From the OAU to the AU Has the African Union Learned to Handle Conflicts Better?

In 60 years as the principal African organization, both as the OAU and the AU, the African Union has been tasked with managing a wide range of conflicts on the continent. The AU has made great strides in diverging from the position of the OAU on peacekeeping intervention. But efforts are all it will remain if the AU does not deal with the holdbacks that hindered the OAU.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.

Since its inception in 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which subsequently became the African Union (AU), has had varying and questionable ways of dealing with challenges and opportunities on the continent. The AU was established in 2002 to succeed the OAU and was created at a crucial point in Africa’s history—when many previously colonized countries were acquiring independence from the European colonists. In almost 40 years as the foremost regional organization on the continent, scholars referred to the OAU as a ‘talking club of heads of states’ and occasionally as a ‘toothless bulldog,’ primarily because of its inaction in the happenings on the continent. The OAU maintained a policy of non-interference/non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states unless invited by the disputing parties. It is no surprise how its non-interference policy played out in maintaining peace and handling conflict on the continent. A perusal of the conflicts in Africa between 1963, when the OAU was launched, and 2002, when it was refurbished into the AU, shows that the OAU, in its operations, seemed to serve only the incumbent heads of member states. These conflicts ranged from coups d’état to civil wars, and included the 1980 Liberian coup and the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War. Essentially, across these conflicts, the OAU favoured the current government irrespective of how they came to power; if they had acquired power by usurping an elected government, they became the recognized representative of the state and were legitimate enough to participate in OAU meetings. Their predecessor hardly had room for redress. 

At the formation of the AU in 2002, the existing presupposition was that the rampant internal conflicts rife in Africa would be handled differently, and indeed it was. How much better? This is the question that must be answered. To avoid repeating its predecessor’s mistakes, the AU committed to conflict intervention in African states through its principle of non-indifference as a core part of its operation. In deviation from the standard of the OAU, the AU, at its inception, declared the union’s right to ‘intervene in domestic affairs of member states in cases of ‘war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and serious threats to legitimate order.’ In light of this commitment, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) was established within the organization to make important decisions about where, when, and how to handle conflict and security issues on the continent. 


The OAU’s response to coups on the continent in the 1960s through the late 1990s was blatant indifference. Irrespective of the internal state of affairs in member states, the OAU carried on its operations, allowing governments who were a product of coups to attend policy meetings and participate in other organizational activities. While there were occasional disputes regarding the participation of coup-producing government representatives at OAU summits, in line with its principle of non-interference, the organization made no move to declare the illegitimacy of these unconstitutional governments, allowing whichever government was in charge of ruling a country at the approach of each new day represent the country’s interest as if nothing had happened. For instance, in 1982, after a Hissène Habré-led coup usurped the government of President Goukouni Oueddei in Chad, two delegations from the opposing sides demanded to participate at the OAU summit as representatives of Chad. The summit was divided into those who were in support of Habré and those who were in support of Oueddei. Nevertheless, the position of the OAU remained non-interference as the change of government was an internal state affair. Hence, Habre’s delegation was allowed to participate in the summit.  

Moreover, in other instances when there had been disagreements over the presence of a coup-producing government at the organization’s summit, like in the case of the National Liberation Council (NLC), which overthrew Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966, the issue was more about the NLC’s possible collusion with Western governments than their illegitimacy. Similar controversies that separated the organization into factions were replicated in 1971 after the coup led by Idi Amin Dada Oumee in Uganda and in 1980 after the Samuel Doe-led coup in Liberia. Nevertheless, the result was always the authorization of the new government regardless of its illegality. This is understandable, considering that the OAU’s position was that change of government was an internal affair; hence, they could not interfere. 

An outlier to this general principle of non-interference and a revision in the OAU’s stance on unconstitutional change in government was in the case of Sierra Leone in 1997. At the time, a coup led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, which had been pivotal in ending the country’s six-year civil war. In an action that portrayed the OAU had had enough, the organization declared the government change illegitimate. The OAU called for a return to constitutional government and asked that the international community within Africa and beyond disavow the new government. Eventually, the constitutional government of Kabbah was reinstated in 1998. Following this and the establishment of the Lomé Declaration in 2000, the organization’s principle evolved to a disavowal of unconstitutional regimes and a requirement of such regimes to return to constitutional order within six months or risk suspension and sanctions from the organization.  

One can hardly blame the organization for its decision to remain indifferent despite the widespread illegitimate replacement of governments in Africa between the 1960s and the 1980s. For one, the scale at which coups took place on the continent in this period meant that almost every country on the continent, at one point or the other, had a coup attempt, many of which were successful. Hence, if the OAU delegitimized governments from coups, where would it have gotten its members? For example, Nigeria would have been intermittently unrepresented in the organization; the same for Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and several others; and what is an international organization without its member states? More so, other sub-regional organizations, such as the Economic Community of Central African States, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Arab Maghreb Union, were vying for the attention of member states. As the OAU was nothing but the cooperation of the same leaders carrying out these coups, to speak out against one could mean to speak against themselves.  

However, if the reluctance to act in the case of coups can be attributed to a desire not to stomp on one’s foot, what can be said about the OAU’s response to other forms of conflict on the continent? For instance, the position of the OAU on interference extended to several other disputes on the continent like the Rwandan genocide (1994), the conflict in Burundi (1993-2005), the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia (1977-1978), and Ethiopia and Eritrea (1998-2000). Many of these intra-state conflicts and some inter-state received attention as observer missions and peace talks, some of which were pivotal in alleviating the tension but were ineffective in bringing about peace. For instance, in the inter-state conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the OAU developed a framework proposal for resolving the dispute, which remained unused for nine months. Again, at the start of the conflict brewing in Rwanda, the OAU set up several summits and mediations between the government and the aggrieved Tutsi, which did not produce positive results. When conflict eventually broke out in Rwanda, the OAU, like the rest of the international community, stood by.  

Arguably, it is essential to consider that the OAU’s position of non-interference may have averted possibly catastrophic interventions that a lack of political will and a significant lack of resources could have hindered. The significantly limited resources, particularly in arms required for military intervention, may have posed more of a security risk to Africa and the troops sent if the OAU decided to intervene militarily in all the conflicts on the continent. In the instances where the organization did intervene in internal state conflicts both as the OAU and as the AU, this lack of resources played out in its inability to properly handle the extent of these conflicts. For instance, in the Chadian conflict, where the OAU was initially reluctant to interfere, six countries—Benin, Guinea, Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zaire—were to contribute troops to the peacekeeping force sent to Chad. Eventually, only Nigeria, Senegal, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) could contribute troops, with the Nigerian forces being streamlined from 8,000 to 2,000 and the other countries contributing 600 and 700 troops, respectively. The OAU peacekeeping force in Chad failed to resolve the conflict in the country and, due to weak institutions, authority, and limited resources, contributed to the overthrow of the legitimate Chadian government. Less severely, in 2003, the AU Mission to Burundi, although primarily a success in negotiating a ceasefire between the warring Hutus and Tutsis, was significantly lacking in equipment, food, medicine, and other funds because the funds expected from Western organizations like the European Union and the World Health Organization arrived late. 


The OAU’s decision to act against the 1997 coup in Sierra Leone was arguably a turning point in the organization’s stance on non-intervention in internal affairs. The eventual transition to becoming the AU in 2002 sealed this position. The AU’s response to coups in member states differed utterly from the OAU. Through the PSC, the AU imposed sanctions on member states where coups occurred. A good example was the coup in Togo in 2005, where Faure Gnassingbé, the son of the previous Togolese president, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, was installed as president by the Togolese Armed Forces, disregarding plans for a democratic election. The PSC condemned the coup, suspended Togo from AU activities, demanded a constitutional succession, and collaborated with ECOWAS to impose an arms embargo and travel ban on Togolese leaders. All these pressures eventually led to the resignation of the coup-imposed government and the organization of a democratic election. The AU’s actions were replicated in Mauritania in 2009 when the PSC suspended Mauritania from the organization’s activities. The PSC also imposed visa denials and travel restrictions and froze the assets of everyone involved in the unconstitutional government of General Mohamed Ould Aziz, who had come in through a coup, eventually resulting in democratic elections. The AU’s modus operandi concerning coups remains unchanged, as seen in the 2008 coup in Guinea, the 2005 coup in Togo, and the 2015 coup in Burkina Faso 

The AU’s intervention is not limited to unconstitutional changes in government. Between 2003 and 2008, the AU deployed six peacekeeping operations to Burundi, Sudan, Comoros, and Somalia, an apparent deviation from the practice of its predecessor. One of the most pertinent successes of the AU in the area of intervention was its first peacekeeping mission to Burundi in 2003. Apart from the lack of resources, this mission was crucial in restoring peace to Burundi. These same successes in peacekeeping and mediation were replicated in Sudan in 2003 after the attack on the Sudanese government in Darfur by the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army. The AU’s intervention, which began with the deployment of observers to Darfur and later became the AU Mission in Sudan, was pivotal in reducing armed conflict, particularly the violent attacks on civilians. But, like in Burundi, this intervention was severely hindered by a lack of resources and how the Sudanese government undermined the AU’s authority.  


It is interesting to see the role that simply disavowing an unconstitutional government and imposing sanctions on said government has in establishing constitutional order in a country. A swift response to coup attempts and the imposition of sanctions has been pertinent in their failure. The Premium Times reports that since the AU took over, coup attempts in Africa have plummeted from 2.2 coups per year between 1960 and 1989 and 1.6 coups per year in the 1990s to 0.8 coups per year between 2000 and 2019.  The AU’s key role in reducing the burden of coups on Africa can be attributed to sanctions. Some scholars argue that sanctions do not compel governments and individuals to act a certain way. However, in many instances, sanctions have successfully discouraged specific actions. This becomes clearer in cases like the 2017 Zimbabwean coup. There, the military took over from the democratically elected government of Robert Mugabe. The reluctance or rather sluggish response of the AU to declare this a coup and demand that the democratic government be reinstated led to the seemingly forceful resignation of Mugabe and what can be considered the coup’s success. More substantially, the AU’s impact was more evident in the 2015 Burkina Faso coup, where the presidential guard of President Blaise Compaoré launched a coup against President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Isaac Zida. The AU condemned the coup and suspended Burkina Faso from its activities. However, the threat of sanctions by both the AU and ECOWAS forced the coup leaders to give up power. The potency of sanctions was also apparent in the 2005 Togo coup and the 2008 coup in Mauritania, where sanctions by the AU and ECOWAS compelled coup plotters to return to constitutional order. However, the AU’s sanction imposition cannot be considered in isolation. It is pivotal to point out that the AU’s successes are often a result of its partnerships with other organizations and are hardly ever unilateral. For example, the AU partnership with ECOWAS to stop the Burkina Faso, Togo, and Mauritania coups strengthened its stand against the coups. 

Furthermore, the interventions of the AU and the lack thereof have portrayed the inherent resource constraints in African countries. The AU has shown that although it has good intentions, it needs more resources to fund its intentions. This is primarily because the AU gets its resources from member states, and many of its members are either too poor to contribute to the AU’s fund or too consumed with conflict and insecurity of their own to be concerned with other countries’ troubles. The provision of troops for the AU’s missions often depends on a few African states, particularly South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, Senegal, Rwanda, and Benin.  

South African troops largely carried out the mission to Burundi in 2003 and Comoros in 2006. Similarly, the troops deployed in the 2007 African Union Mission in Somalia were all provided by Uganda for a year. The AU cannot carry out effective peacekeeping missions outside of the generosity of very few states, which would not be an immense problem if a lack of resources did not often hinder these states. Usually, the AU requires the higher intervention of Western bodies and countries like the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States. For instance, due to the need for more resources in the 2004 AU Mission in Sudan, the AU had to partner with the United Nations in an AU/UN peacekeeping operation. 

But can Africa continue to depend on external actors to solve its problems? The answer is an obvious ‘yes’, and will be for a while. Because although the phrase ‘African solutions to African problems’ is continuously peddled, it is difficult to expect that the solutions to the problems on a continent that has been routinely plundered and undermined could come from within. 

However, Africa must expect and withstand the nonchalant and detrimental response that comes with a reliance on the West for solutions. For instance, although the three years of the Nigerian Civil War were lacking in OAU intervention—save for the OAU’s affirmation of support for the Nigerian government (which in itself was a form of interference)—the war was not short of the support of France, Great Britain, and Russia who fuelled the conflict by providing arms to both sides. The same warning can also be drawn from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where external forces led by the United Nations, the United States, and Great Britain were unwilling to step financially and militarily into the brewing conflict in Rwanda because it was not in their interest and eventually did not act. The 2003 Burundi conflict referred to earlier also points towards this.  

This is not to suggest that the UN and other Western countries do not establish exceptional interventions in Africa as they did in the Congo and Liberia. However, it is essential to remember that in international relations, the alignment of interests still plays a role in peacekeeping interventions. 

Lastly, the hegemonic stability theory can be applied here in a likely argument that if Africa had one or two hegemons, conflicts, instability, and insecurity could have been significantly reduced. However, Africa is missing a hegemon. This may be because almost all African countries simultaneously attained independence from European powers and hence had to grow together. It could also be because no African country with enough political, economic, and military power has achieved substantial internal stability. However, the AU does not have a ‘great power’ country with the capacity to influence the actions of other member states and fund its intervention activities in its membership. Hence, it needs more adequate leadership. Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the biggest contenders for the position of hegemony, but they have yet to rise to the task. In the early years of independence, Nigeria made great strides in its attempt to be a ‘big brother in Africa,’ particularly in supporting decolonization in other African countries and conflict mediation. For example, in the 1965 Chadian conflict, the first peacekeeping force in Chad, which arrived in 1979, was Nigerian. Following this, Nigeria contributed most of the troops involved in the 1981 OAU peacekeeping mission and led and hosted the 1979 mediation between the warring sides in Kano, Nigeria. However, even Africa’s potential big brother faced conflict, corruption, and insecurity. Similarly, under the rulership of Nkrumah, Ghana could have been a hegemon on the continent; however, even Nkrumah, a prominent founding member of the organization, was ousted from leadership, and the OAU did nothing about it. 

The AU has made great strides in diverging from the position of the OAU on peacekeeping intervention on the continent. But efforts are all it will remain if the AU does not deal with the holdbacks that hindered the OAU. However, the AU may be unable to rid itself of the hindrances to more effective peacekeeping missions for a long time. A solution for the organization would be to focus more on conflict prevention than conflict management. Suppose the AU can set up adequate early warning and response systems. In that case, it could prevent the outbreak of conflicts, spend less on peacekeeping missions, and realize its goal of peacebuilding on the continent

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