PSC discussions in 2021 show the need for greater focus on governance

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) is concerned with the growing multidimensional threats to peace, security and socioeconomic development in Africa noted during 2021. However, it did not discuss the major underlying drivers of these issues during the year’s deliberations. Nor did it reflect on emerging crises as most countries still shy away from placing fellow member states on the agenda.

Unlike in previous years, however, it devoted much time to exploring disasters and crisis management. The nexus between climate change and insecurity appeared on the agenda for the first time at the level of heads of state. This positive development shows a shift in focus to long-term issues impacting human security in Africa.

Governance deficits glossed over

The PSC continued to encourage member states to address holistically the fundamental root causes of threats to peace and security in Africa. Yet it has consistently failed to highlight and confront the governance deficits that are a cause of many of the continent’s conflicts.

In 2021, a total of 13 051 protests and riots resulting in 1 297 reported fatalities were witnessed. These mass anti-government protests were often linked to a breakdown of the rule of law and lack of accountability, rising inequality, social injustice, marginalisation, corruption, and the institution of oppressive measures. Apparent, too, were, identity-based tensions and the failure of the security apparatus to protect citizens. These underlying issues that often lead to violent conflict were not discussed by the PSC.

Such a trend has implications for the council’s influence on peace and security. Until the PSC boldly addresses member states’ governance failures, it will fall short of its mandate to prevent conflicts on the continent. That mandate is set out in the Protocol on the Establishment of the PSC and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

Continental responses to conflicts

Records show that the PSC met more than 80 times in 2021 and reviewed many of the continent’s violent conflicts. However, thematic issues and region-wide insecurity such as that of Eastern Africa and the Sahel took precedence over specific crises of member states. This was to be expected given the active contribution of the two regions to Africa’s peace and security trends during the year.

Climate-induced insecurity and disaster management received the PSC’s highest consideration, at heads of states meetings in March and October. It is the first time the subject has been broached at this level. These two meetings indicated a shift in the PSC’s focus to sustainable peace and human security, a deviation from its traditional preoccupation with violent conflicts.

Climate-induced insecurity and disaster management received the PSC’s highest consideration

Another 2021 focus was political transitions, with debates taking shape under the African Solidarity Initiative to Support Post-conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa.

Council delegations made field visits to Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic. There they liaised with political stakeholders developing an action plan for effective and sustainable AU support for political transitions. The visit to Somalia helped to narrow the divergence between the positions of that government and the council on the future of AMISOM, the AU Mission in Somalia.

Concern over terror threats

The council’s concern with the growing threat of terrorism and violent extremism prompted several discussions on the continent’s hotspots. Meetings were also held at ministerial level to discuss a strategy to enhance efforts to counter the scourges. Enhancing support to AU-endorsed counter-terrorism initiatives such as the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram featured, as did the G5 Sahel and the deployment of 3 000 more troops to the region. The finalisation of the AU Sahel stabilisation strategy was also prioritised.

Beyond counter-terrorism, the PSC conceptualised a strategy to stabilise and develop Boko Haram-affected areas, particularly in the Lake Chad Basin. Consensus was reached on the need for sustainable financing from United Nations assessed contribution for AU-led peace support operations, including counter-terrorism operations.

Coups d’etat on the agenda

Military coups and unconstitutional changes of government were consistent topics during 2021. Military coups d’etat were staged in Mali (24 May), Guinea (5 September) and Sudan (25 October), each deemed an unconstitutional takeover of power. The PSC suspended these countries from participation in AU activities pending a return to constitutional order under civilian rule.

In Mali and Guinea, the council waited for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to pronounce on matters before taking a position. Thus, it directly intervened only in Sudan, its swiftest action against an unconstitutional change of government.

Countries with internal conflicts did not want to be on the agenda, so they did not nominate others

Delaying council decisions in order to wait for a pronouncement by the regional body has been viewed as hesitation from the council, with implications for impunity. It has also been criticised for its handling of the unconstitutional power transfer in Chad following the death of President Idriss Deby in April. Contrary to AU norms, the PSC endorsed an 18-month transitional plan drawn up by the military that had assumed power.

The council held two meetings on elections, with particular attention on the CovId-19 pandemic, and received multiple reports from AU electoral observer missions. A novel attempt was made to evaluate and take stock of achievements and challenges in implementing its annual workplan. While this was noteworthy, better methodology and prior planning are needed if this is to become a useful tool to hold the council accountable for its performance.

Shortfalls and slow reactions

Conflict prevention is at the core of the PSC’s mandate. As confirmed during its July meeting, the council is supported by the continental early warning system in ensuring timely response to conflicts. However, its track record in 2021, as in previous years, has demonstrated a failure to act on early warning information in several countries, in favour of a fire-fighting role.

This shortcoming can be blamed on the agenda-setting practice. PSC members with the mandate to add agenda items continue to desist from listing fellow AU members for fear of being discussed themselves. The AU Commission chairperson, with powers to advance any peace and security concern, appears to prefer diplomatic tools other than activation of the council’s mandate. As with his predecessors, the chairperson periodically issues statements on particular issues, but these have not necessarily been linked to PSC decisions.

Countries with internal conflicts, such as Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Chad, which were PSC members in 2021, generally do not want to be on the agenda themselves and would therefore be less inclined to put other countries facing instability on the agenda of the PSC. This questions the membership criteria and explains how council composition affects the efforts to address peace and security challenges.

Better methodology and planning are needed if the council is to be held accountable for performance

Members also avoided putting other member states on the agenda for fear of instrumentalisation in the ongoing rivalry between some member states and external actors. Some PSC members including Ethiopia, for example, perceived the tabling of Ethiopia’s conflict for discussions on the November agenda by Ghana as United States pressure on a number of member states rather than a genuine desire for discussion. Egypt chaired the council during that month.

Work in 2021 also points to the framing of the guiding principle of sovereignty encapsulated in the AU’s Constitutive Act having become a hindrance to early PSC action. Before the Sudan coup, attempts to bring its well-recognised woes to the table were resisted on the basis of sovereignty.

This reflects a culture in which some member states object to the activation of the council’s mandate on the grounds that it would interfere in countries’ internal affairs or create a precedent that can be misused. The ultimate effects of this and members’ refusal that the council act, reflect the absence of focus on underlying drivers of insecurity, particularly governance deficiencies and rising inter-communal tensions.

The 2021 agenda also highlighted the AU’s lack of capacity and leverage to swiftly and adequately respond to certain crises. While Mozambique chaired the ministerial meeting on terrorism, the PSC did not discuss the northern Mozambique situation. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is leading the quest for solutions there.

Experts believe this is because SADC invoked the principle of subsidiarity. Nevertheless, the case reinforces the tension between the PSC’s role in addressing peace and security concerns and the imperatives of subsidiarity in the relationship between Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the AU. 

Despite the obstacles, the council still contributed to the management of some continental peace and security challenges. That said, incoming PSC members that are to be elected in early 2022 should show greater political will and concentrate on tackling the organisation’s weaknesses while harnessing its true strengths in a landscape of worsening peace and security.

Photo: Noor Khamis/AU–PSD

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