Mahamat: ‘We must go beyond narrow sovereignties to see the bigger picture’

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Are Africans losing faith in the AU?

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Friday, 5 August 2022 17:50, updated on Saturday, 6 August 2022 12:31

Tensions between the DRC and Rwanda, coups d'état, constitutional changes... An interview with Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairman of the Commission of the African Union (AU).

This is part 4 of a 4-part series

In early July, the African Union (AU) will celebrate its 20th anniversary. An anniversary marked by deteriorating security conditions in the Sahel, the resurgence of coups d’état and constitutional amendments, and abuses observed in the area of good governance. So, has the AU, which recently came of age, fulfilled its objectives?

Moussa Faki Mahamat, who was reappointed for a second term as head of the AU Commission, is still at the forefront. Criticised for his management of the crisis in Chad after the death of Idriss Déby Itno, reputedly timid in the Sahel or in front of African heads of state, he defends his political approach, one of collaboration with regional institutions and a relentless, but difficult, search for financial autonomy.

Recent news is marked by the revival of the M23 rebellion in eastern DRC and by the rise in tensions between Kigali and Kinshasa. How can the AU help bring about a return to peace?

Moussa Faki Mahamat: In the eastern DRC, rebellions have been going on for a very long time. The United Nations and neighbouring countries have intervened many times, but the phenomenon persists. Since 2018, relations between the DRC and Rwanda have improved significantly, and then the situation suddenly deteriorated again. We talked about this during the AU summit a few weeks ago in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

We decided to entrust the issue to Angolan President Joao Lourenço, who is the chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). There is also another initiative that we encourage, that of the East African Community (EAC), which recently decided to deploy a regional force in eastern Congo. Our hope is that the interventions of all these parties will lead to de-escalation.

The ICGLR and the EAC are indeed on the front line, yet the AU seems conspicuously absent. Doesn’t it have a greater role to play than that of supporting sub-regional organisations?

Our current position does not mean that the AU is absent from the discussions. Our policy is consistent with our principle of subsidiarity and complementarity with regional communities. It is first and foremost a question of logic: neighbouring countries are better able to grasp the complex realities on the ground than other states further away or certain diplomats in Addis Ababa. We have already done this in West Africa – in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. We support the actions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) there and take part in all the organisation’s summits.

There is a division of labour. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) has a wide-ranging mandate and can override sub-regional institutions if it wishes.

But the practice, for greater effectiveness, is to favour and support a “local” approach first. In the case of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, ECOWAS’ decisions have been endorsed by the AU. We are working together.

You mentioned sending a regional force to the east of the DRC. Isn’t that the role of the African Standby Force [ASF], which has never been deployed so far?

Yes, we have to admit that this is its role and also that it is struggling to be deployed. As far as the ASF is concerned, I would say that we have waited too long and other solutions have been put forward. In the eastern DRC, as in previous crises elsewhere on the continent, we had to resort to ad hoc arrangements, such as the Mixed Multinational Force in the Lake Chad Basin, or the G5 Sahel. We are now trying to consolidate the regional brigades that should make up the ASF so that it finally becomes an available and deployable tool as quickly as possible.

Why is this so difficult?

For at least four years, we have been reactivating the Peace Fund, which should enable us to finance our intervention capabilities autonomously. The process is underway and most states are playing along, despite the difficulties associated with the current economic and sanitary conditions. But this is not yet enough and I am the first to say that inter-African solidarity must be encouraged.

Unfortunately, we cannot count on financial aid from the United Nations. We can see this: in the fight against terrorism, in particular, we have been asking for more than ten years for the UN to finance African operations, but we have not been successful. I do not understand this attitude of the UN and its Security Council, but it is a fact. Africa has to stand on its own two feet.

A little over a year ago, Idriss Déby Itno was killed and his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, succeeded him in power, even though the constitution did not stipulate this. The AU, which did not apply sanctions to N’Djamena, was highly criticised at the time. Do you recognise this?

What happened in Chad is different from the unconstitutional changes or military coups that we have seen elsewhere. The African Union sent a mission there to get a feel for the reality and the circumstances in which the head of state died. In examining the situation, it found that it was not a coup d’état, even if the change of power had not followed the provisions of the constitution. The African Union and the PSC, therefore, decided to support the transition and the organisation of an inclusive national dialogue that should lead to free and transparent elections within 18 months.

This 18-month period expires at the end of 2022 and there is every reason to believe that the elections will not have been organised. Should we expect AU sanctions against Chad?

The PSC will look into the matter and re-analyse the situation in due course, and decide in accordance with its rules and procedures.

Unlike Chad, Mali has been subjected to heavy sanctions, at the initiative of ECOWAS with the support of the AU. Does this “hard-line” approach seem effective to you, when the Malian junta has just published a timetable for elections in 2024?

It should be noted that these sanctions were imposed because the military in power did not respect the commitments they had made at the outset. This is what pushed ECOWAS to pursue this approach. I don’t think it was ineffective. The junta has reduced the duration of the transition from five to two years.

Compromise is possible, although capricious power changes and military coups are and must remain unacceptable. Now, ECOWAS should perhaps be encouraged to find a formula that would prevent sanctions from affecting the population more than the military in power.

In the case of Mali, the military transition has so far failed to improve the safety of the country…

This is something that needs to be stressed and repeated to Africans. In most cases, military coups do not achieve their stated objective, which is to restore stability. This can be seen in West Africa, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, where the security conditions have deteriorated further. Coups d’état often produce the opposite of what they hope to achieve.

The problem in the Sahel should not be seen as the inability of civilian regimes to provide security. The case of security and terrorism in the Sahel must be dealt with in a comprehensive manner, as it has been in the Near and Middle East. I do not understand the double standards of the international community on terrorism, depending on whether it is Syria or Mali. It is totally unjustifiable.

How do you explain the resurgence of coups and constitutional changes in recent years?

There is undoubtedly a decline, particularly in West Africa, a region that was cited as a benchmark case. But we need to look at the underlying reasons for this trend. The security conditions have deteriorated since 2011, especially after what happened in Libya. This has had an impact on the Sahel, the Chad basin, and the Gulf of Guinea.

Climate changes are also extremely significant. The Sahel is an area marked by drought and desertification. It is a breeding ground for conflicts, for quarrels between herders and farmers, who are then often exploited by extremist groups, which in turn aggravates poverty, unemployment, etc. It is a vicious circle. So, of course, the backward slide in democracy seems obvious. But there are new circumstances that did not exist fifteen or twenty years ago and which seem to serve as an alibi for coups.

What can the AU do to get the continent out of this vicious circle?

As I said, the solution is first and foremost to raise awareness and strengthen solidarity among Africans. But the international community must also become aware of the situation. Isn’t the UN’s role to ensure the security of its citizens above all else? Is it fulfilling this role? The UN Secretary-General agrees with me on the issue of financing African operations against terrorism, but the blockages come from the Security Council, particularly from its permanent members.

The AU is often criticised for being an actor in crisis management but not in prevention. What do you think about this?

We have prevention mechanisms. We do our best to intervene in the root causes of the current conflicts, which I have just mentioned. We know that we have to work on both levels: prevention and intervention. But this requires a general mobilisation and, above all, a lot of resources, mobilised by Africans and by our partners. But we lack them.

Financial autonomy was one of the objectives of the reform launched by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2017. Can we say today, five years later, that the AU is less dependent on external donors?

The reform put in place a 0.2% levy on member states’ imports to achieve greater financial autonomy. I dare say we are on the right track.

The functioning of the AU is now almost covered by funding from Africans. However, we are still largely dependent on external funding for peace operations, for example. The AU Peace Fund currently has $250m and we still hope to reach $400m soon to improve our prevention capacity. African states are playing the game, despite delays and reluctance, and the current economic context. Even though insecurity, pandemics and climate change are undermining our achievements, the process is continuing and is irreversible.

Doesn’t the principle of subsidiarity, which often leads to a shift in favour of sub-regional organisations, incentivise member states to reduce their funding to the AU?

I don’t think the question is posed in this way. Again, the AU is not fading away. In the framework of the Kagame reform, we are working on a division of labour between us and the regional institutions. There must be complete collaboration in our activities. Managing 55 countries from Addis Ababa is not possible. Member states know what they owe to the AU and, I repeat, they are playing the game, despite the difficulties.

Another symbolic issue for the AU is the Western Sahara, which is contested by Morocco and Algeria. Does the Union still have a role to play?

Today, it is a matter that is directly managed by the United Nations and it is a choice of the countries themselves. The AU is therefore working to support the UN initiatives.

It is on this basis that we set up in 2018 a tripartite composed of the outgoing, current and incoming chairpersons of the Union. This troika was to act in support of the efforts of the UN Secretary General’s special envoy. Unfortunately, the matter has been blocked at the UN level and the tripartite has never met. I regret this, but we hope to be able to move forward again in the coming months.

Has Morocco’s return to the AU in 2017 profoundly changed the balance of power within the organisation, particularly with regard to Algeria?

Morocco has regained its natural place. The long absence of a founding country of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was an anomaly. It has been repaired. Its presence is useful to the continent and Moroccans contribute a lot to the work we do for an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa. We regret, however, that Morocco and Algeria have gone so far as to sever their diplomatic relations. The AU stands ready to assist them to resolve their differences peacefully.

The AU regularly recalls that one of its priority objectives is the promotion of good governance. Yet the AU itself is often the target of accusations of bad governance. How do you respond to this?

It is true that some of the press regularly attacks us, but these accusations are completely unfounded. The AU has internal and external control mechanisms. Everything is scrutinised by the member states and by bodies appointed by them. In the five years that I have been leading the Commission, neither the chairperson nor its members have been seriously challenged in any matter. There may be problems of poor governance at the administrative level or shortcomings. This is normal: the AU is a big machine. But I assure you that the control mechanisms and the inspections by technical controllers and auditors are effective.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is currently being audited, following accusations of bad governance and financial malpractice. Yet the mechanism itself is supposed to audit member states…

Indeed, as chairperson of the Commission, I have received a number of accusations of bad governance at the APRM. We have put in place a mechanism to examine them and respond to them. We are not covering up for anyone. Everything is done in a transparent manner.

The AU recently had to take a stand on the war in Ukraine. Does it have the vocation to offer a third way, between the West and Russia?

From the outset, the AU has been very clear: we have insisted on respect for international law, for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We have called for a ceasefire and dialogue to find a way out of the crisis under the aegis of the United Nations. We believe in multilateralism. Together with President-in-Office Macky Sall, we went to meet President Vladimir Putin. We stressed the importance of de-escalation and the need for a peaceful solution.

We also indicated that we were negatively affected by the rise in food and fertiliser prices in particular. These are very important issues for fragile economies like those in Africa. We then had a video conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who expressed his views. The AU is doing its part by advocating for peace and seeking solutions to the food and energy crisis it is experiencing. For us, this conflict cannot have a military solution.

At the last AU summit in Malabo, the heads of state adopted a declaration condemning the use of private military companies and foreign mercenaries. Yet the Wagner Group, which is present in Ukraine, is currently deployed in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Mercenarism is prohibited by AU texts as a means to gain or maintain power. In the examples you have cited, the states have never officially acknowledged that they had recourse to foreign mercenaries. We hear about bilateral cooperation, and technical cooperation, but no member has admitted to having used a private mercenary company. Of course, we are not fooled and we regret certain cases. That is why we chose to put the subject back on the agenda in Malabo.

In the same Malabo declaration, the AU recalls its opposition to any untimely modification of the constitution in order to remain in power. Is this not exactly what President Faustin-Archange Touadéra is about to do in the Central African Republic?

Once again, the organisation’s texts are very clear on this point, notably the African Charter on Democracy, Governance and Elections, which was adopted and came into force in 2011. That said, it is clear that in practice, things are different. I personally call on the heads of state and government to respect the texts in force and to assume their responsibilities.

The AU will celebrate its 20th anniversary in early July. In a few words, what should its ambitions be for the next ten years?

The top priority remains peace and security, of course. We must also continue to work on the integration of the continent with the establishment of the continental free trade area. A significant step has been taken.

We must continue along this path and focus on developing the infrastructure that will physically connect the states and regions to each other. Other priorities are energy, youth employment and women’s empowerment. We are moving forward in a difficult context, but the future belongs to large groups. We need to go beyond narrow sovereignties to be able to think bigger.

Shouldn’t the AU also place the climate at the heart of its agenda?

Of course, just like security issues. Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the continent today, on the lives of its pastoralist and farmer populations, who are the first victims of the conflicts and terrorism that exploit them. This is why I often call on external partners to support Africa in the fight against climate change.

A final, more personal question: you have just begun your second and final term at the Commission. Are you already thinking about the future?

At the end of my mandate, I will be 65 years old. I am the son of a teacher and a teacher myself, so this is an area I think about. But 65 is the retirement age. But we will see when the time comes if I still have the strength to do something for my village, Chad, and my country, Africa. If that is the case, I will not hesitate for a moment.

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