The African Union (AU) celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022 – an opportunity to reflect critically on the viability of collective responses to conflict in Africa using peace support operations (PSOs).
Conflicts and crises that bedevilled the continent in the 1990s and early-2000s generated norms, institutions and structures of conflict prevention, management and resolution. These are broadly known as the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). But despite the use of different response mechanisms, instability is surfacing in various shapes and intensities. The nature of the threats and the actors involved are increasingly complex.
Over the years, AU member states have responded in different ways to persisting threats, notably violent extremism and other asymmetric threats that have spared none of the continent’s regions. Rather than relying on APSA mechanisms such as the African Standby Force (ASF), with five regional standby capabilities, ad hoc voluntary security initiatives have emerged as preferred responses.
The AU established the ASF to support the work of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) for rapid action on conflict and crisis. However, discussions are focusing on whether such a trend away from the original ASF design still aligns with the AU’s broader concept and practice of PSOs or if it signals a major shift away from the initial idea of responding to conflicts and crises through the deployment of PSOs indicated in the PSC Protocol and the ASF’s founding documents.
These questions come amid rising scepticism about the AU’s role. This is not least because of increasing importance of regions dealing with issues on their own and the AU’s limited engagement in certain intractable crises.
It is time for the AU to clear up persisting doubts about its PSO instruments. This includes the reconceptualisation of ASF deployment in contemporary conflicts, issues of political consensus, power relations, coordination between the AU and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs), and resources.
Making inroads with PSOs
The AU established the ASF as part of APSA to respond effectively to crises through timely PSO deployment. The ASF is a significant marker of the transformation from the Organisation of African Unity to the AU, embodying the AU’s resolve to act in line with the AU Constitutive Act. This followed the normative shift from non-interference to non-indifference, encapsulated by Article 4(h) of the Act. This provision authorises intervention in member states in grave circumstances, notably crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
According to the PSC Protocol, the ASF comprises standby multidisciplinary and multidimensional contingents, with civilian, police and military components in their countries of origin ready for rapid deployment to crises. The ASF is predicated on using pledged capabilities in the eight RECs and RMs, which can be deployed for the six ASF scenarios ranging from political missions to intervention.
Central to the ASF arrangement has been continuous preparation through the training of various actors to be part of PSOs. While training is the responsibility of member states and RECs/RMs, the AU Commission provides training policies, directives, standards, guidelines and curricula. The years since the ASF’s establishment have also witnessed growing roles of the police and to a lesser extent civilians, symbolising the force’s aspiration to be a tool for multidimensional PSOs.
Since its inception, the AU has authorised the deployment of about 70 000 mission personnel in 12 peace missions. In addition, in the 20 years since the adoption of the PSC Protocol, the AU and RECs combined have conducted about 27 PSOs. Although not necessarily within the original ASF concept and arrangement, these were deployed in different contexts and achieved mixed results.
Most of the AU missions served as first responders to emerging crises where the United Nations (UN) was unable, reluctant or unprepared to deploy its blue helmets. With all its shortcomings, the AU Mission in Sudan deployed between 2004 and late-2007 helped de-escalate the conflict in the Darfur region and protect civilians. The AU missions were also credited with creating conditions conducive for transitioning to UN missions, as in the case of Burundi, the Central Africa Republic and Mali.
The AU’s longest-running mission since 2007, the AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), became the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) in 2022. It played an important role in establishing Somalia’s federal and state-level governments and security institutions. The AU’s erstwhile African-led International Support Mission to Mali was endowed with a similar mandate of strengthening Mali’s security institutions to protect civilians and transition into stabilisation activities.
The deployment of these PSOs has unfolded alongside a serious experiment of building viable PSO capacities through the ASF framework. Admittedly, the AU has yet to use the ASF, at least in its original form and concept, despite declaring it fully operational on 15 January 2015.
Nonetheless, the ASF process contributed to increasing the overall capabilities of individual member states and the RECs/RMs to work together to plan and manage PSOs. The training and other capacity-building endeavours conducted within the ASF framework enhanced the capability of military, police and civilian personnel, contributing to their preparedness for deployment in PSOs and in other missions.
In addition, the ASF framework helped standardise and harmonise training and increased awareness of the forces in numerous areas, including laws of armed conflict, protection of civilians and international humanitarian law. Although the AU has not strictly applied the ASF original concept, some aspects served to deploy certain non-AU missions. These include the Economic Community of West African States mission in The Gambia and the Southern African Development Community mission in Mozambique.
AU PSOs face important challenges; their financing is arguably among the most formidable. Preparing mission personnel and deploying large multidimensional missions entail enormous costs, which the AU cannot bear alone, as the AMISOM experience has shown.
Mandating a PSO has not been easy. Unclarified power relations between the AU and RECs/RMs raises the spectre of competition over the facilitation, coordination and command and control of missions. At the centre of this contestation lies the lack of clarity on the ASF concept and PSO doctrine on complementarity and subsidiarity in the mandating, deployment, command and control of PSOs. This challenge is determining which of these entities has primacy in undertaking these processes.
Besides, national interest calculations often play out at the PSC during the mandating of PSOs and decisively determine the process. Member states’ resistance to AU deployment decisions and lack of political will are crucial challenges, as illustrated by the 2015 PSC decision to deploy a PSO to Burundi and that nation’s resistance. Following an AU Assembly debate, the planned mission was abandoned.
Rapid deployment contexts, notably the growing threat of violent extremism and asymmetric issues, also challenged the AU’s original PSO doctrine. In the early years of the ASF, the AU adopted a ‘one doctrine concept’ of PSOs that heavily emphasised military operations.
The doctrine was subsequently revised to encapsulate nine core principles that stress multidimensional approaches and strategies and was adopted by the AU in January 2021. However, it is yet to gain full traction and be implemented by RECs/RMs. Lastly, women remain underrepresented in PSOs despite policy and institutional frameworks for greater gender parity and a gradual increase in the number of women in AU missions such as AMISOM.
PSOs at a crossroads
Effective use of AU instruments for PSOs, including the ASF, rests on tackling the challenges mentioned, particularly financing. A dedicated PSC session following a series of regional consultations and supported by experts’ inputs is essential in redefining the ASF's future and the AU’s role in PSOs.
Financing PSOs requires fresh thinking, as the head of the AU Peace Fund Donald Kaberuka recently highlighted. The PSC should prioritise the development of a workable and practical roadmap to achieve sustainable funding. This would eliminate loopholes that prevent the AU from accessing financing, such as compliance with international law and financial accountability.
In addition, the PSC has to expedite ongoing efforts to redefine the ASF as a tool for effective PSOs. A reconceptualisation is needed of the current and future roles of the framework in Africa’s changing deployment contexts, in line with the AU decisions to comprehensively review the ASF concept.
Reconceptualising the ASF requires the right balance between the roles of the AU and the RECs/RMs in facilitating and coordinating the ASF and broader PSO processes. The PSC should oversee the finalisation of the memorandum of understanding on the ASF with RECs/RMs. Revising the concept will have to ensure alignment with the revised PSO doctrine to provide better strategic and operational guidance.
Furthermore, the UN is an important player in continental peace operations. The AU and UN roles in PSOs must be redefined in line with ideals such as complementarity and subsidiarity.