The Role of the OAU in Conflict Management in Africa

Cedric de Coning,
First Secretary, South African Embassy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Published in Monograph No. 10, Conflict Management, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding, April 1997


Most people involved in peacekeeping are aware of the existence of at least two Chapters of the United Nations Charter, namely Chapter VI, 'The Pacific Settlement of Disputes' and Chapter VII, 'Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression'. Few are, however, familiar with Chapter VIII, 'Regional Arrangements'.

Chapter VIII provides for regional arrangements to deal with the maintenance of international peace and security, provided such arrangements are consistent with the purposes and principles of the UN. It further mandates such arrangements to make every effort to pacify regional disputes before referring them to the Security Council, and suggests that such initiatives be taken either on the initiative of the states concerned or by reference to the Security Council. Chapter VIII also mandates the Security Council to utilise such regional arrangements for enforcement, but stipulates that no enforcement action should be taken under regional arrangements without the authorisation of the Security Council.1

It is known today that what the UN Charter envisaged under Chapter VIII has in fact become one of the major phenomena of the post-Cold War era, namely the emergence and growing importance of regional blocks or organisations as actors in the international arena. Contemporary examples of such 'Regional Arrangements' include the European Union (EU), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and, in Africa, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and sub-regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (IGADD) in the Horn of Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

These regional organisations did, off course, not come about by the design of the UN. They evolved in their own right, according to the particular confluence of interests of their own members. What Chapter VIII does, is to provide a framework for the relationship between the UN, being responsible for global security, and these regional bodies. Few modern regional bodies have developed because of common security needs. Most have evolved as economic blocks that look at security only in as far as it is regarded as a stumbling block for development. As a result, the relationship between these organisations and the UN, especially when it comes to security, is far less developed than generally understood.

In advocating a subsidiary model for peacemaking through a more dynamic operationalisation of Chapter VIII, Knight2 has argued that:
  • there is a recognised need at the moment to protect the UN system from further 'overload' if it is to survive as an effective and efficient world institution;

  • provision has already been made, within the UN Charter (Chapter VIII), for dividing the labour of global governance between the universal body and regional arrangements and agencies; and

  • the subsidiary concept is compatible with that provision and with the view that the UN and regional organisations should co-operate to build consensus on regional conflicts and should engage in joint undertakings.
Knight uses the concept 'subsidiary' in the broadest sense as "the principle according to which a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level."

Few will argue with the logic of this argument, or the obvious advantages for the UN if it could delegate some of its responsibilities, and perhaps especially, some of its expenditure, to regional authorities. The reality is that the relationships between the UN and regional institutions are far less structured today than is provided for in Chapter VIII, or than what is generally argued to be the case by both the UN and the regional organisations. There are numerous reasons for this, many of them linked to the very reasons why these regional organisations came into being, such as a preference for downsizing, a preoccupation with the region, a strong feeling of independence and own identity, mistrust of the UN system linked to a view that the UN Security Council is unrepresentative, etc.

This situation cannot be blamed solely on the regional organisations. The UN has been remarkably ineffective in engaging such organisations in real terms, i.e. in moving beyond reports and representations at meetings to real co-operation and co-ordination of its activities and initiatives with regional organisations. At best, one can say that in the last decade the UN has made more use of regional agencies than in the preceding years. In most cases, however, this has been more a case of the UN temporarily abdicating its responsibilities to a country which was better able to handle an Iraq, a Haiti or a Somalia, than it can be said to have been a co-ordinated utilisation of the regional arrangement concept. The crisis in Burundi, and the regional initiatives culminating in the Arusha I and Arusha II decisions firstly, to mount a regional security initiative and secondly, to introduce economic sanctions to force the military government to return to legality, is perhaps a much better example of the kind of initiatives regional organisations can take. At the same time, however, one should note that there was probably little, if any, co-ordination between the UN, the OAU and the region beyond perhaps a phone call or two between some of the regional leaders and the UN Secretary-General.

This leaves a situation which calls for improvement, but one which can be said to enjoy a broad consensus of purpose, i.e. the UN system and regional organisations can be said to desire closer co-operation and co-ordination, although few have been able to turn desire into practice. Africa, and more specifically the OAU, is no exception. But beyond issues of co-ordination, the very efficacy of regional organisations such as the OAU is widely regarded with scepticism. This is perhaps due to a lack of understanding of a number of initiatives taken in recent years to enhance the OAU's capacity to deal with conflict on the African continent. Cognisance should also be taken of the very real contributions which the OAU has made towards the prevention and resolution of conflicts in Africa, and of the very limited resources available for such efforts.


The conflict management arena in Africa has undergone radical change over the past decade. Africa's colonial legacy resulted in the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states being embedded in the Charter of the OAU as one of its 'unshakeable' founding principles. This principle effectively precluded collective action to address civil wars and other internal conflicts in Africa by the OAU or other African government institutions in the past.

As a result, the conflict management arena in Africa was dominated by foreign, mostly European, concerns, interests and initiatives. For example, the Portuguese facilitated negotiations between Angola's factions in 1990-92, followed by the UN in 1993-95; the Italians mediated the end of the Mozambique civil war during 1991-1992; and the US took the lead with regard to Ethiopia in 1990-1991 and Somalia in 1992-1993.3

This changed in June 1993,4 when the 29th OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government met in Cairo to establish the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution.5 The Mechanism institutionalised conflict resolution at the centre of the OAU's being, and established the Central Organ, a committee of member states, to take charge of the process. Africa's experiences in Mozambique, Angola, Sudan, Liberia, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Somalia show that internal conflicts generate massive flows of displaced people and refugees, encourage the proliferation of arms which continues to fuel conflicts, spur crime and destroy the (economic/investment) credibility of the subregion and eventually that of the entire continent. Because these factors combined to hinder the economic development of individual countries, of regions, and of the continent, and because internal wars were recognised to have external consequences, collective action to manage these conflicts was now judged both appropriate and necessary.

The Central Organ is not unlike the UN Security Council, in that it has become the heart of the OAU's decision-making process on security issues, but it differs fundamentally from the Security Council in that it has no permanent membership and no veto powers. When the OAU established the Mechanism, it was agreed that the emphasis should be on the anticipation and prevention of conflicts. Where conflicts occurred, the Mechanism was tasked to undertake preventive or peacemaking initiatives to resolve the conflicts. Where conflicts deteriorated to the extent that international intervention became necessary, the OAU reiterated that it would seek the services of the UN under the terms of its Charter, recognising that African countries were also members of the UN, and that the UN is ultimately responsible for global security.


The Central Organ is a body of Member States, and as such it provides political direction for, and oversight over the Mechanism for the Prevention, Resolution and Management of Conflicts. The Central Organ gives operational counsel and legal authority to the Secretary-General, as the UN Security Council does for the UN Secretary-General. Its responsibilities include:
  • overall direction and co-ordination of the activities of the Mechanism;

  • the anticipation and prevention of conflicts (as a primary objective);

  • undertaking peacemaking and peacebuilding functions in circumstances where conflicts have occurred;

  • mounting and deploying civilian and military missions of observation and monitoring; and

  • laying down general guidelines for the operation of the Mechanism.
The Central Organ consists of the members of the Bureau of the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, elected annually in terms of the OAU's principles of equitable regional representation and rotation. The current chairperson, the outgoing chairperson and the incoming chairperson (the so-called troika ) are also members of the Central Organ (see figure 1). The current chairperson of the OAU, i.e. the chairperson of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, is also the chairperson of the Central Organ. The Secretary-General and the Conflict Management Division function as the Central Organ's operational arm.


It is important to note, however, that all member states of the OAU can, and often do attend Central Organ meetings and participate as observers. Decisions are taken on the basis of consensus and, in reality, there is little difference between members and non-members when it comes to their participation in Central Organ meetings. Furthermore, any OAU member state, whether a member of the Central Organ or not, can ask the Secretariat to call an urgent Central Organ meeting.6 If the OAU Secretariat, or one of the parties to a conflict, wish the Central Organ to discuss a conflict between two member states, it is a general rule that both parties should be present, or that they should at least have been invited to attend. The Central Organ can determine its own operating procedures and method of work and one can expect the general operationalisation of the Mechanism to be further refined over the years.

The Central Organ functions at three levels: Heads of State and Government, Ministers and Ambassadors. The Central Organ is supposed to meet once a year at the level of Heads of State and Government, twice a year at ministerial level and at least once a month at ambassadorial level (see figure 2). This arrangement is currently under review, because the Mechanism, like the UN Security Council, appears to be functioning quite adequately at ambassadorial level and, as a result, the need to consult at higher levels has increasingly been questioned.




The Conflict Management Division of the OAU Secretariat falls under the Political Department of the OAU. Its line of authority stretches from the Secretary-General, the Assistant Secretary-General in charge of Political Affairs, the Director of the Political Department, to the Head of the Division (see figure 3). With a newly expanded staff component, the Division now consists of approximately 14 officers arranged in two sections: the Conflict Resolution, Defence and Security Section, and the Conflict Prevention and Research Section. A military unit, currently staffed by two officers, resides within the Conflict Resolution, Defence and Security Section (see figure 4).



The Conflict Management Division's capacity will be greatly enhanced when its new Conflict Management Centre in Addis Ababa becomes fully operational. The first staff moved into the Centre during November 1996 and it is expected to be fully operational by the middle of 1997. The Conflict Management Centre comprises office space for approximately 14 professional officers and their support staff, and has a modern computer network that, for the first time, will enable the Conflict Management Division to make use of the Internet and perhaps establish direct computer links to the UN Secretariat and subregional security institutions. There is also a modern communication centre which will enable the OAU to maintain direct communication links with its missions in the field, and a 24-hour operations room.


The establishment of the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Resolution and Management in 1993 has resulted in a range of new initiatives which have fundamentally changed the behaviour of the OAU, and the way it is viewed both by its own member states and by the international community. One such new initiative is observing elections in Africa. OAU observer teams consist of diplomats, academics, parliamentarians, jurists and other leading figures. The principle is that successful transitions to democracy, of which free and fair elections are a significant element, is an integral part of conflict prevention. By having OAU election monitors in place at elections, the OAU has an almost automatic entry point should the situation require third party facilitation or mediation.

OAU election observers have participated, as at August 1996, in 50 elections in 33 African countries.7 These include all types of elections, such as referenda on self determination, constitutional referenda, election of constituent assemblies, and legislative and presidential elections. For example, the OAU dispatched election monitors to the 1978 implementation of Security Council Resolution 435 in Namibia, the referendum on self-determination for the people of Eritrea, and in the first historic non racial elections in South Africa in April 1994. An OAU team of observers is currently in Western Sahara as part of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).


Fact Finding and Mediation

Where conflicts appear imminent, the Secretary-General's modus operandi is to send an envoy or mission of enquiry to determine the facts and to recommend how the OAU can be helpful. It is significant that such OAU missions are almost never refused, even when the governments under question are reluctant to subject its internal troubles to outside scrutiny.

One of the most successful peace missions the OAU undertook, was in 1993 in the Republic of Congo. Although the Congo underwent a fairly smooth transition from a one-party state to a multiparty democracy through free and fair elections in 1992, the country became polarised along ethnic lines, tensions increased and the political parties started to form armed militias. When violence broke out, the Secretary-General dispatched an OAU mission to the Congo. The OAU mission was able to negotiate a cease-fire and organise talks with President Omar Bongo of Gabon as mediator. The talks resulted in a win-win solution and the situation stabilised.8 Three years later, the situation in the Congo remains relatively stable.

Currently, the OAU is involved in conflict management initiatives in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Zaire and to a lesser degree in Sudan and Angola. These activities range from intense involvement in every decision that involves the region's response to developments in Burundi, to direct mediation by OAU officials in a situation like Sierra Leone, to indirect involvement through special envoys in Liberia and Somalia, and ad hoc visits and meetings, as in the cases of the Sudan and Angola.

Peace Support Missions

The first time the OAU deployed military personnel in a peace support mission was in 1981, when an Inter African Force was deployed in Chad. As the first operation of this nature, it may perhaps best be described as a useful learning experience. The mission did not succeed in resolving the conflict in Chad for a variety of reasons, which include: inadequate planning, confusion over the mandate, absence of OAU command and control mechanisms, perceived partiality of some troop contributing countries, inadequate allocation of financial and logistical resources, and above all, lack of political will on the part of the parties in conflict.

The second time the OAU deployed military personnel in a peace support mission was in Rwanda. Soon after the eruption of conflict in Rwanda, and through concerted efforts by the OAU and neighbouring countries, the conflicting parties were able to sign the Arusha Agreement. As a result, the OAU deployed a Neutral Military Observer Group (NMOG) that monitored the Demilitarised Zone between the then Government of Rwanda and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). Despite isolated cease-fire violations, the OAU and NMOG successfully maintained some degree of stability in Rwanda until October 1993, when the operation was handed over to the UN.

The assassination of Burundi's democratically elected president in October 1993, resulted in a breakdown of law and order, violence and general instability. The UN Security Council turned down a proposal from UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to send a special mission to Burundi. The OAU organised a mission of its own, and it was able to negotiate, among others, the deployment of the OAU Military Observer Mission to Burundi (OMIB). It was a confidence-building mission of military and civilian officers with a mandate of working towards the restoration of peace and security in Burundi. Initially, the mission did very well to act as a neutral observer force that assisted, through its mere presence, in keeping tensions down to a manageable level.

The mission was largely funded by donor countries, a development that both set an important precedent for future OAU conflict management activities, and created a dilemma for the OAU as external funding necessarily diminished its control over missions. All the parties in Burundi, and the international community at large, agreed that OMIB played a crucial role in preventing the situation in Burundi from sliding down the same path of ethnic genocide as neighbouring Rwanda. Burundi was the OAU's success story. Despite all the OAU's efforts, and those of the Mwanza Peace Process under the guidance of former President Mwalimu Nyerere, the situation started to deteriorate towards the end of 1995, and even more so during the course of 1996. As a last ditch attempt, the leaders of the region agreed to a request from the Burundi Government to provide security assistance to Burundi at the Arusha I Summit in June 1996. A technical committee was set up to work out the modalities of the security assistance, but it was prevented from visiting Burundi. The Buyoya coup of 25 July 1996 brought the peace process to a temporary standstill and the OAU decided to withdraw OMIB in August 1996 because it felt that it was no longer possible for OMIB to carry out its mandate under the fundamentally changed circumstances brought about by the coup.

Apart from these direct involvements in peace support missions, the OAU played an important role in mobilising African participation in UNAMIR II in Rwanda, as well as in facilitating the participation of other African troops in the ECOMOG peacekeeping operation in Liberia. Whatever the difficulties and shortcomings of ECOMOG, one has to recognise that this operation represents a selfless response by African countries in an attempt to bring peace to that country. The sacrifices made, especially by the troop contributing countries, are enormous. If it cost the OAU approximately three hundred thousand US dollars per month to maintain sixty-four military observers in Burundi, one can imagine the cost to Nigeria of maintaining approximately seven thousand troops in Liberia. The ECOMOG operation in Liberia is the largest peacekeeping operation in Africa undertaken by African countries.

Potential Peacekeeping Roles

At the first ever OAU Chiefs of Staff meeting held in June 1996, OAU Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim argued that world events have demonstrated that, even though the OAU may wish to focus its efforts on the prevention of conflicts, it cannot exclude itself in some circumstances from undertaking activities of a peacekeeping nature.9 The OAU Summit in June 1995 in Addis Ababa had adopted a decision which, for the first time, provided for limited peacekeeping operations, under exceptional circumstances, to be conducted by the OAU itself.

The Chiefs of Staff meeting focused on two crucial issues, the strengthening of Africa's capacity in the field of peacekeeping under the aegis of the UN, and the modalities for limited peacekeeping operations undertaken by the OAU itself.

With regard to the first issue, there was general agreement that Africa could further develop its peacekeeping capacity through improved regional co-ordination and the standardisation of training, standard operating procedures, equipment (especially communications), logistics, etc. It was recognised that some regional organisations, such as SADC and ECOWAS, have already made significant progress in this regard, while similar developments in other regions have not yet been initiated.

In general, it has become clear that, while Africa is prepared to assume even more responsibility for peacekeeping in Africa, it does not want to erode the principle that the international community, through the UN, has collective responsibility for global security. In other words, the OAU should not be forced to accept sole responsibility for peacekeeping in Africa, while the UN looks after the rest of the world.

The consideration of modalities for limited peacekeeping operations under the aegis of the OAU, on the other hand, was met with more caution. While countries like Kenya rejected the concept in principle, arguing that the UN should be the only institution responsible for peacekeeping, others questioned the OAU's capacity to conduct peacekeeping operations, citing especially its lack of financial resources to fund such operations.10

Those who argue that there is a need for the OAU to conduct peacekeeping operations, state that the OAU may need to react to a crisis situation in Africa which requires military intervention, without having to wait for the Security Council to give the go-ahead. In such scenarios, either where the UN Security Council is slow to react, or where it is reluctant to act, the OAU, from an African perspective, may decide that intervention is justified.

To take a concrete example, the situation in Burundi may degenerate into a humanitarian tragedy similar to that of Rwanda, or even worse, may degenerate into full scale ethnic genocide. In such a scenario, the OAU may decide that military intervention is required on humanitarian grounds, and thus call on the UN to intervene. The UN Security Council, although recognising the severity of the crisis, may be slow to react, because none of its members are willing to take the lead. In the meantime, the OAU and individual African countries, which are directly affected by the conflict, may feel that they cannot continue to wait for the Security Council to take a decision, and may decide to unilaterally respond to the crisis by deploying an OAU multinational peacekeeping force. Such a force may then become part of a larger UN force once the UN decides to launch such an operation, at which time the OAU mission would be handed over to the UN. A major factor, however, is Africa's lack of resources, especially financially, to give it the necessary freedom to unilaterally decide on such operations. If it is unable to fund such an operation itself, it follows that whoever funds it for the OAU, will have a large influence on the objectives and operationalisation of the mission.

OAU Peace Fund

Apart from the normal operating expenditure of the Central Organ and Conflict Management Division which is covered by the OAU's regular budget, the OAU created a special fund for conflict management-related expenditure – the OAU Peace Fund. The Fund is intended to be used exclusively for financing activities of an operational nature. The fund is supported by an annual five per cent contribution from the OAU regular budget, by voluntary contributions from member states, and by sources outside Africa.

The total contribution received from 1 June 1995 to 25 March 1996 was just over seven million US$ ($7 439 723, 28). (See figure 5.) This comprised of a balance of about three million US$ ($3 820 427, 67), approximately one and a half million US$ ($1 508 000, 00) from the regular OAU budget, about four hundred thousand US$ ($441 527, 90) from voluntary contributions from OAU member states, interest, and just over one and a half million US$ ($1 620 631, 93) from special contributions, i.e. from outside Africa. From its inception in 1993 to March 1996, African countries have contributed approximately five million US$ of which about one million were voluntary contributions by Algeria, Lesotho, Egypt, Mauritius, Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa. Over the same period, approximately six and a half million US$ was contributed by the following countries: Indonesia, China, Germany, the US, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Norway Spain, and Korea. In other words, Africa's contributions to the OAU Peace Fund make up approximately 50 per cent of the total contributions received since its inception. Most of the contributions from outside Africa are earmarked for specific purposes, e.g. the German, Belgium, Swedish, Italian, and Danish contributions have all been specifically earmarked for Burundi, i.e. to fund OMIB. The US was the largest contributor, with an amount of approximately four million US$. A large chunk of the US contribution is earmarked to establish, within the OAU, a capacity to deploy a 100-man observer force.



Total expenditure over the same period amounted to over seven million seven hundred thousand US$ ($ 7 759 366, 73) which resulted in a deficit of about three hundred thousand US$ ($ 319 643, 45) at the end of March 1996. Peace support missions are by their very nature costly affairs. They require the movement of heavy equipment and large numbers of people, and costly supply lines to maintain them in hostile circumstances. It costs the OAU approximately three hundred thousand US$ per month to maintain 64 military observers in Burundi. What thus appears to be a routine decision, e.g. the OAU Central Organ decision at the end of March 1996 to extend the mandate of OMIB in Burundi for another three months, has in fact been a decision to authorise the expenditure of approximately one million US$. It becomes even more remarkable when one realises that this was done at a time when the Peace Fund was at three hundred thousand US$ deficit.


The OAU, through its Mechanism, clearly has an increasingly important role to play in the management of conflict on the African continent. The unfortunate reality, one with which the OAU Secretary-General is confronted on a daily basis, is that conflicts such as those in Somalia and Rwanda, and those still unfolding in Liberia and Burundi, cannot be put on ice while Africa and the OAU develop a co-operative peacekeeping capacity over the next decades. These conflicts are at this very moment causing hundreds of deaths and immense suffering among Africa's peoples. Africa's leadership is under immense pressure to come up with real-time solutions. Whether mandating the OAU to undertake peacekeeping operations on its own will assist us in coming closer to this objective, depends on how the member states of the OAU will apply this new tool in the years to come, and upon the kind of support received from the broader international community.

The OAU's lack of resources, especially financially, will deny it the freedom to unilaterally decide on the strategic, tactical and operational aspects of peace operations which it may wish to initiate. If it is unable to fund such an operation itself, it follows that whoever funds such initiatives will have a large influence on the objectives and operationalisation of the mission. Reliance on foreign funding means that donors can influence those missions which the OAU can initiate and those which it cannot. Based on their own interests in the situation, donors can determine the duration of a mission, and can influence a mission's mandate by placing terms and conditions on continued funding, or by withdrawing funding if the OAU wishes to amend the scope of the mission.

This reality has important implications for the implementation of Chapter VIII. If the UN were to delegate more conflict management responsibilities to the OAU, as Knight suggested, it would have to, at the same time, provide it with the necessary resources to carry out its enlarged mandate, without a variety of national strings attached to such support.


  1. J Cilliers and M Malan, South Africa and Regional Peacekeeping, CSIS Africa Notes, 187, 1996.

  2. A Knight, Towards a Subsidiary Model for Peacemaking and Preventative Diplomacy: Making Chapter VIII of the Charter Operational, Third World Quarterly, 17(1), 1996, pp. 31 50.

  3. H Cohen, Conflict Management in Africa, CSIS Africa Notes, 181, 1996.

  4. This historic decision of 1993 was preceded by another groundbreaking OAU Summit in July 1990, which adopted a Declaration on the Political and Socio-Economic Situation in Africa and the Fundamental Change Taking Place in the World, in which the leaders of Africa committed themselves to the democratisation of the continent, good governance, and the peaceful and speedy resolution of all conflicts.

  5. For the full text of the Report of the Secretary-General on the Establishment, within the OAU, of a Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, see Resolving Conflicts in Africa, OAU Information Services Publication, series II, 1993. The report was adopted on 29 June 1993 by the 29th Assembly of Heads of State and Government, Cairo, 28-30 June 1996.

  6. For a detailed exposition of the modalities of the Mechanism, see Method of Work of the Central Organ of the OAU Mechanism for Conflict prevention, Management and Resolution, Central Organ/Mec/AHG.2(1).

  7. For more information on this aspect, see the Report of the Secretary-General on the Process of Election Monitoring by the OAU, CM/1949 (LXIV), July 1996.

  8. Cohen, op. cit.

  9. For a background of the evolution of the issues related to peace and security within the OAU, see the full text of Dr Salim Ahmed Salim's speech at the opening of the Meeting of the Chiefs of Staff of Member States of the OAU Central Organ, June 1996.

  10. For the full text of the seven 'Major Recommendations' adopted at the meeting, see the Report of the Meeting of the Chiefs of Staff of Member States of the Central Organ of the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, OAU/CO/C.STAAFF/RPT(I), June 1996.