AU at 20: skillfully navigating international relations crucial for the AU

The focus of global partnerships should be on quality rather than quantity, and prioritising Africa’s needs.

In a rapidly shifting global order and faced with increasing risks to Africa's peace and security, the African Union (AU) is compelled to strengthen its relationships with external partners. Refocusing its engagement with these organisations to meet continental peace and security priorities has been part of its institutional reform process started in 2016. How it navigates the partnerships is crucial given pressure to increasingly play a role as Africa’s voice on the international stage.

Partnership drivers

The AU’s partnerships are institutionalised on various levels. The Peace and Security Council (PSC) must promote and develop a strong peace and security partnership between the AU and the United Nations (UN) and its agencies, and with other international organisations. The European Union (EU) and the UN are the AU’s biggest partners and the EU the biggest contributor to its budget. The AU continues to rely heavily on partners to fund its activities. Two-thirds of its 2023 budget is from external sources.

The relationship between the AU and the EU is formalised through AU-EU summits and regular interaction at ministerial and official levels. Regular contact and exchange of information are the hallmarks of the joint consultative meetings and retreats between the PSC and the EU Political and Security Committee. Joint field missions are undertaken by senior AU, EU and UN officials, annual AU-UN conferences held and high-level dialogues staged between the AU Commission (AUC) and the United States (US), among others.

The AU-UN partnership is rooted in the April 2017 Joint UN-AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security and January 2018 Joint Framework for the Implementation of Agenda 2063. It also draws from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Despite efforts to reduce its dependency, two-thirds of the AU’s 2023 budget is from external sources

Within these frameworks, both parties have pooled resources, improved working-level coordination, and held frequent consultations and joint assessment missions. They have developed common positions on some of the continent’s most pressing peace, security and governance challenges, including the application of sanctions in conflict situations in Africa. The AUC has become more active in recent years in ensuring that its collaboration with the UN adds value to its own agenda.

Common African positions

Efforts to align PSC and UN Security Council (UNSC) decisions are noteworthy, as are coordination and defence of common African positions on important global issues through UNSC African members (the A3). While the dividends of this partnership have been stepped up considerably over the years, the PSC continues to complain about an unequal relationship and of being marginalised in the UNSC. 

The AU also has a long-lasting collaboration with the US on peace, security, democracy, governance, economic growth and climate. This started with the US’s diplomatic presence when the AU was established in 2006. The US backed recent AU attempts to resolve the Ethiopian war and supported the fragile Sudan and Chad transitions. At the inaugural democracy summit, which President Joe Biden organised in December 2021, 16 AU states committed to bolstering democratic initiatives. A similar meeting was held in December 2022.

China's cooperation with the AU on peace and security has seen it send soldiers to peacekeeping operations in more than a dozen African countries. China also continues to provide the AU with technical assistance, capacity-building, technologies and equipment to help it combat piracy, terrorism and other security concerns that affect Africa. Additionally, the country participates actively in collaborations and exchanges on maritime security, logistical support, military education, training and medicine.

Reducing reliance on the EU

Despite progress, the AU has struggled to go beyond engaging its traditional peace and security partners – the UN, EU, US and China. Its continued overreliance on the EU and other international partners for funding has led to gaps in priority setting and ownership of the continent’s peace and security agenda.

The AU struggles to engage beyond its traditional security partners – the UN, EU, US and China

In July 2016, the AU Assembly decided to establish a peace fund for reliable and predictable funding. Despite this, member states’ goal of financing 25% of Africa’s peace and security activities – to enhance AU financial autonomy – remains unmet. To date, states have contributed only US$60 million to the fund against a targeted US$400 million. Added to this is the longstanding issue of how UN-assessed contributions could better support AU peace support operations (PSOs).

The partnerships are driven largely by international partners’ own priorities. The European Peace Facility, for example, reaffirms the EU’s commitment to Africa’s security, especially the fight against terrorism. But it allows the body to fund directly a broad range of continental PSOs, even those not authorised by the PSC. These include African military coalitions and national armies such as the Nigerian and Malian armed forces, and Gulf of Guinea coastal states’ militaries and navies. By doing so, the EU breaks the norm of channelling funds through the AU, a move that could prove counterproductive in the long term. 

Similarly, decisions and outcomes of AU-UN cooperation often appear informed by the strategic interests of member states on either council, based on country- or region-specific situation. That the AU-UN partnership is yet to resolve crucial issues such as securing UN-assessed contributions for AU-managed PSOs and a more equitable representation of Africa at the UNSC illustrates this. Unheeded requests by the AU for the UNSC to fund G5 Sahel is another example.

Geopolitical competition

There is also an indication that the AU-US partnership is driven largely by geopolitical competition with other actors. The new US strategy for Africa signed on 8 August 2022 promotes openness, transparency and accountability, strengthening democracy and reducing regional instability. It also focuses on advancing post-pandemic recovery and economic opportunities, and tackling the continent’s climate crisis. However, it aims mainly to counter the expanding influence of China and Russia in Africa.

The need for a sound strategy for AU interaction with international partners is crucial

Moreover, there is no coherent strategy for engaging partners. The AU’s relations with Japan, for example, are broad with no clear focus on peace and security. Japan has supported the strengthening of the PSC-UNSC strategic partnership and AU-led efforts to preserve democratic principles, implementation of the AU women/youth, peace and security, and children and armed conflict agendas. Yet, its triannual Tokyo International Conference on African Development concentrates primarily on Africa’s development agenda.

High-quality partnerships

Going forward, the AU should focus on the quality – and not just quantity – of its partnerships. To yield more peace and security dividends, it will have to be clear on how to deal with perennial and emerging challenges that undermine the effectiveness of its external collaborations.

The need for a sound strategy for AU interaction with international partners is equally crucial. Finalising the draft partnerships strategy and policy framework by the February 2023 deadline could reorient the AU’s existing and emerging partnerships to prioritise Africa’s needs.

AU capacity must be bolstered to plan and manage PSOs. Its financial oversight mechanisms should be enhanced to engage the EU beyond funding for peace. Speedy implementation of AU Assembly decisions on financing peace and security activities would change this dynamic.

In light of peacekeepers' involvement in human rights violations during PSOs, the AU has also demonstrated commitment to the promotion and preservation of human rights in AU-led PSOs through its partnership with the EU. According to the tripartite AU-EU-UN project that was launched on 11 November 2022, AU PSOs will now be planned and carried out in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law, including preventing and combating sexual exploitation and abuses.

Member states' compliance with statutory commitments on financial contributions to the AU will be key to addressing the body’s overreliance on international partners’ financing. The launch of the revitalised AU Peace Fund and formation of a board of trustees by the AUC Chairperson, announced on 5 December 2022, present an opportunity to achieve full endowment in the short term.

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