unprecedented challenges faced by some of the pillars of the transatlantic community—NATO during and after the intervention in Libya, the European Union as it struggles to contain the sovereign debt crisis, and the United States where partisan wrangling over the budget deficits again threatens to shut down the federal government, to name just three—policymakers and analysts in America and Europe might be forgiven for failing to notice that theirs were not the only institutions going through a rough patch.

In fact, the African Union has had a rather bumpy year and, given that it is just shy of its tenth birthday and nowhere nearly as robust as other intergovernmental organizations, its future may well be in jeopardy unless its political authority and institutional capacity are strengthened. 

The year started well enough for the AU. When incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire refused to yield after losing a November 28, 2010, runoff to challenger Alassane Ouattara, the AU joined the United Nations in condemning the former’s intransigence and recognizing the latter as the country’s duly elected head of state. So far, so good.  

But then nothing happened. The AU dithered and proved incapable of doing much more than sending mission after mission to give Gbagbo yet another “last chance” to step down. As the months went by, pro-Gbagbo militias carried out a campaign of assassinations, beatings, and abductions aimed at intimidating their rivals, while Ouattara and his key advisors remained holed up in an Abidjan hotel under the protection of UN peacekeepers. In the end, the standoff ended only when military forces loyal to Ouattara launched a full-scale offensive at the end of March which, with a bit of French assistance at the end, captured Gbagbo and established control over the country in a little over two weeks.  

Understandably, Ouattara came away from the experience with a rather dim view of the AU’s capabilities. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, Côte d’Ivoire’s president explained, “We gave it time, from November till February/March” even though “we had had the capacity, with my associates, to really remove Gbagbo by force.” When the AU efforts proved ineffective, “we moved on.” 

Meanwhile, another crisis was brewing for the organization. When Libyans rose up against the more than four-decade-long dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi and the colonel threatened “no mercy” for the “rats,” it was the Arab League that took the lead, declaring that the regime had “lost its sovereignty” and calling on the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians from air attacks. The AU, in contrast, appeared like it could not figure out what to do.  

While many of its member states were appalled by the Libyan regime—and not a few of them had been victims of Gaddafi’s adventurism over the years—the organization as such owed him a major debt, both literal and metaphorical. Not only was the AU, as one of its founding documents, the Sirte Declaration (named for Gaddafi’s hometown and recently “disappeared” from the AU website), acknowledged, “inspired by the important proposals submitted by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Leader of the Great Al-Fatah Libyan Revolution, and particularly, by his vision for a strong and united Africa,” but it has, until now, largely been dependent on the Libyan regime for paying a good third of its operating costs.  

So while the most significant military actions in at least a generation were underway in North Africa, the AU was largely AWOL, its sole contribution being the half-hearted dispatch of a mediation team, some of whose members—most notably South African President Jacob Zuma—left Libya after their audience with Gaddafi without so much as meeting with the opposition. Even after rebel forces took Tripoli in August, the AU delayed recognition of the National Transitional Council as Libya’s legitimate government, relenting just this past week. (To be fair, more than a third of the AU members did not wait for directions from headquarters, having already established links to the NTC; among this number was Gabon, which voted for the Security Council authorizations for the use of force to protect civilians, and whose president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, called for Gaddafi’s exit during remarks at the Atlantic Council in June, and extended recognition to the rebels in August, offering asylum to the Libyan ambassador if he chose to defect.) 

Even on something as seemingly noncontroversial as dealing with the famine in the Horn of Africa—described by the UN refugee agency as the world’s “worst humanitarian disaster” with nearly half of the population of Somalia, some 3.7 million people facing starvation and at least another 11 million across the region at risk—the AU has had trouble getting its act together. An AU-organized “pledging summit” was postponed for weeks and, when it finally met, raised a desultory $46 million from the 54 members of the organization. The amounts promised by the presumptive leaders of continent was especially pitiful, with the government of South Africa, whose economy accounts for nearly one-third of Africa’s total GDP, chipping in just over $1 million. In contrast, the United States has contributed more than $500 million in assistance so far this year, including an additional $105 million announced by the White House last month ahead of a visit by Dr. Jill Biden to the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya, while the EU as a whole had provided €700 million in assistance, including €160 million from the European Commission. And yet these efforts have not prevented lame-duck AU Commission Chairperson Jean Ping from unabashedly trying to pass the buck: in a recent report to the AU Peace and Security Council, he blamed the international community’s alleged indifference for the Somali famine deaths.  

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that, in many respects, the AU is a vast improvement over the old Organization of African Unity which, by the time it was superseded by the new pan-African organization, had degenerated into an irrelevant farce. Nevertheless one should not delude oneself about the AU’s capabilities. This is especially true for European and American governments which in recent years have largely predicated their Africa policies on having the AU and its subregional groupings as working partners. While one can certainly appreciate the logic behind such thinking, it is hard to refute the realism in what Ouattara told me last Friday during a private meeting at the Brookings Institution: “I don’t think any of them can do what they are supposed to do. Faced with a real crisis, they have no army, they have no mandate, they have no authority…Until it can make decisions promptly and, more importantly, has the authority and the ability to implement such decisions that it makes, very few are going to take the AU seriously.”  

One can only hope that the Ivorian president’s fellow African leaders will take his counsel to heart before it is too late. 

J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

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