The African Union’s Most Elusive Dream Sudan, Somalia and the AU’s Unending Challenge of Internal Wars

The transformation from the OAU to the AU meant accepting that the challenges Africa faced had changed from those faced during the decolonization era. Among the new challenges, the most perverse were internal wars. The AU attempted to invest heavily in mechanisms that would ‘silence the guns’ on the continent. In the trajectories of Somalia and Sudan, it seems that silencing the guns has remained an elusive dream.

The formation of the African Union (AU) in 2001 was meant to deal with new socio-economic and security realities that were not envisaged at the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. Chief among these was the challenge of settling internal crises in member countries and developing the regional governance ability to stop civil wars. The horror of 1994 in Rwanda where the OAU could only watch whilst close to one million people were mass murdered by Hutu extremists in a civil war driven by tribal hatred, as well as other cases of internal armed conflict in Sudan and around the Great Lakes Region indicated that the modus operandi had to change. It was the principle of non-interference, enshrined in the founding Charter of the OAU that proved an albatross in dealing with armed conflicts within countries. Thus, the formation of the AU in 2001 marked a transition from the principle of non-interference towards the principle of non-indifference. With hope and idealism, African heads of state and government laid the foundations for the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) in 2002, building on the OAU’s Mechanism on Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution. With APSA, the AU put the governance of peace and security as the cornerstone of its house. However, the AU has faced challenges in dealing with internal armed conflict.


Somalia has had a perennial internal armed conflict comparable to no other on the African continent. From the 1990s up to date, the nation-state of Somalia has carried the image tag of a failed state because of internal armed conflict and external interests. The country called Somalia today is a small fraction of the territory the Somali people lived prior to the advent of Western colonization. Situated in and at the tip of the Horn of Africa, Somalia’s geo-location made its interface with both Western and Arab international trade an ever-present happening. Arching the Gulf of Arden and the large coastline for the Red Sea, the lands of Somalia interfaced with Arab, Asian and Western merchants. Its location also played into the geo-political aspirations of Imperial Ethiopia. Thus, with the advent of the imperial verve and, subsequently, European colonization in the late 1880s, Somalia found itself the envy and target of four imperial powers: Britain, France, Italy and Ethiopia. By 1939, Somalia had been carved out. France appropriated the region around Djibouti; Italy sliced the Southern part covering Mogadishu and Puntland; Ethiopia took another chunk of Somaliland now called the Somali region; Britain achieved dominance over the Northern territory also called the Somaliland Protectorate.

This colonial division and rule seemingly tore at any sense of unity amongst Somali clans. The Somalia traditional governance structure was made of patrilineal clans which were also subdivided into sub-clans. Colonization magnified the clan rivalries that have come to haunt and tear Somali unity and indeed peace. Asking any citizen of the Horn of Africa, the ready factor they attribute to the internal armed conflict in the region and particularly in Somalia is the clan and genealogical divisions amongst the Somali.

This clan rivalry was further exacerbated by the blatant exclusionary rule of General Mohamed Siad Barre who came into power in 1969 through a coup d’état against the elected government of President Abdirashid Shermarke. From 1969 up until he was overthrown by militias, Siad Barre mainly governed with his Darod clan much to the exclusion of other clans. If exclusion was not enough, the Africa Watch Committee in 1990 released a report titled Somalia: A Government at War with Its Own People detailing massive human rights abuses and what it termed state-sponsored terrorism against the Isaaq and the Hawiye clans. Hussein M. Adam, a Somali academic, journalist and documentary maker, writes that Siad Barre singled out the Isaaq Clan for punishment, removing them from positions of power and authority including in the military and judiciary. This fuelled the clan’s armed rebellion which morphed into the Somali National Movement (SNM). In response, Barre sought to clamp down on any rebellion, particularly that of the Isaaq clan leading to the bombing of cities. The northwest administrative centre of Hargeisa, the stronghold of the SNM was targeted leading to civilian deaths of not less than 50 000 people from May 1989 to the beginning of 1990.

By this time, Siad Barre’s tenure had lost all moral authority and hung on the barrel of the gun. The consequence was an increase in internal and external resistance movements. Some of the movements included the United Somali Congress (USC), the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM), the Somali Democratic Alliance (SDA), the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SNA) and the dominant SNM. By late 1989, the country was engulfed in civil war. In 1991, the Barre regime was toppled, the Somali National Army (SNA) disintegrated, and Somaliland seceded, declaring autonomy and independence from Mogadishu. With the fall of Siad Barre, these movements and groups have been competing for authority and dominance over the power vacuum.

The OAU could not do anything and Somalia descended into a failed state. Compounding the situation has been the upsurge of internationally linked terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab, whose sole reason is destabilization and religious fundamentalism. Up to 2023, Somalia has not managed to achieve effective political centralization. In 2007, the AU deployed the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) designed to support the Mogadishu Government and to protect civilians. AMISOM has provisions from the United Nations.

Sudan has had a long-running civil strife that is dated back to 1955. The civil war in Sudan can be broken down into three, namely the first (1955-1972), the second (1983- 2004) and the third (April 2023 and still ongoing). Various explanations have been put forward as possible causes of the first two civil wars. The main ones have been the ethnolinguistic, religious and periphery exploitation concepts. The 2023 civil war can be seen as a power contestation between two powerful men with ambitions.

The first civil war, according to historian and professor, Scopas S. Poggo in his book, The First Sudanese Civil War: Africans, Arabs and Israelis in the Southern Sudan, 1955-1972, was caused by the dominance of Northern elites in both public and private state institutions as well as in the economy. Sudan, like other African countries whose borders were arbitrarily caved by colonialism had a complex racial and ethnic population. However, the main racial demarcation was on the Arab (or Arabised) north and the Black-dominated south, given that Sudan was also racially impacted by the wave of Arab settlers who came before British colonialism.

It was from the Arabs’ naming of the country ‘Bilad al-Sudani’ (land of Blacks) that the country derived its name of Sudan. The resultant marginalization of the south, as noted by Poggo, fomented ‘conflict between the marginalized peoples (in Southern Sudan, Southern Blue Nile, Darfur, Kordofan and the Beja Red Sea Hills) and the political and economic elite in Northern Sudan.’ The broad differences between the North and the South on race, language and religion which dated back some hundreds of years and also amplified by the Anglo-Egyptian colonialism reared its head in the post-colonial period. During British colonial rule, the colonial government in Sudan deliberately barred the religious and cultural links between the North and the South and promoted Christianity, English and European lifestyles against Arabic and Islam. Additionally, without any deliberate assimilation, the British brought the North and the South together at independence, with political and economic power in the hands of the North. The northern elites expected that the southern Black Somalis would assimilate into the Arabic language and Islamic religion just as they did during their time. This became another front of conflict given that people from southern provinces kept to their languages and religion. There was an attempt by the government to impose Arabic and Islam in the South at the expense of local cultures, Christianity and English. This created the mentality of a second colonization of the southern Black Somalis and hence caused the civil war. The war was ended by the 27 February 1972 Addis Ababa Accord under the presidency of Muhammad Numeiri. Numeiri attempted to solve the grievances of the South and under the Regional Self-Government Act, the three Southern Provinces of Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria and Upper Nile, were made into a single region with its own High Executive Council (HEC) and regional assembly.

The second civil war followed on the heels of the first. It was Numeiri who disregarded the Addis Ababa Accord and decreed on 5 June 1983 the division of the South into its original three provinces. This culminated in the mutinies of the Southern rebels who had been absorbed into the armed forces. The rebellion was led by Colonel John Garang de Mabior who was the head of the military research in Khartoum. Garang and other Southern rebel leaders formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The SPLA fought with government forces as well as government-sponsored militia units. There were also struggles within the struggle in SPLA, which led to a split into four factions, initially, after some members led by Riek Machar attempted to depose Garang whom they viewed as too brutal and dictatorial. These factions later cam together under the name SPLA United. An important take-off from the civil war was that Garang drove the rebellion as one for all Sudanese against a dictatorial government in the North. His view was that the Sudanese people should derive unity in their various diversities without breaking the country into smaller units.

Various changes were also taking place in and outside Sudan, which would lead to the agreement of a settlement in January 2005. These transformations included the ascendance of Omar al-Bashir to the presidency in Khartoum, the fallout between Sudan and the US due to Sudan’s support of Saddam Hussein during the gulf war and the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, two countries that had given havens to the rebels as well as military support. Through various negotiations that were led by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional countries’ umbrella body, with the involvement of the US, UK, Norway and Italy, the SPLA and the government signed a final peace agreement on 9 January 2005. The peace agreement created a power-sharing agreement in which Garang became the first vice president and also a premier of the South. The deal would allow for the power-sharing government for six years after which a referendum would be conducted for the South to choose whether to remain with Sudan or secede. The referendum was held in January 2011 and the South chose secession with more than 98 percent votes in favour of independence. The voting, however, took place after the demise of Garang who had passed on in a helicopter crash in July 2005.

The third civil war came after the military takeover of power in April 2019, in the wake of a civil uprising that began in December 2018. The major known cause of the war was the integration of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under the command of Lt. Gen. Muhamed Hamdan Dagalo into the Sudanese Armed Forces under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhani and the question of who would command the integrated forces. Political scientist, Susan Stigant, put forward that, ‘At its foundation, the fighting is a struggle over power in the security sector and the exercise of power in the state. The timing and sequencing of the integration of the RSF forces in the SAF has been one of the main sticking points, as Hemetti argued that reforms for a more inclusive, professional military are needed before his forces integrate.’

The two military units had been autonomous from each other with the RSF having transformed from the Janjaweed militia and turned into a paramilitary unit under the presidency of Omar al-Bashir in 2013 and its leaders given military ranks. The two leaders co-operated together the ousting of Al-Bashir in 2019 and in staging a coup against the power-sharing deal with civilians led by then prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, in October 2021. Dagalo was in all the two incidents given the post to deputize Al-Burhani. As of writing, the para-military unit is composed of battle-hardened veterans who have fought civil wars in Darfur, Northern Sudan before secession, Yemen and Libya.

However, there are also external influences on the war. The military was seen as warming up to the idea of having a Russian base at the Red Sea, a situation that would not be pliant with the US. There were also allegations that the Russian Private Military Company, Wagner, was working in Sudan to guard gold mines. Such allegations would be in sharp contrast to the US interests, especially in the wake of the pushing out of various European militaries and their alleged replacement with Wagner in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and also having a presence in Libya.

What is important to note is that Sudanese civil wars have been among the longest in Africa. The second war had a death toll of more than two million, with millions more affected as either refugees or internally displaced people and much more unquantified costs on development. Like the Sudanese civil wars, the Somalian conflict has also been a long-running one and has had direct threats to regional peace and security in the Horn of Africa. This is a direct regression of the socio-economic development principles of the AU. It is therefore prudent to discuss how the AU has handled the conflicts in these regions.


The transformation from the OAU to the AU came with optimism, at least for those who expected the continental body to work towards peaceful resolutions of conflicts on the continent. One popular element of the transformation was the move from ‘non-intervention to non-indifference’. The transformation was happening when the global world was being introduced to the concept of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, one of whose theorists was Francis M. Deng, from Sudan. The concept argued that the period where states used the concept of sovereignty to shield themselves from external scrutiny when committing human rights violations was now in the past and sovereignty denoted responsibility to protect the citizens. This meant that the AU was now looking to create a union of systems and institutions that could deal with even internal affairs in individual member states for the betterment of all Africans. The AU transformation was meant to create a system that would curb disturbances to peace, namely unconstitutional governments, coup d’états, terrorism, civil wars and inter-state wars. This is not to say that conflicts would not occur, but that the continental body would capacitate itself to deal with the conflicts before they ballooned out of control.

The AU got involved in Somalia initially when it approved the intervention of the IGAD to deploy a mission in the country under the code name IGAD Peace Support Mission in Somalia. The AU took up the Somalian case in 2006 under the name AMISOM. The mandate for AMISOM was to reduce the threat posed by Al-Shabaab and any other armed opposition groups, assist the Somali Security Forces to provide security and stability to the political process for peacebuilding and gradually hand over security responsibilities to Somali Security Forces when they acquire abilities and capabilities for security. AMISOM was credited with bringing down the threat of Al-Shabaab in Somalia. However, it failed to bring sustainable peace and stability to the point of handing back responsibilities to the Somali government and its forces. AMISOM was replaced by the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia on 1 April 2022.

AMISOM had five forces contributing countries namely, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. From a simple analytical perspective, the involvement of Ethiopia and Kenya was problematic as these countries have interests in who should be in power and their demands. Ethiopia was arm-twisted by the US to invade Somalia in 2006 when the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) had transformed the country into a stable environment. Kenya’s involvement created challenges within Kenya that have spurred a cycle of blame on terrorism and how Kenyan Somalis and Muslims are treated in the north leads to radicalization. It would have been prudent if the mission had brought in forces that were not linked with regional politics so as to have objective judgements on issues.

AMISOM was faced with several challenges that doomed its mission to longevity and failure. The AU should have looked deeper into the causes of the conflict and should have interrogated why the ICU succeeded at bringing stability. By concentrating on building peace on the foundations of the interests of not only the external hegemons but also the regional neighbours, the AU doomed itself to failure. It is known that the US had never wanted to see the ICU in power in Mogadishu despite its stabilizing records. The US went on to sponsor warlords, and the current crisis in Somalia is partly because of external interests at the expense of internal peace and security. The AU should be able to stand on its own and move from being used as an instrument for hegemonic pursuits by regional and global powers.

Sudan is an important geostrategic country whose stability ‘has a direct impact on 17 neighbouring’ countries. Ensuring peace and stability in Sudan would allow the AU to work on stabilizing other unstable areas like Libya. The AU had not been active in stopping the crises in Sudan but has only focused on peacekeeping or monitoring forces as was the case with the 2004 African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which was a peacekeeping force in primarily Darfur. The AU came into being when various players were already working to bring peace during the second Sudanese civil war. IGAD played a major role with support from the US and the UK, among other partners, which led to the peace agreement of January 2005 and a roadmap for a referendum, which culminated in the birth of South Sudan in 2011.

The main test for the AU was to come in the third civil war of 2023. In the third civil war, the role of the AU has been at best pathetic. The body has stuck to its old system of simply suspending Sudan from the AU and has been playing second fiddle to the joint mediation of the US and Saudi Arabia which is mostly driven by the need to have humanitarian corridors. It seems that the concepts of ‘African solutions to African problems’ and ‘silencing the guns’ were just other catchphrases for conferences as there is no pro-action in the early stages of conflicts to halt the conflicts and ensure that the cost of civil wars to civilian lives is minimized. The AU should have worked on its initial successes after the coup when it managed to push the military junta to accept a unity government with the civilian leaders of the uprising and also create a roadmap to a return to civilian rule. However, it seems that where there are entrenched Western interests, the AU is immobilized, as was the case with the Libyan uprising in 2011.

The AU with its Peace and Security Council continued to play second fiddle to the interests of greater powers, specifically the US, in the Sudanese and Somali internal wars. The AU failed to take pro-active roles in Sudan and in the third civil war only suspended the country and left peace initiatives to be driven by Saudi Arabia and the US. The Union could not even take drastic measures like sanctions and embargos to bring the warring sides to negotiations in Addis Ababa.

In Somalia, the AU failed to take into account the dynamics of the conflict and separate between regional countries’ interests and the need for peace. Hence the deployment of forces from Kenya and Ethiopia to balance regional interests failed to bring the necessary peace. The AU also failed to appreciate the concerns of the ICU and played into internal and external politics at the expense of the success of its initiative. It is also important to note that as long as the AU still relies on external funding, the process of ensuring peace and security will remain elusive given that it will remain driven by the interests of its funders. That the peace missions of the AU are funded by the European Union and the US among others only condemns the AU to failure

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