Why Israel's observer status is dividing the African Union

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8 min read
25 October, 2021
In-depth: Israel will keep African Union accreditation for now, but its membership has polarised opinion in Africa's continental body.

Israel’s accreditation to the African Union (AU) has split the continental body into a North/South vs. East/West divide that could permanently damage the fragile unity among African nations.

That is what has emerged following a 14-15 October meeting of the executive council attended by Africa’s foreign ministers at the AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. A decision about Israel’s AU accreditation has been postponed until African heads of state meet early next year.

On 22 July, AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, accredited Israel to the AU. Mahamat’s decision was cloaked in secrecy and unilateralism, with most member states finding out about Israel’s accreditation through Israeli media. 

Twenty-two African states, mainly from Southern and North Africa,  formally objected to Israel’s accreditation, and according to AU procedure, the issue was to be included on the agenda of the executive meeting.  

"Israel's accreditation to the African Union (AU) has split the continental body into a North/South vs. East/West divide that could permanently damage the fragile unity among African nations"

The DRC: A hidden agenda?

The executive committee meeting was chaired by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula - whose country currently holds the rotating chair of the AU.

During the opening session of the executive meeting where the agenda was being finalised, Lutundula tried to have the discussion of Israel’s accreditation relegated to the last item on the agenda under “Points of Information” – rather than as an issue on its own.

Following objections from South Africa and Algeria, Lutundula was forced to list Israel’s accreditation as an agenda item – albeit the final item on a long agenda. Lutundula’s conduct led some diplomats to ask if he was manipulating the powers and processes of the chairmanship to protect Israel’s accreditation.

Kicking the can

Member states expressed their position on Israel’s AU accreditation late on 15 October during a heated, and at times chaotic, discussion that ran past midnight. Lutundula then announced that a decision would be taken on the matter at the AU Heads of State Summit early next year, with Israel remaining accredited to the AU until then.

Lutundula refused to hear alternative proposals from members and terminated the meeting. This sparked anger and confusion among members, who attempted – unsuccessfully - to have the meeting restarted.

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Diplomats at the discussion described Lutundula’s conduct as “appalling”, adding that it emulated Mahamat’s own unilateralism. Lutundula’s boss, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, is a vocal advocate of normalisation with Israel. Addressing the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2020, Tshisekedi called Israel an “inspiration”, adding that his support for Israel was motivated in part by his Christian faith.  

That Tshisekedi is currently in Israel for a three-day visit to discuss furthering an already-flourishing security and weapons relationship is not coincidental, noted the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Violations of AU procedure and dangerous legal precedents

Mahamat, meanwhile, double-downed on his decision, arguing that his decision to accredit Israel was justified by Israel’s diplomatic relations with “more than two thirds” of AU members – and at the “expressed demand of many states.”

Israel’s accreditation to the AU isn’t connected to its relations with individual African states, says Clayson Monyela, head of public diplomacy at South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation. Maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel does not imply support for Israel’s accreditation to the AU.

Monyela also questions Mahamat’s claim that a “majority of more than two-thirds” of African states had supported Israel’s accreditation.  “If his decision was indeed made by receiving the approval of this number of member states, this could mean that the chairperson had only consulted parts of the organisation and disregarded the rest of the member states. This in itself would be a violation of his mandate and procedure, and therefore, setting a dangerous legal precedent,” says Monyela. 

African Union HQ [Anadolu]
The African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa. [Getty]

AU procedure for gaining a two-thirds majority is through official communication by member states to the AU commission. This did not happen in the case of Israel’s accreditation.

Monyela says that there is no documentation or evidence showing what Mahamat refers to as the “expressed demand of member states.” However, twenty-two member states officially and publicly expressed their objection to and rejection of Mahamat’s decision.

In addition, Israel has been described in AU resolutions as an occupying force of Palestine, violating the principle of the prohibition of the use of force that is mentioned in the Constitutive Act – the guiding document of the AU. According to Monyela, “this alone should have been enough for the chairperson to reject [Israel’s] request”.

Israel at odds with AU values

The first item listed in the AU’s Criteria for Accreditation of Non-African States is that the aims and purposes of non-African states must conform to the spirit, objectives, and principles of the AU’s Constitutive Act.

The Constitutive Act commits the AU to protect human rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR itself makes a commitment on behalf of Africans to “eliminate colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, [and] Zionism”.

“Why, then, did Mahamat accredit Israel when the AU is committed to eliminating Zionism - the foundational political ideology of that racist state,” asked the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN) – a coalition of African civil society groups mobilising support for Palestine.

Discussions at the AU executive meeting on Israel’s accreditation revealed the deep fault-lines between African states when it comes to relations with Israel. Equally visible was the shape-shifting on solidarity with Palestinians.

"Israel has been described in African Union resolutions as an occupying force of Palestine"

Back-tracking and double-dealing

In a joint objection to the AU on 2 August, Mauritania, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Djibouti argued that Mahamat’s July accreditation of Israel had violated the AU’s procedures and principles. Egypt backtracked on its objection.

According to sources at the meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, claimed that his country would not explicitly oppose the decision to accredit Israel in the interests of unity at the AU. Djibouti, too, remained silent.

Sudan’s double-speak on Palestine also continued. Khartoum remained silent in the lead-up to the meeting in Addis, and did not speak at the executive meeting. Its silence in Addis Ababa was tacit approval of Israel’s AU accreditation. However, after the executive meeting ended, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry declared its “absolute refusal and rejection” of Israel’s accreditation.

Normalisation with Israel has divided Sudan’s transitional council, which is made up of civilian and military components. The foreign ministry’s statement – run by the civilian component - came as reports emerged of military leaders meeting with Israeli security and political figures from 8-10 October.

In a shock to many, Senegal, which has chaired the UN’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People for over three decades, supported Israel retaining its accreditation status.

Zambia, a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), publicly deviated from that regional bloc’s collective rejection of Israel’s accreditation. Instead of opposing Israel's accreditation as SADC had agreed, Zambian Foreign Minister, Stanley Kasongo Kakubo, called for the debate to be moved to the Heads of State Summit.

Political and social mural paintings on the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem on 10 April 2014. [Getty]
A view of Israel's separation wall in the occupied Palestinian territory. [Getty]

Consistent positions on Palestine

Continental powerhouse, Nigeria, a traditionally strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, stayed silent ahead of the executive meeting, sparking fears that Abuja was warming up to Israel. However, at the executive meeting, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama took the lead in objecting to Israel’s accreditation and urged other member states to do the same. Tanzania and Niger supported Nigeria’s position.

South African Foreign Minister, Naledi Pandor, asked if the AU would have accredited apartheid South Africa.  Algeria, Western Sahara, and Tunisia all retained their positions and rejected Israel’s accreditation. 

Israel's African allies

Morocco and Rwanda were central to Mahamat’s decision to accredit Israel. Rabat normalised relations with Israel last year as part of the Abraham Accords in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara.

Two years after Chad renewed diplomatic ties with Israel, its Foreign Minister Cherif Mahamat Zene, also supported Israel’s accreditation – both at the opening session and during the debate.

Togolese foreign minister, Roberty Dussey, who once pledged “I will do everything for Israel” even tried to have Israel’s accreditation removed from the agenda during discussions at the opening session.  In response to South Africa insisting the issue must be on the agenda, Dussey retorted, “We have not been elected to deal with unimportant things like this”.

"Israel's accreditation has revealed the deep fault-lines between African states when it comes to relations with Israel. Equally visible is the shape-shifting on solidarity with Palestinians"

Dussey was referring to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and objections to Israel’s AU accreditation. Unsurprisingly, Dussey backed Israel at the debate on the issue the next day.

West African nations that backed Israel include Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Liberia. The Gambia wants the issue to be discussed at the Heads of State summit. East African support for Israel came from Burundi, Uganda, and South Sudan. Curiously, Kenya and Ghana – long-time allies and lobbyists for Israel at the AU – remained silent.

What next?

The Palestinian Authority “welcomed” the outcome of the meeting, and Hamas called the outcome “a step in the right direction.” These are problematically generous assessments. At the debate in Mandela Hall on 15 October, some African states showed that their commitment to Palestinian liberation is hollow.

PAPSN has said it will lobby civil society and governments across Africa to ensure that Israel’s accreditation is permanently removed. The Palestinian Authority, too, is expected to step up its engagement with African governments.

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For Africans, however, there are concerns about the long-term effects that Israel’s accreditation will have on AU unity. “The African Union, a multi-state body with a tradition of making decisions on consensus, suspended discussion on a critical issue because the divide was too deep,” says Na’eem Jeenah director of the Afro- Middle East Centre (AMEC) in Johannesburg.

Jeenah believes that this division could become entrenched on a number of other contentious issues at the AU, splitting Africa’s continental body irreparably.

After arming apartheid South Africa, fuelling genocide in Rwanda and civil war in South Sudan, and helping repressive governments across the continent crush dissent, Israel’s destructive legacy in Africa now continues at the African Union.

Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo