Legitimacy through Regional Governance: The African Union

Noele Crossley analyses the challenges facing the African Union as it works towards becoming an importance force for regional stability and local legitimacy. This post originally appeared on Global Policy.

Noele Crossley – 3rd April 2011

Regional organisations such as the African Union, the European Union, the Arab League, or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are regarded as an important intermediary between the global and the local, and, regarding mediation and conflict resolution, regional action is seen as more impartial than unilateral intervention.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the first woman to lead the AU

At the same time regional organisations are seen as more aware of local circumstances and customs, and, given their proximity to the events, are believed to have a greater interest in seeing an end to conflict and therefore a higher degree of motivation for involvement and political action.

The three factors that therefore give regional institutions their legitimacy – more credibility in claiming impartiality; better knowledge of local regional affairs; and a greater sense of responsibility due to proximity – mean that regional involvement has become laudable, if not necessary, for justifying foreign involvement in a given states’ domestic affairs. This is very much in line with the role foreseen for regional arrangements in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, which states that “[t]he Members of the United Nations entering into such arrangements or constituting such agencies shall make every effort to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such regional arrangements or by such regional agencies before referring them to the Security Council” (Art. 52). Actors in the international arena, including voices from within the African continent, often justify AU involvement along these lines.

While local expertise on regional affairs and a greater interest in bringing conflicts to an end due to proximity are a matter of fact, the claim to legitimacy through local representation and a higher degree of impartiality is, however, not as readily ascertainable. Interventions, if only for the stated aim of protecting civilians, is often eyed critically, and motives questioned.

This problem is heightened in a postcolonial context, where intervention in domestic affairs is always at risk of being seen as a form of neo-imperialism. Regional involvement is designed to counter both of these problems: the AU is diverse, including Christian, Muslim, Arab, and African states, and encompassing states historically subjected to both Anglophone and Francophone influences. AU involvement is therefore seen as necessarily impartial, and reference to AU support can serve to deflect neo-imperialist arguments associated with great power intervention. Can the AU, however, really serve to fulfil this role?

The AU was created by a number of African leaders in July 2002, replacing the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). Its stated aim is to strengthen African unity and to strengthen African states’ standing within the international arena. It is also designed to strengthen the regional security framework and places particular emphasis on human rights in its Constitutive Act, with some innovative new legal approaches to intervention in case of human rights violations (see especially article 4(h)). AU member state heads of state meet twice per year in the Assembly of the African Union. Its secretariat, the African Union Commission, is located in Addis Ababa.

However, the AU suffers from a lack of democratic legitimacy of its member states, which seriously detracts from its ability to claim to legitimately represent member states’ populations (see, for instance, the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit).

The AU lacks the kind of grassroots participation it would need to strengthen its claim to legitimate representation. Indeed, the idea of the AU was first strongly advocated by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and was subsequently endorsed amongst African leaders. The high levels of corruption in the region, as illustrated in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, underscore this point. This is not the only problem confronting the AU’s claim to legitimacy: the other is the question of whether it is capable of effectively fulfilling the role it has assigned itself, given its limited material wealth and lack of necessary assets. An example of effective and successful AU involvement was in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed elections in 2007, where diplomacy and mediation led to a swift resolution of the crisis and prevented further escalation of violence.

Overall, however, the AU’s self-ascribed role as protector of peace and security and guarantor of human rights stands in stark contrast to its track record – the AU’s involvement in the hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping operation in Darfur, UNAMID, clearly demonstrates this problem, as does its inability to bring about a resolution to the conflict in Côte D’Ivoire, or to prevent the crisis in Libya. The AU often finds itself in a position in which it is dependent on policies dictated by more powerful states and organisations, especially the US, China, and states with former colonial ties such as Britain and France. These states also have significant influence over outcomes and policy trajectories of the UN, and therefore have multiple pathways for expressing their interests. While their humanitarian involvement is welcomed for the most part and seen as a positive contribution to regional peace and security as well as to development, their relationship to regional self-governance generally, and the AU more specifically, is less straightforward.

Reference to the AU as a legitimising actor can be helpful to forestall neo-imperialist arguments, but, given the AU’s limited influence in practice, this could easily be viewed as a cosmetic move to satisfy international and regional demands for more local ownership and participation.

In theory, regional organisations add legitimacy to efforts to deal with humanitarian crises in utilising local expertise, and in making use of more readily available political will to prevent and deal with them. At the same time, the involvement of regional organisations may show actors’ aspiration for a higher degree of impartiality through diversity and multiplicity of views.

This clearly resonates with the criteria for intervention on humanitarian grounds, rooted in Just War thinking, especially regarding the “right authority” and “right intention” criteria. Regional organisations not only have a better understanding of local affairs and are therefore better positioned to act prudently, but they also prevent self-interested action. In practice however, in the case of the AU, regional cooperation is not synonymous with real regional representation, due to widespread shortcomings in terms of good governance.

At the same time, foreign involvement and often dominance, even when undertaken for the right intentions, take up much of the political space and make it difficult for regional actors to act as agents on their own behalf and thereby promote political emancipation. The AU has the potential to become an important force for regional stability and local legitimacy, but only if states put into practice principles of good governance that are often absent, and only if international actors recognise the valuable contribution the AU has to make and support the organisation in becoming a viable regional force with a real capacity to promote regional peace and security.

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