The Peace and Security Council (PSC) will be celebrating its 1 000th meeting on 25 May this year. This coincides with the annual Africa Day celebration to mark the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.
The PSC was created in 2004 and has since vastly increased its scope of work and efforts to ensure a more peaceful continent. As the highest decision-making body on peace and security between summits of the AU Assembly, the PSC has a crucial role to play in fast-evolving situations such as unconstitutional changes of government and the mandating of African Union (AU) peacekeeping missions.
From initially sticking to its mandatory two meetings per month, the 15-member PSC has grown into a very active AU institution with a full agenda of meetings and activities. Field visits to strife-torn countries have been added to this agenda, resembling the work of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which annually tours African states where the UN is deployed.
As it meets for a 1 000th time, the PSC will have to take stock of its achievements, the challenges it has faced, and the opportunities for it to play a stronger role in addressing conflicts and crises on the continent.
Membership of the PSC over the years
In its 17 years of existence, certain countries have served on the PSC for much longer periods than others. Of the five major contributors to the AU, Nigeria is the only one that has been a member of the PSC uninterruptedly since 2004. This is largely owing to an unwritten rule in Western Africa – the most populous of Africa’s five regions – that Nigeria should occupy one of its four seats on the PSC.
South Africa, in contrast, served for a long stretch from 2004–2012, benefiting from the role played by former president Thabo Mbeki in creating the institution, but then stepped down to serve two consecutive two-year terms from 2014–2018. It has insisted on respecting the rotation of Southern African member states, to the point of stepping back in favour of a small country like Lesotho, elected for a three-year term in 2019.
Admittedly, serving as AU chair, a non-permanent member of the UNSC and on the PSC in 2020 would have been a lot for one country, but it means South Africa stays off the council for three years.
Algeria has served for a total of 14 years – one two-year and four three-year terms – since 2004 and is still on the council. It stepped down in 2018 to give Morocco a two-year term. This was the first ever mandate on the council for the North African country that rejoined the AU in 2017 after having left the OAU in 1984.
Other countries that have served for long periods on the PSC include Ethiopia, which served a total of eight years until 2016 and rejoined in 2020 for a further two-year term. Libya served for seven years until 2016. However, since the demise of strongman Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011 the country has not been able to play as powerful a role it did in the first years of the existence of the PSC.
The idea of a ‘big five’ of leading countries driving change on the continent on peace and security matters never really gained traction. Policymakers such as Mbeki have been outspoken about not ‘recreating a UNSC’ at the AU, precisely because Africa has long objected to this unfair system of allowing the five permanent members (P5) veto power.
However, others believe such a role could allow certain initiatives – such as financing the AU Peace Fund and cooperating with other AU organs – to progress at a faster pace. It could also ensure greater continuity and coherence in the work of the PSC.
PSC ambassadors and heads of state divide – the case of Burundi
A major blow to the PSC’s ability to intervene in a crisis came in January 2016 when its decision of 17 December 2015 to send a force to Burundi, the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), was shot down by PSC heads of state. This was after Burundi complained that using Article 4(h) of the AU Constitutive Act to intervene in its domestic matters went against the principles of sovereignty and consensus so dear to the AU.
The fact that PSC ambassadors in Addis Ababa had made a decision that was reversed by the heads of state of these same PSC countries, within only a few weeks, revealed serious flaws in the system.
Some believed the PSC was following ‘instructions’ from the AU Peace and Security Department (PSD), rather than that the PSD served as a secretariat for the PSC. For several months after this incident, the PSC shied away from any robust discussions about crises in specific member states.
This incident was also a blow to the AU Commission. Former AU commissioner for peace and security Smail Chergui and AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had travelled to Burundi at the time and believed drastic action was needed to put a stop to the violence in the country.
A fact-finding mission by the AU Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights had also found that Burundi’s citizens were victims of grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime of former president Pierre Nkurunziza, who was running for a third term. However, the intervention was shot down and no such actions have been considered since then.
Coordination with the UN, EUPSC
Coordination with similar institutions such as the UNSC and the European Union Politics and Security Committee (EUPSC) has improved over the years thanks to statutory meetings and mutual agreements. Greater coordination between the PSC and the three African non-permanent members of the UNSC (A3) has also helped to improve PSC–UNSC collaboration.
However, a lot of friction still exists. With the EU this is often around the fact that the PSC tends to shy away from discussing burning issues and from ‘naming and shaming’ member states guilty of abuse and democratic backsliding, preferring a focus on thematic issues. The EU, on the other hand, is often keen to deal with crises more directly.
The PSC and unconstitutional changes of government
One of the major roles of the PSC is to deliberate on unconstitutional changes of government and to decide on eventual sanctions when coups d’état are perpetrated. This has happened on many occasions since the adoption of the Lomé Convention against unconstitutional changes of government in 2000.
However, the PSC’s current hesitation regarding Chad could create a precedent and weaken its strong stance against coups. This also links to the fact that the PSC has struggled to play an effective role in conflict prevention, focusing instead on either thematic issues or ongoing conflict situations. At times, it has simply been mute on certain conflicts.
At the next AU summit in February 2022, 15 new members of the PSC will be elected. These new members will be faced with the challenge of ensuring that the PSC fulfils its mandate – not only to react to crises when they have already escalated but to act effectively when there are warning signs of impending crises.