The Organization of African Unity is learning the hard way that peacekeeping resolutions are of little use unless you have the means of enforcing them.
Over the past eight months, the OAU has tried to improve its image by earnest efforts to establish peace on two fronts:
* In Chad, where a civil war has dragged on intermittently for 16 years.
* In the Western Sahara, where Polisario guerrillas have for six years fought annexation of that territory by Morocco. Morocco gained control of the region in 1976 in the wake of Spain's withdrawal.
After special OAU meetings in Nairobi, Kenya, on these two issues earlier this month, all signs point to things slithering back toward more fighting -- not peace -- in both crisis areas.
There is great-power interest on the periphery of both crises. France has an interest in them because it was once the colonial power in both areas. The Soviet Union is a source or potential source of weaponry for both conflicts. Libya's maverick revolutionary leader, Muammar Qaddafi, is a potential paymaster and/or conduit for that weaponry. The United States,too, feels obliged to keep tabs on what is happening because of the Soviet-Libyan involvement.
Adding to the piquancy of the situation is expectation that Colonel Qaddafi will be elected to a one-year term as the organization's president at its annual summit, scheduled for June in the Libyan capital.
In both Chad and Western Sahara, the scales have tipped sightly against Colonel Qaddafi in recent weeks.
In Chad, the forces of former Defense Minister Hissein Habre, the most anti-Libyan of the groups there, have bounced back from defeat. Habre's troops have put President Goukhouni Woddei, who was once pro-Libyan, on the defensive. Unconfirmed reports from Paris say that the French government has stopped the discreet military aid it was giving Woddei because it does not want to be stuck with a loser. (Last fall France viewed Woddei as Chad's best hope.)
In Western Sahara, Colonel Qaddafi backs the Polisario guerrillas against Morocco. So, too, but in a more measured way, does the government of President Chadli Benjedid in neighboring Algeria.
That might seem a revolutionary challenge serious enough to give traditionalist, authoritarian Moroccan King Hassan pause. But the King, a clever tactical survivor in the face of repeated challenge, has managed to turn things to his advantage. He has recruited the US more closely to his side than at any time in the past 20 years.
The opening for this came with a shift in France's policy under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand -- away from Morocco and toward Algeria. Under Mitterrand's predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French tilt -- like that of the US -- had been toward Morocco. The US has now moved to take up the slack left by the French shift.
US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was, at the beginning of this month, the most recent of a long line of high-level Reagan administration officials to visit Morocco. He agreed with King Hassan to set up a joint US-Moroccan military committee. They also agreed to discuss US military aid to Morocco and, in return, US staging rights at Moroccan bases.
The bases would help the US get its Middle East Rapid Deployment Force to the Gulf area in an emergency. From King Hassan's point of view, closer relationship with the US strengthens his hand in his dealings over the Western Sahara not only with Libya and Algeria but also with the OAU.
Small wonder then that the King felt able to stall when the OAU in Nairobi asked him to sit down with Polisario to arrange a cease-fire and a referendum on the future of the Western Sahara. He committed himself to a referendum in principle last year. But his immediate concern now is likely to be completion of the wall round the phosphate deposits in northern Western Sahara to secure them against guerrilla attack.
The OAU call from Nairobi for a cease-fire and elections in Chad looks as though it will be equally ineffective. In this case, the OAU offered a timetable -- which it did not do for Western Sahara. The OAU suggested a cease-fire by Feb. 28, negotiations between Woddei and Habre by March 15, presidential and legislative elections between May 1 and June 30, withdrawal of the OAU peacekeeping force from Chad (still only at half-strength) on June 30.
President Woddei insists he will not talk to Mr. Habre, apparently believing that the present balance of forces would make parleying tantamount to surrender. Mr. Woddei would like the OAU to guarantee his continued hold on the presidency -- but the OAU is probably much more concerned to get out before being trapped in another round of Woddei-Habre fighting.