Will the AU Peace and Security Council do better in 2020?

2020-01-23

The African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) responded to several conflicts in 2019, including in Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR). Stability in the Sahel was discussed, along with climate change, the foreign military presence in Africa, and terrorist networks.

However the council remained silent on key issues such as the conflict in northern Cameroon, ethnic-based clashes in Ethiopia and brutal attacks by extremists in northern Mozambique. It also allowed situations to escalate before stepping in, such as when protests began in Sudan. The lack of effective and timely responses to potential and actual conflicts raises important questions about the PSC’s role.

Intra-state conflicts

In 2019 the council received situational updates and tracked progress on political agreements – a number of which the AU is responsible for overseeing. AU peace support operations were reviewed in the CAR and Central Africa, along with those in Somalia and Darfur. The question of how to mobilise more resources for future AU-led missions was covered.

The lack of effective and timely responses raises important questions about the PSC’s role

The major gap was with regard to Cameroon’s escalating ‘Anglophone’ crisis. This is a simmering conflict that the PSC has overlooked since the armed insurrection broke out in 2017. The United Nations Security Council discussed the crisis informally in May 2019 after African non-permanent members South Africa and Equatorial Guinea voted against attempts to have a formal discussion.

And although AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat visited Cameroon in late November 2019, the 15 PSC members didn’t discuss the deteriorating situation. This despite obvious early warning signs and reports from the AU’s own Early Warning Unit. Moreover, Cameroon’s neighbours Gabon and Equatorial Guinea serve on the PSC – the latter also serving on the UNSC.

This inaction reflects an instance where not only the PSC but also Africa’s regional economic communities lacked the political commitment to help resolve a major conflict. To make matters worse, regional institutions bear the first responsibility for addressing conflicts in Africa. Not only has the Economic Community of Central African States never discussed Cameroon itself, but it failed to refer the situation to the PSC.

Disputes between states

The PSC’s record on resolving disputes between states was also mixed. The council ignored some tensions between countries, and those it did choose to discuss in 2019 were either already being addressed or had been resolved by another party.

Kenya for example asked the PSC to discuss its dispute with Somalia over their maritime boundary, which the council did in September 2019. By this time the case had been referred to the International Court of Justice, so the PSC had little to contribute by way of resolution. In another instance, the PSC failed to discuss the dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the use of Nile waters. The United States is now mediating between the two countries.

The PSC has overlooked Cameroon’s simmering conflict since the armed insurrection broke out in 2017

When the council turned its attention to Rwanda–Uganda tensions in August 2019, it was to welcome a memorandum of understanding between the two countries, which had been facilitated by Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo. It seems the timing of PSC discussions undermines its ability to address inter-state disputes.

Contested elections

Disagreements between the AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC) over the DRC’s election results set 2019 on a difficult path. In the end, SADC prevailed and Étienne Tshisekedi was confirmed as president, but the issue was another reminder of the shortcomings in how regional economic communities and the AU together resolve conflicts, especially regarding electoral processes.

When Africa’s 2019 elections were discussed by the council in August, specific attention was given to elections in the CAR, Somalia and Guinea-Bissau. The PSC urged actors to ensure elections were free, fair, credible and peaceful. The council is yet to discuss other potentially highly contested elections with a risk of violence, including those in Guinea and Cameroon early this year, and in Ethiopia and CAR later in the year.

Unconstitutional changes of government

In 2019 the PSC addressed one attempted coup in Gabon in January and a military takeover in Sudan in April. In what was a notable success for the PSC, the council designated Sudan’s coup as an unconstitutional change of government and suspended the country from all AU activities.

Since then the PSC has discussed Sudan nine times. A special envoy was appointed to engage stakeholders and other partners, and successfully mediated the transition to a civilian government. Once this was achieved the PSC reinstated Sudan on the AU and directed the AU Commission Chairperson to ‘issue a new mandate on Sudan peace negotiations’.

The PSC has yet to discuss constitutional amendments that lead to unconstitutional change of government

In contrast, the PSC’s response to Algeria was quite different. Months-long protests led to the overthrow of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in a similar manner to that of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. The main difference was that the military forced Bouteflika to resign rather than announcing a takeover. The PSC didn’t declare Bouteflika’s ousting as unconstitutional, nor has it discussed the continued public protests which could significantly destabilise the country.

The PSC also ignored protests that could escalate and possibly lead to unconstitutional changes of government in Guinea, Togo, Burundi, Egypt and Uganda. The protests are all related to incumbents amending their country’s constitution in a bid to stay in power, expand their powers and run for re-election.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance clearly states that amending constitutions or laws so as to limit democratic change of government is illegal. And yet the PSC still hasn’t discussed instances of constitutional amendments that could amount to unconstitutional change of government.

PSC vs its member states?

Currently when the PSC tables potential and actual conflicts for deliberation, this is perceived by member states as a direct attack on a country’s sovereignty, or an attempt to undermine the ability of regional economic communities to deal with conflicts. If the council is to respond effectively to conflicts in 2020, this view needs to change. 

Rather than self-censoring action against certain states, as currently occurs, the PSC needs to conduct more regular country visits and collaborate with experts in the AU Peace and Security Department and in civil society. A better understanding of the situation on the ground will help the AU respond more appropriately and quickly to conflicts than it did in 2019.

Shewit Woldemichael, Researcher, PSC Report, ISS Addis Ababa

This article was first published in the ISS Peace and Security Council Report.

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Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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