Time for Africa to respond to terrorism and coups

Will decisions taken at the AU extraordinary summit bear fruit or fall on fallow ground?

The African Union (AU) 16th extraordinary summit on 28 May 2022 sought solutions to the threats of terrorism and unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs) in Africa. These, according to AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, ‘are hindering Africa from achieving its goals of becoming a peaceful and prosperous continent.’

The summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, was organised at a time when Africa is witnessing an increase in terrorist attacks and UCGs. It resulted in a draft declaration and draft decision yet to be made public.

According to these documents, African heads of state endorsed previous recommendations by the Peace and Security Council (PSC) and other organs able to enhance AU responses to terrorism and UCGs. The outcomes are a continental commitment to addressing the two threats and their consequences, without signalling a significant policy shift in AU responses to them.

It remains to be seen whether and how these decisions will be implemented. This is particularly so considering the significant financial and human resource restrictions confronting the AU, particularly the AU Commission, which is expected to be central to implementing these decisions.

Summit outcomes

The summit declaration adopted the theme’ robust response, deepening democracy and collective security.’ It is, for the most part, a political statement that reiterates AU member states’ commitment to previous AU decisions, frameworks and mechanisms on terrorism and UCGs.

Terrorism and coups prevent Africa from becoming a peaceful and prosperous continent

It acknowledges the extent to which the two issues have threatened African peace and security and calls on member states to ratify and implement AU decisions and instruments on both. It also reaffirms AU decisions, including establishing a counterterrorism unit under the African Standby Force (ASF) and implementing a fund to fight terrorism and violent extremism. 

The declaration endorsed the AU Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security’s May 2022 recommendation for an AU and regional economic communities (RECs) memorandum of understanding on the ASF. It further recommended establishing a counterterrorism coordination task force at ministerial level to enhance synergy and harmonise counterterrorism responses at different levels. 

The much-more succinct draft decision includes seven major action-oriented resolutions that provide more guidance on AU responses to UCGs beyond the declaration, which offers only general aspirations for their prevention. The draft decision seeks immediate reactivation of the sanctions sub-committee and establishment of a PSC sub-committee on UCGs to monitor other potential UCGs, including amendment of national constitutions. The AU Commission has been tasked with developing by the February 2023 summit guidelines for the amendment of national constitutions.

The draft calls for prompt activation of the PSC sub-committee on counterterrorism established in 2010, but that has never been functional. It also tasks the AU Commission with consolidating a comprehensive continental strategic plan of action for countering terrorism and violent extremism. This is expected to synthesise AU’s policy frameworks on countering terrorism, mercenarism, small arms and light weapons, transnational organised crime and criminalisation of ransom payments.

At their upcoming executive council meeting in July, foreign ministers are expected to determine how much funding to allocate to the AU’s rapid response capability for emerging conflicts, including terrorism. The funds will come from the Peace Fund’s Crisis Reserve Facility (CRF).  

The AU sub-committees on counterterrorism and sanctions have never operated

The other two decisions focus on implementing the African Governance Architecture (AGA) and the African Peace and Security Architecture, and for the next African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) governance report to focus on UCGs.


Establishing a sub-committee on UCGs, independent of the sanctions sub-committee, and renewed commitment to developing guidelines for national constitution amendments, signal AU readiness to go beyond sanctions to manage UCGs. If fully implemented, the sub-committee will focus increasingly on prevention of and early response to UCGs, including monitoring incumbents’ attempts to amend constitutions to expand their powers and/or extend their terms.

This is a move in the right direction as contestations over constitutional amendments have contributed to political instability and triggered public protests leading to military interventions in some African countries. The decision to consolidate a continental strategic action plan to counter terrorism and violent extremism also indicates the realisation of the need for a more holistic and coordinated response to the threat.

Governance off the table

While the summit’s outcomes widened the AU’s response to UCGs and terrorism, governance deficits that drive both phenomena were off the table for the AU once more. Addressing governance continentally is challenging as the implementation of decisions on governance issues is difficult due to considerations of sovereignty.

The AU’s response to terrorism and violent extremism continues to be focused on security and militaristic response to the threat rather than interventions such as socio-political measures. While the AU can only encourage states to make changes, it can ensure continental policy frameworks provide a holistic response to the threats.

Decisions past and present

The summit outcomes also seem to have overlooked complementarity between new provisions and previous summit decisions. For example, the February 2022 summit stipulated that a high-level hybrid committee of sitting and former heads of state and government would be established. It would engage incumbents who try to amend national constitutions ‘without national consensus.’ 

Implementing summit decisions will have serious cost implications

The last summit had also decided that a monitoring and oversight committee be established including the AU Commission, RECs, the APRM and member states. It would monitor and evaluate the implementation of country structural vulnerability and resilience assessments to help member states deal with the structural causes of UCGs. It is unclear whether the sub-committee on UCGs will now take over these responsibilities or if they will work in tandem in a structure yet to be established.

Resources stretched

Implementing the summit decisions will have serious cost implications. The declaration promises that there will be a budget for national and regional response to terrorism and violent extremism. However, given the AU’s track record of allocating funding to initiatives, including the Peace Fund, member states will have difficulty deciding on a budget and meeting their commitments.

It is also unclear whether this finance will come from the AU’s regular budget, the Peace Fund CRF or the newly established special counterterrorism fund. While establishing the counterterror unit under the ASF was endorsed by the summit, its realisation will face similar financial challenges.

The decision to develop guidelines for the amendment of national constitutions is also not new. Since 2010, member states, through AU Assembly and PSC decisions, have asked the AU Commission to develop such a guideline that will be universally applicable to its members. The Commission, however, is unable to do so because of constrained human and financial resources. This affects its ability to consult with 55 member states, which would mean deploying dedicated experts for an extended time.

Importantly, the sub-committees on counterterrorism and sanctions have never operated, attributable to inadequate human resources in delegations of member states and the AU Commission. The AU currently lacks the human resources or financial capacity to monitor and enforce sanction regimes.

Moreover, while various AU agencies working on terrorism and violent extremism might actively support that sub-committee, there are no active units focusing on governance issues to support the UCGs sub-committee. The AGA is a coordination platform rather than a governance advisory body, while APRM operates by the invitation of member states. The PSC is the only member of the AGA platform with a mandate to scrutinise the governance performance of member states. However, it has shied away from this responsibility since its establishment, particularly after 2015.

The crux of the matter

While the summit may have made significant strides in responding to terrorism and UCGs, its success can be measured only to the extent these decisions are implemented. Member states’ response to decisions correlates directly with political commitment and the extent of their willingness to dedicate resources to decisions and monitor their implementation. 

This will entail ensuring the various entities being proposed become operational in a reasonably short time. Furthermore, funds and human resources should be made available to the Commission, whose responsibility it is to implement a number of the decisions. 

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