Ebola Crisis: Can the AU handle the challenge?

By: Semiha Abdumelik

The Ebola Crisis in West Africa has been written about extensively. However, there has been little focus on the response of the African Union (AU) to the situation from an institutional and normative perspective. This examination is instructive for comprehending the approaches taken by regional organisations to address the increasingly complex challenges facing the continent.

On 19 August 2014, the African Union’s (AU) commemoration of the World Humanitarian Day and the AU Peace Security Council (PSC), met and authorised the immediate deployment of an AU-led Military and Civilian Humanitarian Mission,  thereafter named African Union Commission Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA). This decision was notable for a number of reasons.

First, this is the only time that the PSC has invoked the provisions of the Protocol Establishing the PSC, Article 6 h, relating to its mandate on authorising humanitarian action and disaster management as well as the African Standby Force (ASF) in emergency situations. This is also an important indication of where practice is ahead of policy, considering the ASF is yet to be fully operationalised and guidelines for humanitarian assistance and natural disaster support (HANDS) are yet to be formulated. Moreover, while the constitution of Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) is enumerated in the AU Commission’s 2014-17 Strategic Plan, this is yet to be implemented.

Second, the PSC acknowledged that the Ebola crisis was not simply a humanitarian and public health emergency, but also one with serious security implications. The PSC, cognisant that the Ebola-affected countries are in a post-conflict situation, highlighted its concerns that the epidemic would roll-back the efforts towards peacebuilding thus far.

In fact, Liberia and Sierra Leone are part of the AU’s pilot post-conflict reconstruction and development support. This may also reflect broadly a concern about the wider West Africa region, which has faced a number of multi-faceted security and development challenges.

Institutionally, this response has provided impetus for a stronger ‘whole-of-Commission’ approach, with the Mission drawing on the planning and deployment experience of the Peace and Security Department, the public health expertise of the Department of Social Affairs, and the high-level mobilisation and advocacy capacity within the leadership of the AU Commission (Chairperson’s Office). In terms of strategic orientation, the model has been one of co-ordination, with the AU serving as a hub for advocacy, mobilisation, and coordination and member states responsible for the response through national hubs.

The Ebola response has profiled the principle of ‘African Solidarity’ in the face of African challenges.  This has manifested itself in terms of private sector outreach and subsequent support as well as contributions by AU Member States for ASEOWA.

Mobilising domestic resources and involvement of the private sector and Member States is a cornerstone of the AU Commission’s 2014-17 Strategic Plan and Agenda 2063. The current push for ASEOWA has been largely successful, mobilising over 31 million US Dollars from a wide range of the African private sector actors. In addition to exploring how best to leverage the non-financial resources and capacities of the private sector.  AU Member States have been forthcoming in terms of offering technical assistance to affected countries, including the deployment of health care personnel as part of the Mission.

The Ebola crisis has undoubtedly pushed the AU and its security architecture in terms of its practice and thinking around responding to emerging challenges which do not necessarily fit the conventional understanding of security.  The long-term institutional and normative implications of broadening security thinking are worthy of close consideration and follow up. This will be invaluable for adjudging whether this Mission can provide lessons, and impetus for speeding up the operationalization of mechanisms such as the ASF and standing ERTs, as well as requisite guidelines and policies.

An orientation which sees technical support from AU Member States move beyond the Mission to focus on strategically building the health systems and related institutions in the affected countries should be key in the long-term thinking of the AU.

About the Author:

Semiha Abdumelik is the current fellow undertaking  Peace and Security Fellowships for African Women

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