19 June, 2012

Of Solidarity Politics and African Dis(Unity): The Shifting of the AU Summit

by George A. Mhango

The announcement by Malawi on Friday 8th June 2012 that it is not hosting the African Union (AU) summit takes the debates about realities of disunity in the purportedly cohesive African continental organization to a new level. It is becoming clear that some countries are ready to reverse their earlier mistakes on the subject of compliance with arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on serving African leaders. All along, the AU has vehemently argued that it does not recognize international arrest warrants on serving heads of African governments on the basis of their immunity, and the organization further urged its member states not to comply with such arrest warrants.

Yet, only months after giving the Sudanese leader, Omar al-Bashir a red-carpet reception at a regional summit, Malawi made it clear that it was not ready to repeat the gesture during the forthcoming 19th AU summit which was supposed to take place in Lilongwe from 9th to 16th July 2012. The venue has since been moved to Addis Ababa. Malawi expressed that it was not ready to accept any conditions from the AU for it to host the summit, further arguing that, much as it was bound by continental obligations, it also had [other] obligations to international protocols and that it was in the best interest of Malawians to comply with the ICC since Malawi was a signatory to the Rome Statues. This was in protest to a directive from AU that all heads of state should be invited to the Lilongwe summit. Hence, to avoid being dragged into a quandary of continental versus global allegiance, Malawi decided to surrender the hosting of the summit, thereby putting the celebrated solidarity politics of the African Union to the test.

Africa received the announcement with mixed reactions. For some it was an expression of cowardice by the new Malawi government in that was ready to give up the ideals of solidarity for the sake of serving an imperialist agenda. Others lauded the development as a signal that some African states were ready to implement the Rome Statutes that established the mandate of the ICC.

However, there was another reason to believe that Malawi was going to give up the summit at some point. Soon after her ascendancy to the presidency in April 2012, Joyce Banda was pessimistic about the capacity of Malawi to host the summit in light of the country’s seriously deteriorated fiscal stance which is currently having serious knock-on effects on the economic position of the government she inherited following the sudden death of Bingu wa Mutharika. But even after resolving to proceed to host the summit, following consultations with government and civil society, Banda categorically stated in May 2012 that the Sudanese president should not come to Malawi for the summit because Malawi was ready to comply with ICC arrest warrant. She indicated that she was not ready to damage her efforts aimed at diplomatic reconstruction with key donors by ignoring international obligations such as the Rome Statutes to which Malawi is a signatory.

Of course, the establishment of the ICC has not received universal reception in Africa as evidenced by some countries that have yet to sign the international agreement and hence do not feel bound by any obligations under the statutes. These countries argue that there is no need for an international policeman masquerading as the executor of justice in countries that are self-governing and have internal laws capable of supporting the wellbeing of their citizens. Ethiopia is one such country, and hence it is no surprise that Sudan insisted that the Summit be shifted to Addis Ababa after the president of Malawi had advised the Sudanese president to stay away from the Lilongwe Summit or risk being arrested.

However, without dwelling on global justifications and condemnations, a sober reflection on the developments reveals that the African Union’s stance to have all heads of state invited to this year’s continental summit had merit and a moral basis. Among the many reasons, Sudan and South Sudan are on the Agenda and it was only in the interest of natural justice that the president of Sudan must be invited to the heads of state summit. The challenge however was that the venue of the summit was predetermined a year prior to the summit which, ceteris paribus, was a non-conformist and non-cooperating government to the ICC despite being a signatory to the Rome Statute. Hence, there was no doubt that Malawi would be receptive to a visit by the Sudanese head of state, and the pace was clearly set in October 2011 when Malawi defied the ICC arrest warrant by ably hosting the Sudanese leader.

But four months before the summit, a change in the political landscape led to a reformist and somewhat conformist new government that has found itself between a rock and hard place with regard to respect of international standards, fear of donors and satisfaction of AU standards for hosting a summit for heads of governments. Hence, under pressure from the international society and in a bid to save its ailing economy, Malawi snubbed a crucial summit participant whose presence adds immense value to deliberations on the question of South Sudan.

In light of the foregoing, it is also important to understand that Malawi’s unique relationship with the continental body which reflects departures from norms in certain crucial moments. A historical perspective of this relationship reveals some unorthodox anti-solidarity resolves made by Malawi and most often in response to its difficult economic situations. On such occasions, the main argument has been that the government was not ready to sacrifice its people for the sake of continental good citizenship.

For instance, during the 1964 Organization for African Unity (OAU) summit, just months after independence, Malawi’s first president Dr Hastings Banda openly declared his refusal to support sanctions on the regimes in Zimbabwe (then under Ian Smith who unilaterally declared independence from Britain but was suppressing self determination movements by Black Zimbabweans), Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) and the apartheid regime in South Africa, on the basis of national interest (survival). His argument was that he did not want to betray his people by backing sanctions against the very same countries that sustained Malawi’s economic heartbeat. Since Malawi’s economy hinged on trade routes in Mozambique and South Africa, Dr Banda was not ready to be party to a resolution that seemed to alienate these two countries for the sake of his people. What followed was a period of suspicion and distrust as Malawi was treated as an intruder in the OAU.

Of course, there are a number of differences between the 1964 experience and the current scenario. While in 1964 Malawi was in support of regimes that were tramping human rights and specifically, the right to self-determination, in the current scenario Malawi is repelling a leader who has grossly violated human rights on his own soil yet the continental body supports him. Another contrast, and more important, in light of the recent development, is the growing number of states that are ready to act contrary to the declaration by the AU that none of its member states will arrest Omar al-Bashir. This alone challenges the assumption that AU speaks with one voice. There have been instances where countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia have openly declared that Omar al-Bashir is not welcome in their territories while in others such as Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), civil society has put pressure on governments not to welcome the Sudan leader and this has resulted in the cancellation of proposed visits.

With this background in mind, projections into future relations between Malawi and the AU consequent to the summit shift may not be straightforward. One early sign is the announcement by Joyce Banda that she will not be attending the 19th AU Summit in Addis Ababa and that her deputy, Khumbo Kachali, will attend in her stead. Her boycott of the overly male-dominated caucus may be perceived as a deliberate refrain from a possible diplomatic backlash that may come from some die-hards in the pro solidarity camp. However, with all the indications that Botswana(1) is ready to stir the debate towards the circumstances leading to the shift of the Summit, one can only expect more divisions on the issue. However, it is only fair to say that Malawi has set the pace on a topical issue that AU has customarily considered sacred, and it remains to be seen where the tide will point as we continue to reflect on the future of the AU.

(1) Botswana publicly lauded the decision by Malawi not to host the summit following the insistence by AU that all heads of state be invited.


  1. A certain amount of the opposition of many African leaders to the ICC stems from the fact that it has to date only indicted individuals from Africa (despite the fact that in many cases, the request for ICC action came from within Africa). Do you think that the indictment of a few people involved in conflicts elsewhere (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, for example) will help bolster support?

    I realize that the notion of solidarity (which is firmly connected to self preservation for many regimes) will remain a powerful motivator against the ICC in the case of Sudan, but nevertheless, the question of selectivity is also a factor that needs to be considered.

    1. George A Mhango26 June, 2012 09:45

      I agree that the inherent setback in ICC's efforts has been its selectivity. This tendency to hit at weak spots geopolitically)may in the long run compromise the whole essence of global justice. I think that if the Court moves beyond Africa and stamp its authority in other regions (Middle East for instance), then the cause for global justice will begin to make more sense.

    2. I suppose that, given the perception in powerful countries that Africa's geopolitical value is relatively low, and thus less potential for big power clashes of interests, the continent becomes a bit of a 'soft' target. I wonder to what degree the ICC's new chief prosecutor will shake things up...