AU at 20: closing the gap between intentions and outcomes

Though the PSC holds frequent meetings, many conflicts are excluded and follow-through on those tabled is lacking.

Since its establishment in 2004, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has convened more than 1 120 times, making it among the most dynamic and active organs of the African Union (AU). Over these years, the council’s approach to its function as the continent’s highest decision-making body for prevention, management and settlement of conflicts has significantly evolved.

It has expanded its range of operations through more meetings and added field trips, workshops and retreats to contribute to a more peaceful continent. It has also expanded the thematic areas it discusses.

A selective agenda

Not all crises have made it onto the PSC’s agenda despite their urgency and impact on the continent. Over the past five years, critical situations such as Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) have been discussed prominently due to either protracted conflicts or political instability. Also tabled have been region-wide challenges, including the conflicts in the Sahel, Great Lakes and Lake Chad Basin regions. Despite the focus on these areas, the conflicts have actually, worsened.

However, other crises remain conspicuously absent from the agenda. These include the conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, which has claimed more than 7 000 lives, Tunisia’s constitutional crisis, Libya’s civil war and, until recently, the war in Ethiopia. Elections-related violence in Zimbabwe has also never been included, while the crisis in northern Mozambique that started in 2017 made an appearance only in early-2022.

The PSC has made statements on some of these burning issues, but not announced any firm decisions. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the five-year struggle in Cameroon and the unprecedented democratic recession in Tunisia under President Kais Saied will be discussed while the two countries are still PSC members. Most member states are reluctant to see their conflicts on the agenda. Hence, the PSC has avoided confrontation with states on key peace, security and governance issues.

Not all crises have made it onto the PSC’s agenda despite their urgency and impact on the continent

Instead, it has preferred a focus on thematic issues and region-wide insecurity. It is increasingly tabling relatively new themes, such as the threat of pandemics, cybersecurity, emerging technologies and new media. While discussion on such matters is commendable, it raises important questions on how the council can address country issues if it doesn’t table them for critical reflection and decisions.

Early warning difficulties

As the African Peace and Security Architecture’s main pillar, the PSC plays a crucial role in security and early warning systems to promote prompt and effective responses to African conflicts and crises. This mandate is supported by the continental early warning system. Additionally, the council has to resolve conflicts, institute sanctions for unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs) and authorise the deployment of peace support operations (PSOs).

Over the years, gains have been registered in its deployment of military stabilisation missions in Burundi (2003) and Darfur and Somalia (2007). It has also suspended military regimes in Togo, Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger, Egypt, the CAR, Sudan, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso. And it has used preventive diplomacy to deal with multiple conflicts across the continent.

There has been a commitment to the AU agenda on silencing the guns and modest progress has been made in implementing the African Standby Force by authorising the deployment of PSOs. These include those in the Lake Chad Basin (the Multinational Joint Force against Boko Haram) and Somalia (the African Mission to Somalia, now the African Transition Mission to Somalia). It has also endorsed the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique to counter the threat of terrorism.

These gains notwithstanding, the PSCs approach remains largely reactive rather than proactive. Member states' invocation of sovereignty is a significant obstacle. Deploying the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi  in December 2015 showed the council’s ability to intervene in a crisis by invoking Article 4(h) of the AU Constitutive Act. However, the pushback from the PSC heads of state and the cancellation of the mission weakened the council's resolve to step in during raging conflicts across the continent.

How can the council address country issues if it doesn’t table them for reflection and decisions?

The PSC has never again called on Article 4(h), which authorises its intervention in member-state conflicts. This has affected the AUs capacity to respond, a direct consequence being the councils considerable reliance on Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to fulfil this mandate in line with the subsidiarity principle.

Implementation challenges

The biggest weakness has been the gap between the many decisions taken at the PSC’s frequent meetings and their implementation. Most of the continent's peace and security frameworks are not yet fully functional. Recently, however, the council has shown its commitment to deter member states contemplating UCGs by imposing sanctions on perpetrators. This took shape against the backdrop of an upsurge in failed and successful military coups in Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sudan and Burkina Faso.

By suspending these countries from the AU, the PSC registered its intolerance of UCGs and its commitment to the rule of law and constitutional order. At the same time, its selective approach to the situation in Chad denotes a reversal in progress on institutional, legal and normative frameworks to address UCGs and other governance issues.

The councils May 2021 decision to endorse the military transition in Chad affected perceptions of its stance against UCGs in Africa. Its suspension of Sudan in 2019 is celebrated as its swiftest such action to date. However, its later endorsement of a power-sharing agreement with the coup leaders in the post-coup government could be seen as a contravention of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

The PSC’s approach to African conflicts and crises remains largely reactive rather than proactive

The inconsistencies in its approach to UCGs thus cast doubt on its commitment to upholding its own frameworks. These include the AU Constitutive Act (2000), the Lomé Declaration (2000), and the Accra and Malabo declarations (2022). Not surprisingly, elements within the military staged another coup in Burkina Faso in October 2022, the second this calendar year, raising fears that the threat to Africas peace, security and governance will not abate soon.

Moving forward

In recent months, the PSC has refined the AU roadmap to silence the guns, notably drawing up a monitoring and evaluation framework to achieve the 2030 goal. In addition, it has implemented the PSC sub-committee on sanctions and committee of experts. It can build on these gains through strategic and timely responses to mounting governance, security and peace challenges.

This will require a shift in approach from reactive to proactive. Increased investment will therefore be crucial in enhancing the councils capacity to pre-empt and prevent conflicts and governance threats, and to respond promptly when they arise. It will also need to show commitment to including and discussing controversial country situations missing from its agendas.

In addition, fully functional continental peace, security and governance architectures will help lessen threats to governance, peace and security in Africa in the next decade. This would include implementing the conclusions of the Accra Declaration. Strategically engaging member states for institution-building will be equally important in handling governance deficits and related threats to peace and stability. It will also improve AU and REC coordination in dealing with terrorism, UCGs and other security and governance issues.

Securing funding for counter-terrorism activities and speeding up implementation of the decisions of the 35th extraordinary summit on terrorism and UCGs held in May 2022 are equally important. The PSC must also regularly follow up on and monitor implementation of its decisions and AU summit resolutions on peace, security and governance.

Image: © Joerg Boethling / Alamy Stock Photo

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