Thousands who fled the conflict in Darfur for safe refuge in Chad are now on the move yet again to escape unstable conditions in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena, shining the spotlight on the African Union's inability to protect them.
A steady flow of over 30,000 refugees and residents are emptying out of the city into neighbouring Cameroon, Nigeria, and even back into Sudan after heavily armed rebels in hundreds of pickup trucks attempted to overthrow the government earlier last month resulting in the deaths of some 200 people.
Chadian President Idriss Déby declared a nationwide state of emergency following the violent raids, claiming such measures are important and urgent to maintain order.
Both the Chadian president and American leaders are blaming Sudan for the attempted coup, while Sudanese officials are calling the allegations "baseless."
Aside from the finger pointing, the recent attacks and subsequent exodus raise a much larger problem at issue: the African Union's inability to protect civilians and quell violence in the continent as it erupts.
Since the African Union's inception in 2002, the pan-African body has lacked the funds and leadership to take effective action in the continent's troubled areas. AU contingents are rarely able to meet the critical mass requirements, and while troops are familiar with the surrounding environment they often lack the expertise to carry out a mission.
In the case of Darfur, the AU intervened in 2004 with its African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) but inadequate troop numbers and resources resulted in the force relinquishing leadership to the United Nations at the end of 2007 in order to form a joint peacekeeping force. The new hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is now operating in the region, but with fewer than 10,000 troops currently on the ground--the bulk of which are the original AU force, only now with blue helmets--it's still far short of the promised 26,000 to be deployed.
At least 450,000 people have died and 2.5 million displaced in the fighting between Sudan's government, Janjaweed Arab militias and rebel groups that began some five years ago.
Now, as the hot spot area spills from western Sudan's Darfur region across the border into Chad, the UN-AU troops are faced with a potentially much larger mission than was first anticipated.
Meanwhile, in the Horn of Africa, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) finds itself in an equally uneasy position. In what the UN describes as "the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa," a mere 1,600 Ugandan peacekeepers together with a Burundian skeleton force of 150 troops are patrolling the poverty-stricken capital of Mogadishu alongside thousands of Ethiopian troops, currently deployed to support the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in its war against Union Islamic Courts (UIC) militias.
Other African states are reluctant to deploy troops to the war-ravaged East African state over safety concerns.
Here again, a less-than-obliging AU force that has been slow to intervene with the strong peacekeeping forces needed to help bring about increased stability and rein on the anarchy and violence tearing the country apart.
In neighbouring Kenya, the African Union's failure to broker a peace deal in reaction to the recent political crisis further reflects its inability to act as a continental body--a body where faction leaders should be assembled to iron out their differences and where the international community should gather to discuss issues of stability and unity in the region.
Outgoing African Union chair and former Ghanaian president John Kufuor's lack of success in bringing peace to Kenyan warring factions and halting electoral violence to make way for a government of national unity portrays the organization's limitations to exert the influence and authority it aspires to project.
This year's African Union summit, held at the beginning of February in Addis Ababa, gathered 52 heads of state to discuss the continent's industrial development--but the planned agenda was abandoned to address the escalating conflicts in Chad, Sudan, Somalia and Kenya. The newly elected chair of the assembly, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, is facing a worrisome line up of issues that have so far hampered progress toward the union's mandated items of securing democracy, human rights and a sustainable economy for Africa. When adding to this already long list the badly flawed elections in Nigeria and rising border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, it will be a massive feat if this leader's union will have accomplished much by the end of the year.
It comes as no surprise that the AU's disappointing interventions in Africa's security hot spots is a testimony to the paralysis that has afflicted the leaders' union since its inception. Its leadership is compromised and confidence in its ability to act in the best interest of the continent's most vulnerable populations is quickly eroding, not only in African capitals but increasingly in the West and beyond.
Without a serious undertaking by African leaders to reform and restructure the AU's decision-making processes, resolutions passed at the annual summits will continue to flop without proper implementation, and funding mechanisms will be go unsupported and fall short of the backing needed for peacekeeping missions.
In its current state, this pan-African federation threatens to look more like its discredited predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, rather than a regional body capable of dealing with the most pressing security issues facing Africa.
*also published in Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Daily News (Egypt) and Singapore Straits Times