African leaders gather next week for an African Union summit amid a major setback in the fledgling organization's peacekeeping mission in Sudan's western Darfur region. The United Nations is under pressure to take over the Darfur mission as the AU faces a critical lack of resources.
With less than 7,000 troops and observers scattered across Darfur, Sudan, an area about the size of France, the African Union has struggled to keep the peace.
"They are there because the western world in the security council asked them to go there. And we let them do the job with bound hands.... if you do not give them the resources," said Jan Pronk, the United Nation's Special Envoy to Sudan. "The African countries do not have the equipment that is necessary to intervene and to control such a battle... so if you ask the African soldiers to do the dirty work, give them the tools."
And, Pronk says, the international community has not done that, failing to provide key resources to stop the killing, banditry, and cease fire violations that continue in Darfur.
"We failed," he said. "What we have done so far is picking up the pieces and muddling through. So we came too late and we did too little."
Despite a period of relative calm late last year, the AU force has increasingly been overwhelmed by what analysts and reporters who have traveled there say has become a much more complex war zone, one in which the U.N. estimates has killed 180,000 people over the last three years and displaced two million others.
"But since the last quarter of the year, we are witnessing a marked deterioration, with both parties, both rebels and the government, involved in outright breaches of the ceasefire agreement, including attacks against the African Union itself and attacks against internally displaced persons," said Suliman Baldo, the Director for the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group.
So Pronk has asked the U.N. Security Council to back a strong U.N. peacekeeping force. He envisions it as a mission that would stabilize the region, secure a lasting truce and pave the way for productive peace talks taking place in Nigeria, which have so far failed. And, he says, the African Union has agreed to the idea.
"The U.N. security council has not yet taken that decision and we need that. Otherwise we cannot do anything. Imagine there will be such a decision," added Pronk. "Then the AU will have to stay for awhile to help the U.N. to prepare its coming. It has to be a big force, at least twice as big as the African Union now. It has to be strong with weapons with which they can defend themselves.
"They are being attacked. And with which they can disarm the militia," he continued. "I think you need a force that can stay long because all these more than two million people will have to return home and they are not returning home if it is not safe. They don't think it's safe if they are being so-called protected by their own army because their army did attack them in the past. So they need an international force for a number of years."
But Jean-Christophe Belliard, a top advisor for the European Union, disagrees with Pronk's assessment of the AU's performance in Darfur. Belliard says given the difficulty of the situation and the newness of the African Union, officially inaugurated just over three years ago, it has done as well as can be expected.
Belliard also casts doubt on the idea that the international community is ready to take on the Darfur operation.
"They are doing it because we don't want to do it. We, western countries, we are not ready to send troops there despite the fact that what is going on there is very serious," he said. "But all this taken into account they are doing well, they are doing their best. The situation has stabilized. It has allowed peace negotiations to go on."
The AU summit set for January 23 and 24 in Khartoum is expected to be dominated by this issue, as well as another, very sensitive one: whether or not Sudan, as host, can legitimately takeover the chairmanship of the organization as is customary.
"In its own right, this is an issue. If Khartoum chairs the African Union, this would lead to a total loss of credibility of the AU in the sense that the African Union is involved in political mediation to resolve the conflict in Darfur.... and Khartoum cannot be chairing the African Union because it will be a party to that conflict and also a judge of it," said Suliman Baldo.
But U.N. envoy Pronk says he believes that issue has already been discussed privately among African leaders.
"I have indications that there are quite a number of African countries hesitant and that that message has been understood in Khartoum," he said. "I think people want a face saving device now. And I think they will find a solution."
Whatever decision is made, the 53 members of the African Union will address that issue and the future of the Darfur mission when they gather next week in Sudan. They will also undoubtedly be faced with a number of other pressing concerns, including rising tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as the crumbling peace process in Ivory Coast.