Throughout 2023, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) focused on its mandate of solving the continent’s most pressing peace, security and governance challenges. In so doing, it convened at least 96 meetings, including 15 through its Committee of Experts. Of these, 28 debated crises and countries in transition, with the remainder dedicated to thematic issues and statutory activities, including retreats, field visits and joint consultations.
The number of crises discussed in 2023 dropped from 2022, when 32 crisis-centred meetings were held. This signified a year in which Africa’s peace and security landscape remained precarious with an obvious lack of commensurate response from regional and continental policy actors. The question is whether the Council achieved what was expected of it in these meetings.
Peace and security outlook
A confluence of threats posed challenges to peace, security, stability and socio-economic development in Africa. Key among them were the outbreak of new conflicts in Sudan, the rise in violent extremism, elections-related disputes and contested legitimacy of various regimes.
In the wake of successive military coups in the Sahel, political violence levels increased in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Democratic backsliding continued, visible in the resurgence of military coups in Niger and Gabon, the adoption of a new constitution that removed term limits in the Central African Republic (CAR) and contested electoral outcomes in Zimbabwe. Protracted political transitions persist despite the PSC informally consulting with affected countries. Deepening democratic and governance deficits undergirded these threats.
The year also saw major changes in the deployment of peacekeeping operations. Calls were made for the withdrawal of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces from Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There were demands, too, for drawdowns of African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) troops, with significant consequences and increased risks to peace and security.
To address these issues, the PSC (figures 1 and 2) met at least 96 times, mostly at ambassadorial level, but also involving the Committee of Experts and ministers. Twenty-eight meetings discussed 13 country- and region-specific cases (figure 3). Compared to 32 meetings in 2022, during which 16 countries were discussed, the number of cases discussed by the Council in 2023 dropped by 13%.
PSC in 2023
As is evident from Figure 3, the most discussed conflict was Sudan, which was tabled seven times by the Council. Despite the deteriorating situation in the Sahel, the Council had only one dedicated session on it, down from five in 2022. However, it discussed Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, together with Sudan, in its consideration of countries in transition and undertook a field mission to Burkina Faso (July).
There were no dedicated sessions on Chad, Cameroon or Mozambique, raising questions about the priorities of Council chairs. Fewer discussions on CAR, DRC, Horn of Africa, Sahel, Somalia and South Sudan are concerning.
Responsibility for this outlook does not rest solely with the PSC. It reveals existing deficiencies in the AU’s peace, security and governance architectures, which remain ill-suited to deal with the complexity of conflicts dogging the continent.
More positively, situations in Ethiopia, Libya and Sudan received more attention than in 2022. This reinforces observations that the composition of the Council affects how it prioritises engagements on country conflicts with adverse consequences.
Overall, thirty-four thematic meetings were held, indicating a greater focus on thematic issues than on sensitive country situations, a trend that started in 2015.
Given Africa’s dire realities, themes included humanitarian action, governance, peace and security; displacement from ongoing conflicts, African Union (AU) sanctions, financing AU peace support operations, and children affected by armed conflict. However, the continued preference for discussing thematic issues while avoiding crises has harmful implications for the PSC’s influence on the continent’s peace and security outlook.
Avoiding ‘sensitive’ issues portrays the Council as overwhelmed by its mandate to prevent conflicts. Commitment to silencing the guns requires a Council that is bold and systematic in confronting conflict head-on.
During 2023, Council members undertook missions to South Sudan (February), DRC (March), Chad (Panel of the Wise in May), Somalia (Military Staff Committee in June) and Burkina Faso (July). Field missions planned to Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region (February), were postponed.
Despite the visit to the Abyei administrative area scheduled for May, the Council did not consider it seriously. The planned visit to Libya in October was disrupted by devastating floods that struck the eastern region in September. In July, the visit to Guinea Bissau was postponed as the Russia-Africa summit was held that month.
With the numerous challenges to continental peace, the deferred field missions could have offered greater Council presence in places where its decisions are required.
In 2024, the Council should revisit its 2007 decision on the use of field missions and explore how to conduct more in response to complex transitions and in areas needing preventive diplomatic interventions. It might also be useful for it to focus strategically on fewer priorities in 2024 and achieve more concrete outcomes.
Tough but noteworthy year
The Council’s impact in 2023 remained limited by a lack of coherence between AU and regional economic community approaches to crises, influenced by differences in applying ‘subsidiarity’. The lack of clarity on whether the PSC or the Economic Community of West African States would lead the response to the Niger coup is a clear example. In Sudan, the PSC deferred responsibility for addressing the conflict to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, remaining largely invisible in efforts to end the war.
Progress was also hampered by resistance from member states. Before the coups in Niger (2023) and Sudan (2021), the deposed governments had been made aware of, but dismissed, the warning signs. This resistance failed to adopt early corrective action.
The Council, despite emphasising the need to address the root causes and drivers of armed conflict, did not deploy preventive diplomacy to its full potential. It was muted as President Faustin-Archange Touadéra manipulated CAR's constitution for his term extension. In 2023, therefore, the Council continued to react to conflicts rather than anticipate and prevent them.
Obstacles notwithstanding, the Council’s efforts to promote peace and security were noteworthy. The PSC suspended Niger and Gabon from all AU activities, despite a delay in the former. The Council’s commitment to sustaining gains of recent years prompted it to approve the Somali government request to pause the drawdown of 3 000 ATMIS troops in September. This was despite an obvious snub of the Council by Somali leaders in their dealings with the UN.
To enhance its sanctions regime, it finalised and adopted its draft terms of reference to establish the PSC sub-committee on sanctions at its November retreat in Tunis. Ambassadorial adoption and committee establishment should improve the AU’s sanctions structure and its application during UCGs.
The PSC also requested the AU Commission to review the African Peace and Security Architecture to adapt it to contemporary security challenges. This review presents an opportunity to centre preventive diplomacy in its response. It will involve assessing its existing instruments, particularly those related to diplomacy, governance and subsidiarity.
That said, incoming PSC members to be elected in early 2024 will inherit a tough agenda. To tackle the continent’s worsening peace, security and governance outlook and make a difference, they must learn from the weaknesses of the current Council and expend greater political will.
Image: © African Union Political Affairs Peace and Security