UN-AU partnership continues to pursue Africa’s peace and security

The five-year anniversary of the signing of the Joint United Nations (UN)-African Union (AU) Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security was marked on 19 April 2022. This agreement, solidifying the relationship between the two organisations and their shared pursuit of peace and security in Africa, followed from the earlier AU 10-year framework for capacity-building programme signed in 2006.

While, clearly, the agreement has produced positives, particularly in institutionalising a shared calendar of annual engagements among officials, there have been significant political stumbling blocks. UN and AU officials, and member states, will need to confront these in the next phase of their partnership. Heads can no longer be buried in the sand on some of the most fundamental points of contention.

The global environment is marked by growing political polarisation, increasing big power rivalries and a general disregard for the rules-based multilateral institutional order. The credibility and effectiveness of vital institutions such as the UN Security Council (UNSC) are under threat. Therefore, African states within multilateral structures must leverage their agency in the UN-AU partnership – this will help address shared continental and international peace and security concerns over the next five years.

Preventing and resolving conflict

The 2017 UN-AU partnership sought to enhance collaboration between the two organisations through all stages of preventing and resolving conflict in Africa. These range from planning joint preventive interventions to developing shared approaches toward conflict management, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction and development. The framework focused particularly on strengthening and systematising cooperation between UN and AU administrative structures at operational and working levels.

Through regular engagements throughout the year, office-bearers can better respond to the continent’s most pressing peace and security challenges by pooling their resources, strategically coordinating interventions, and leveraging their respective comparative advantages. This was seen, for example, in a greater focus on joint messaging, such as the call by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat on the sidelines of the fifth AU-UN annual conference.

Heads can no longer be buried in the sand on fundamental peace and security points of contention

At a joint press conference in December 2021, the leaders urged Sudanese citizens to support the political agreement between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. They argued that this would aid the country’s transition to a civilian government and promote democratic reforms (despite the agreement’s shaky foundations).

The outcomes of these efforts have been particularly noticeable in strengthening normative and policy frameworks. These include the AU’s Silencing the Guns initiative, its Agenda 2063 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. A sharper focus on joint planning and policy processes has also fostered a greater understanding of the causes of conflict in Africa and in preventing and addressing these conflicts.

These efforts are seen, for example, in joint assessments of AU peace support operations (PSOs) and the strengthening of triangular peace and security partnerships with the continent’s regional economic communities (RECs). The latter facilitated elections in Madagascar in 2018 with the Southern African Development Community. It was also evident in developing peace agreements in the Central African Republic in 2019 with the Economic Community of Central African States.

These developments are all the more notable given the lack of meaningful reform within the UN’s primary decision-making body responsible for maintaining international peace and security. Since 2017, the three elected African members to the UNSC (A3) have increasingly strategically leveraged their collective agency. They have also served as an informal bridge between decisions stemming from AU summits and meetings of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the UNSC.

This strategic role was illustrated in 2019 when an A3 delegation presented a united front and engaged with United State’s (US) policymakers in Washington DC. This sought to address the longstanding political deadlock on how AU PSOs could be better financed and supported through the UN-assessed contributions. These efforts have, however, so far been largely unsuccessful.

The partnership has produced some positive results, such as a shared calendar, but stumbling blocks remain

Another example of the A3 grouping’s strategic value is the fact that no other member state grouping on the UNSC receives the kind of collective endorsement or mandate by a regional organisation that African states receive from the AU before their election to the council.

At the inter-institutional level, however, the partnership between Guterres and Mahamat has been a clear driving force in recent years. Both are well into their second terms in office. It remains to be seen whether they adequately institutionalise relationships across strategic, operational and working levels in their bureaucracies, so that their successors can effectively pick up where they left off.

Challenges aplenty

Despite these developments, the UN-AU partnership faces several political challenges relating to the power imbalance at the level of their respective primary decision-making bodies. If left unaddressed or simply ignored, this could derail years of steady progress. Accordingly, this should be clearly prioritised by UN and AU stakeholders in the next phase of the partnership.

Beyond reforming the UNSC, the most well-known and often cited point of contention relates to the sustainable and predictable financing for AU-led PSOs. Resistance from key countries in the UNSC has stalled the process. Recent developments regarding the use of the AU Peace Fund and AU-mandated PSOs are promising, including a new memorandum of understanding between the AU and the RECs.

However, detailed AU human rights and financial compliance frameworks still need to be developed. These frameworks could effectively interface with UN systems and ultimately address US and United Kingdom (UK) concerns on using UN-assessed contributions for AU-led PSOs. Slow progress has undoubtedly soured relations between UN and AU stakeholders, particularly among member states serving on the UNSC and PSC.

Coping with coups

Other tensions among the African grouping and certain permanent UNSC members have also become noticeable in recent years. Clear divisions have emerged around sanctions, penholdership and how best to respond to recent coups d’état in Africa. Recent UNSC debates covering South Sudan sanctions and the Central African Republic arms embargo are examples.

A sharper focus on joint planning has increased understanding of the causes of conflict in Africa

These have underscored stark differences in positions between the A3, on the one hand, and the US, UK and France (as UNSC penholders on various African matters) on the other. These are further compounded by the lack of any standard practice or consistent UNSC outcomes on how to address unconstitutional changes in government.

Consequently, the UNSC and PSC have not been able to coordinate responses to either failed or successful coups across Africa in recent years, in spite of the latter’s fairly consistent position. Decisions and outcomes often appear informed by the strategic interests of member states on either council, based on the country-specific situation.

These kinds of broader political tensions may foment over time if difficult decisions or compromises are not made in the coming months and years to correct course. As new geopolitical rivalries take root among global powers, African states must unite to champion their common interests and leverage their agency within global multilateral institutions.

African leaders, and those in the UN and AU, should remain aware that continental peace and security challenges over the next five years can only be addressed through strategic and coordinated efforts. These require the buy-in and support of global partners across geopolitical divides.

Furthermore, African member states serving on the UNSC and PSC should seek innovative ways to advance the UN-AU partnership beyond addressing longstanding political challenges on financing and other key sticking points. This would ultimately bolster inter-institutional collaboration on the 2017 framework agreement’s substantive focus areas.

Image: © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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