Over the last two decades, African states have demonstrated increasing agency in addressing conflicts by using their capacities at the national, sub-regional and continental levels. This newfound quest for inward solutions was ushered in by the formation of the African Union (AU) in 2001 which was empowered with normative and institutional mechanisms to coordinate African preventive and reactive approaches to crisis situations. Although this African agency is a welcome development, significant gaps remain in terms of harmonising various capacities within the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Further harmonization requires a critical rethinking of APSA’s coordination mechanisms in peace and security.
APSA and African Agency in Peace and Security
Since the formation of the African Union (AU) in 2001, the level of African agency in peace and security issues has increased significantly. Today, African institutions play lead roles in addressing the socio-economic and political challenges on the continent despite the ongoing dominance of some international actors and superpowers that shape global and regional dynamics in peace and security. When security threats arise, African regional institutions have shown their willingness to initiate preventive diplomacy and mediation, deploy peace support operations, and facilitate peacebuilding activities alongside other international organizations and non-state actors.
Inspired and coordinated by the AU, the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) was established in 2003 to harmonise continental, regional and national capacities for peace. APSA is composed of various independent African institutions, including the AU and the eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) on the continent. APSA institutions are now setting the agenda for peace on the continent – Unlike in past years, when the United Nations (UN) and external powers had primary influence on conflict management initiatives on the continent. The AU and RECs have collaborated to deploy peace missions in Burundi, Comoros, Sudan, Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR). Countries affected by violent extremism have also formed “coalitions of the willing” within the framework of APSA to combat terrorist threats such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin and the G5 Sahel Force in the Sahel region. However, significant challenges and opportunities remain when it comes to harmonizing and coordinating the roles of multiple APSA institutions. This is one of the results discussed among researchers and practitioners at a virtual workshop held on 27 January 2021 on “African Agency in Peace and Security: Peace Operations and Maritime Security”. The workshop was convened by the International Peace Support Training Centre (IPSTC) in partnership with GIZ support project to the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).
Remaining gaps in APSA interventions
While there has been some proactiveness within APSA institutions, the level of coordination amongst the various regional actors is constrained – particularly in terms of sequencing interventions and maximising continental capacities for sustainable peace. This is because APSA working guidelines are ambiguous and do not identify a first responder when conflicts erupt on the continent. The legal documents between the AU and sub-regions place greater emphasis on ‘working together’. The AU and subregions – which are the building blocks of the AU – are required to cooperate in crisis situations, thereby making it difficult to know which exact actor should be immediately responsible when a crisis erupts. While subsidiarity and comparative advantage are mentioned sparingly, most analysts agree that the predominance of joint cooperation wordings in the 2008 Protocol and Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the AU and RECs do not stipulate that the AU or a particular REC should play the initial role of addressing a conflict before escalating it to the AU level.
This situation makes it difficult to identify which APSA actor to hold responsible to intervene – a situation that leads to finger-pointing and at times accusations that the continental body wants to sideline the RECs and dominate the intervention responsibility in the region. In Mali and the Lake Chad Basin for instance, RECs tend to subtly disapprove of the AU’s supposed undue strategic positioning, especially that external funding was channeled through the continental body. The tensions between the AU and RECs have led to a slight decline in AU direct interventions in crises situations in the last five years. This is different from the AU’s initiation of various military interventions in its first decade of the AU’s establishment, such as in Burundi, Sudan, Comoros, Somalia, Mali and CAR. Currently, sub-regional organizations and coalitions tend to insist on playing lead roles in addressing conflicts within member states as will be discussed below.
Current dynamics within APSA show that responsibilities for intervention by APSA institutions are unclear and are in practice determined by multiple factors, such as the capabilities of the affected sub-regions, the interests of member states, the cross-regional dimensions of conflicts and the limitations of the cooperation guidance within APSA. The AU has the comparative advantage to mediate and intervene militarily in regions with weaker sub-regional organisations, such as in the Central African region and the Northern Africa region, where there are no viable sub-regional organisations. In terms of mediation, for instance, the AU is leading the African initiative for peace in CAR. The AU is also the most prominent African actor making some efforts (however small) on the conflicts in Libya and the civil war in Cameroon. However, the lack of cooperation and a united front by members of weaker sub-regions often constrains the leverage of the continental organisation.
On the other hand, stronger sub-regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) increasingly rely on their own capacities to lead peace initiatives in their member states, as evident in the recent sub-regional mediation and military interventions in Lesotho, Guinea Bissau, The Gambia and Mozambique. In addition, regional powers such as South Africa and Nigeria play a key role in determining whether their respective sub-regions intervene or not. The downside is that when internal conflicts erupt in these pivotal member states, the sub-region is unable to play its usual role: For example, in the ongoing Ethiopian civil war, the affected REC – the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – is unable to lead the resolution because Ethiopia is one of its strongest member states.
Furthermore, member states facing cross-border crises are increasingly circumventing bureaucracies and indecision of multiple sub-regions and the AU by initiating ad hoc coalitions of affected states to address cross-regional conflicts. For instance, the G5 Sahel Joint Force was established by a coalition of affected member states – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauretania and Chad – with the support of external powers like France, United States and the European Union as a bloc. While these ad hoc coalitions are laudable, they tend to erode the maximal benefit in the envisaged cooperation framework of sub-regional organisations working within the framework of APSA. In many ways, the inconsistencies within APSA nurture tensions, half-hearted measures and an inability to have clear-cut divisions of labour between the AU and sub-regional organisations. These challenges are common in contexts requiring multi-stakeholder cooperation.
What is next?
In terms of addressing the outlined coordination gaps, there is a need for the AU and subregional organisations to clarify their responsibilities, specifically highlighting the role of sub-regions as first responders and detailing the conditions required to escalate conflict situations to the continental level. This can be done by elaborating the concept of subsidiarity from the 2008 MoU between the AU and RECs/Regional Mechanisms. The alternative is to develop a supplementary guiding note on roles and responsibilities. It is remarkable that the AU has developed significant capacities to respond to security challenges across the continent. However, the effectiveness of AU interventions is often contingent on the willingness and ability of RECs to open up opportunities for the AU to intervene in a context-specific manner. The AU’s stalled effort to address the crises in Libya, CAR and Cameroon is reflective of the need for viable RECs willing to address the crises within their sub-region. Moreover, some RECs tend to accuse the AU of going beyond its bounds by seeking to be a leading actor in a crisis that should be addressed by the RECs first and foremost.
A sequential framework would help to identify the first responder and heighten the sense of responsibility and preparedness of sub-regions to handle conflict situations in the medium to long term. The suggested MoU update or an additional guiding note should also clearly highlight what is meant by comparative advantage, including the circumstances when crisis issues can be escalated to the AU level. The latter therefore provides a clear justification for the AU to intervene directly in contexts where RECs are unable, unwilling or reluctant to do so. This includes situations where a powerful African nation is affected and situations where a REC reaches a deadlock in terms of intervention. Such formal justification would help prevent reluctancy, half-hearted measures and accusations that the continental body is flexing its powers in the region. When the AU leads, it should further work closely with the affected RECs to foster a multi-stakeholder approach.
Additionally, while some RECs – such as Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and ECOWAS – have some exchanges, coordination amongst RECs is generally ad hoc and limited. There is also a need to improve the collaboration between sub-regional organisations in the face of increasing cross-regional security threats, such as violent extremism, which has been the cause of ad hoc coalitions and a lack of coherence within APSA. This requires RECs to establish focal persons or liaison offices amongst themselves to enhance coordination on common cross-REC challenges on the continent.