The African Union moves a quiet revolution

With the world focus on terrorism, the war in Iraq, and now the tsunami, there is some hidden good news, surprisingly in Africa.

Over the past few years, there has been a quiet revolution occurring in Africa. For the first time, Africans are beginning to take responsibility for the continent's many conflicts. With the right international assistance, the effort can tip the balance from war to peace.

During a recent visit to the headquarters of the African Union (AU) here in the Ethiopian capital, I was struck by the fundamental shift in outlook since the union was created in July 2002 in Durban, South Africa. Gone is the 1960s mentality I had seen on my visit to the AU's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, a decade ago when Africans blamed outsiders for their problems and looked everywhere but to themselves for solutions. The continent is finally heeding the call by South African President Thabo Mbeki for an African "renaissance," including finding African solutions to African problems.

Africa's leaders now recognize that the era of nonintervention in internal conflicts is over - that the myriad conflicts on the continent drag the whole region down and that the world will not solve their problems for them.

Perhaps the most important development is the creation last May of the 15-member Peace and Security Council, modeled after the UN Security Council, designed to address regional conflict. The plan is to create an early- warning system, a "Panel of the Wise" to troubleshoot, and an African Standby Force to intervene in crises within 10 days. Despite the West's pledges of "never again" following failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide a decade ago, Africa now realizes those pledges are hollow - that only Africans will send troops to stop bloodshed on its continent.

The crisis in Darfur, Sudan, underscores how little the West is prepared to do. Last month's north-south peace agreement and the UN call last week for bringing to justice those responsible for the human rights violations will, no doubt, add pressure for peace in Darfur. Yet nearly two years into the campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide launched by the Sudanese government, the international community has yet to sanction Khartoum or send troops to prevent the killings. Instead, it has called on the AU to send a 3,320-person observer and police force to deter the government's action - in a country the size of France. But no such force exists - Africans have been scrambling to create one from scratch. As one AU official told me last month, the organization is like a house under construction, with no roof yet: "People are asking us for protection from the rain and we are not yet ready."

While major hurdles remain, the progress is impressive. Woefully unprepared to respond to the Darfur crisis, the organization has moved into high gear. Today, about 1,400 AU personnel are on the ground in Darfur, with the rest expected by the end of this month. It is also making progress in creating its standby force of five 3,000- to 5,000-person brigades - one from each of Africa's five regions - by 2010. While west and southern Africa are ready, the other regions lag far behind.

The AU is much like the UN in 1945 - there are high ideals, but no functioning mechanisms to realize them. Six decades later, the UN still struggles to keep the world at peace. With today's African crises, the AU won't have the luxury of decades of preparation. It must act now. In addition to the strong leadership of the AU's chair, former president of Mali, Alpha Oumar Konare, the key to the organization's success is help from the European Union, the US, and other partners. They must do more in terms of resources, financial support, and knowledge. The institution can learn from the international community's mistakes in the 1990s and recognize when there is no peace to keep. In such cases, an African force can intervene until there is a peace to keep and the UN can take over.

The AU still has many unresolved issues, including where to find the resources and the political will to establish the standby force. How the body will relate to the many regional organizations on the continent, as well as to the EU and the UN, will only evolve with time. The AU recognizes it needs help and is refreshingly willing to seek advice and training.

Remnants of the old bureaucracy exist and streamlining is necessary: It's in urgent need of a real chief operating officer. As one top official told me, "If you want to buy a book, you have to go to the commissioner." Staff and funding are also needed to prioritize efforts, perhaps focusing first on the Peace and Security Council, while investing in the AU's other departments at a later stage.

With the right support from the international community - which must not abdicate its responsibility to help the continent - and good African leadership - the AU can make a significant contribution to the prevention and containment of Africa's conflicts.

Nancy Soderberg is vice president of multilateral affairs for the International Crisis Group and author of the forthcoming book, 'The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might.'

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