The intervention plans have been widely criticized for their lack of detail and focus on military rather than political processes, and tensions are emerging between ECOWAS and the African Union. Any intervention remains at a minimum months away, and Burkina Faso's negotiators have not made any breakthroughs. But even though Africa's response to the Malian crisis has been unconvincing, the fact that Africa is in the lead on both military planning and political negotiations represents a welcome departure from the past.
These examples paint a mixed picture of the efficacy of African efforts to solve regional problems. But what's noteworthy is that such efforts are happening at all. It was not long ago that outsiders reflexively took the lead in responding to African crises -- indeed, it was only in 2011 that France intervened, under a UN mandate, in the civil war in Cote D'Ivoire -- leaving little space for African-led processes. Such external interventions could still happen again if the stakes are high enough (for example, if extremist groups establish a beachhead in Africa that presents a legitimate threat to Europe or the US). External interventions may produce quicker results than African-led efforts, but they deprive Africa of opportunities to develop its capacity to respond, and in a resource-constrained world such an approach is increasingly untenable.
To be sure, none of these African-led interventions is solely African, and all benefit from some form of outside (primarily western) support. The African Union mission in Somalia is bankrolled by the West. The United States and others have been strong supporters of the AUHIP, prodding the negotiating parties when additional political weight and influence is required and providing technical expertise to the mediators. If an intervention in Mali materializes, the west will surely be asked to foot a large portion of the bill (the European Union has already approved a military training mission to Mali). This type of inside-outside partnership and capacity-building should be encouraged, and the international community should increasingly allow African institutions, such as the African Union, the space to lead.
Skeptics will note that there are other parts of the continent in crisis to which the African response has been tepid, if not absent entirely. Africa has never taken much leadership in responding to the DRC's endless wars, in part because so many African states are directly involved in them (most recently, neighboring Rwanda and Uganda have been implicated in violence in eastern DRC). The African Union remains silent concerning its member states that continue to be led by autocratic, kleptocratic regimes (though to its credit, the African Union has recently suspended several member states whose governments where changed through coups). African voices are rarely heard on the alarming deterioration of security in Nigeria or even the slow decline of the country with the continent's strongest economy, South Africa.
But Africa, and the African Union in particular, are in the midst of an evolution, and it will take some time. Events in 2012 are a clear indication that Africa is increasingly in the lead and finding its voice when responding to its many crises. This evolution should be encouraged, and the international community should be patient and supportive (which is not the same as disengaged or disinterested) while providing the necessary financial, technical, and political support. This formula doesn't always produce rapid results. The African Union mission in Somalia was bogged down for years before its recent success, after all, and some efforts, such as the hunt for Joseph Kony, have yet to yield any results at all. In 2013, African crisis response efforts will be severely tested in DRC and Mali, as well as in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. But if the past year is any indication, Africa will continue to progress toward making "African solutions to African problems" not just a catchy slogan, but a reality as well.