Challenges to the African Union’s Security Engagement in North Africa and the Sahel
The persistence of insecurity and instability in parts of North Africa and the Sahel belt has benefited the numerous armed non-state actors in the region including separatist groups, terrorists, and transnational criminal networks engaged in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people. The African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the African Union’s (AU) set of tools for the maintenance of peace and security, would seem the obvious mechanism for resolving crises in countries beset by violence, such as Mali and Libya. This, however, has not been the case.
The APSA outlines the continental and regional mechanisms necessary for safeguarding peace and security on the continent. It has five main institutional components as specified in the 2002 Peace and Security Council (PSC) protocol: the Peace and Security Council, the primary decision-making organ tasked with the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict; the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), which monitors and anticipates potential conflicts; the Panel of the Wise, which helps mediate conflicts, broker peace agreements, and occasionally advises the PSC; the African Standby Force (ASF), a continental peacekeeping force prepared to intervene to restore peace and security, and which can be preemptively deployed to prevent outbreaks of violence; and the African Union Peace Fund which finances the AU’s peace and security operations. Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and Regional Mechanisms (RMs) also play a key role in the APSA as they provide the five regional Standby Brigade forces (North, East, West, South, and Central) which make up the ASF. The APSA is therefore highly dependent on the functioning of various institutions at the regional level.
The five main organs that comprise the AU peace and security architecture were intended to systematically address threats to peace and security at various levels, and to complement and reinforce one another. But how well are these AU mechanisms able to respond to volatile situations in conflict-affected countries such as Mali and Libya? And what can their shortcomings tell us about the structural reforms needed to make the APSA more effective?
Mali and Libya as Test Cases for the APSA
The conflict in Mali began in 2012 between Tuareg separatists and the Malian government, leading to a coup. This was then followed by general instability which several armed groups, including Islamist groups (some linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), have taken advantage of. The AU and ECOWAS laid the groundwork for a UN Security Council Resolution in late 2012 which authorized a military intervention known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). A preemptive French intervention in January 2013 preceded the deployment of this mission. ECOWAS was constrained by the initial refusal of Mali’s political and military leadership to accept their intervention, as well as the lack of standing military forces available for rapid deployment. The swift deployment of the French military forces and its early military successes raised questions about the AU’s and ECOWAS’s capacity to manage such peace-support operations due to their lack of logistical readiness and financial resources.
France, which considers the region to be of strategic value, has worked outside the APSA mechanisms to exert influence over the process. The French-backed, five-nation joint counterterrorism taskforce, G5 Sahel, framed as an ‘alliance of the willing,’ could signal a shift in the design of regional responses to violent conflict. The G5 Sahel is a regional coalition that functions as an alternative to the African Standby Force (ASF), in fact it appropriates the mandate of the APSA without being under any AU authority.
There are also conflicting interests at play. While France favors the military option to destroy terrorist and organized crime networks in Northern Mali, some countries in the region, Algeria for example, are uncomfortable with any military response that could risk further spill-over and imperil their national security.
The events in the Sahel strip cannot be understood in isolation from developments in Libya post-2011. Seven years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya is a hotbed of tension, with several rival governments, militias, and in recent years transnational terrorist groups. As a result of weak state presence in large parts of its expansive territory and porous borders, the Libyan civil war dispersed weapons and fighters throughout the Sahel, contributing to instability in countries like Mali.
The AU was unable to play a meaningful role in the Libyan crisis for several reasons. African leaders were leery of forcible regime change, fearing that the resulting vacuum would lead to further deterioration and spillover. Instead, they proposed a diplomatic approach with the goal of reaching a peace agreement. Western countries, under NATO, took a more forceful stance against the regime by declaring a no-fly zone, and thus undermining ongoing AU-sponsored peace efforts. African leaders were also divided—for both strategic and ideological reasons—over whether and how Gaddafi should step down, and failed to present a united front. Also, though the AU-proposed plan called for a ceasefire, not a single African country volunteered to contribute the battalions needed to enforce it.
The lack of Western support for AU diplomacy—and NATO’s strong support for rebel groups—seriously hampered the AU initiative, especially since the EU funds a major part of the AU’s conflict response budget. This points to a serious weakness in the APSA model: AU reliance on external funding and assistance jeopardizes its independence in making decisions related to peace and security issues on the continent, and allows for external interference in continental affairs. There are also serious disparities between RECs which impacts the operationalization of the ASF. For example, the Arab Maghreb Union was unable to perform its mandate regarding the security situation Libya due to deep political and economic disagreements between members, in particular, Morocco and Algeria.
The APSA Model: Shortcomings in a Destabilized Landscape
Following slow responses to crises and delays in the operationalization of the African Standby Force, African states have sought alternatives outside the APSA model. An example is the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), a temporary interventionist standby force created in 2013. The ACIRC functions as an alliance of the willing to be deployed “at the behest of a lead country with AU approval,” instead of being deployed by the AU itself. This structure makes the ACIRC “more responsive and less of a burden on the AU” since its “deployment is contingent on member states’ volunteering resources and participation.” The PSC is however pushing for an end to the ACIRC, arguing that more focus on mechanisms outside APSA architecture would further weaken its capacities.
There are emerging alternatives to the African Standby Force, like the 5000-strong G5 Sahel force, which includes Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali and, Niger. In this case, a regional mechanism not recognized by the AU is managing the response to a crisis after seeking only the political endorsement of the PSC in order to be eligible for Western funding. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin and the Regional Protection Force (RPF) in South Sudan, are other multinational security forces over which the PSC does not have operational authority, and which also resemble the ACIRC’s coalition of the wiling model.
These possible alternatives should lead us to reconsider whether the APSA as currently construed is the most effective structure for addressing Africa’s pressing peace and security challenges. Given the delays, the funding shortages, lack of collective commitment, and the extensive coordination required to achieve operationalization of the ASF , perhaps Africa requires a more flexible, responsive peace and security framework than what is currently envisioned by the APSA.