As South Africa moves into its new role as president of the African Union for 2020, it faces a pressing conundrum born of the continent’s unique geostrategic position. To the west, Africa is linked to the Americas by way of the Atlantic Ocean. The Indian Ocean to its east presents a link to the major trade and strategic partners of China and India, with the Red Sea a thin divider between it and the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Middle East. Perhaps the most uniquely strategic body of water for Africa is the Mediterranean Sea, which bridges the gap between it and mainland Europe.
The theme for this year’s assembly of the African Union is focused on conflict resolution. Though Africa is saddled with a number of domestic insurgencies and insecurity throughout, the situation in Libya is certainly one of the most pressing owing to its greatly escalating international component. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, along with France, have backed Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army in their efforts to oust the UN-backed Government of National Accord, most recently fortified with Turkish troops. Addressing Libya extends beyond just conflict resolution; it is the key to a broader Maghrebi regional integration that the AU needs to bolster its standing when engaging with the European Union.
Since 2008, the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) has remained dormant, the dream of establishing a regional bloc akin to the Economic Community of West African States or the Southern African Development Community dashed due to instability like what is happening in Libya or the persistent Sahrawi self-determination effort in Western Sahara. France, for its part, benefits from a non-unified Maghrebi entity, as evidenced by their backing of the anti-Arab Spring Haftar and support for Morocco in its claims over Western Sahara. Sensible for France’s foreign policy needs, which relies on a clear partition of the Maghrebi north from sub-Saharan Africa.
Going forward, South Africa needs to help steer the AU toward providing African-led solutions to the Libyan conflict, drawing the post-Gaddafi state further into the union, which would be a crucial first step in establishing an Arab Maghreb Union. The AMU would not only help prevent and develop strong partnerships for future conflicts, but also act as the AU’s geographically proximal diplomatic front-foot toward Europe. Attending to the aspirations and needs of Western Sahara’s Sahrawi, a factor that has prevented Morocco’s accession to the AU, would thus also need to be addressed for the AMU to be truly representative and succeed.