The African Union’s peace and security missions are in dire need of thorough scrutiny as the continent faces an increasing number of conflicts that have further flung the continent into instability. The African Union (AU) is the preeminent continental union in Africa, with the stated mission of fostering “the unity and solidarity of African States, deference to their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence, and international cooperation.” There have been numerous regional conflicts in Africa since the AU’s inception in 2002, necessitating the deployment of peacekeeping missions, and this trend shows no signs of abating as the organization nears its twentieth anniversary.
The Peace and Security Council is the operational group of the AU responsible for peacekeeping (PSC). The PSC is the AU’s conflict prevention and reduction decision-making organ and an official early-warning system for calming regional crises. The African Union (AU) has its own peacekeeping force, called the African Standby Force (ASF), which consists of military, police, and civilian contingents. The various organs of the AU are working together to not only resolve the ever-present and new conflicts across Africa, but also to learn what it will take to keep the continent safe and secure.
In the twenty years since the AU’s founding, Africa’s progress toward peace and security has been slow and arduous. Before the AU was established in 2002, 16 wars broke out between 1990 and 1997, according to the Institute for Security Studies. Fourteen of these were internal wars within individual countries (in Algeria, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda, Western Sahara, and the Republic of the Congo), while two were wars between different countries (Chad and Libya, as well as Rwanda and Uganda). Furthermore, between 1990 and 2015, state and non-state actors were responsible for 630 armed conflicts.
Recent years have seen a rise in political unrest across Africa, with coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan; a tumultuous power grab in Tunisia; a humanitarian crisis and civil war in Ethiopia; a poorly elected government and major civil war in Libya; a vicious cycle of violence that shows no signs of abating in the Central African Republic; and the ongoing ethnic divisions in South Sudan as it begins life after the conclusion of the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Rapprochement Africa’s security crisis is exacerbated not only by state actors with ties to the AU but also by terrorist and extremist groups.
The African Union (AU) takes on regional peace and conflict through long-running peacekeeping missions like UNAMID in Darfur, AMISOM in Somalia (and its successor after the 31st of March 2022, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia), and AFISMA in Mali.
The G5 Sahel’s force and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) are the AU’s most recent major temporary security initiatives against terrorism and armed groups, carrying out mandates backed by the UN Security Council that have begun galvanizing a future of peace for the region.
The African Union (AU) expected terrorism in the Sahel region to decrease after authorizing the G5 Sahel’s force in 2017. Thousands have died, millions have been displaced, and food shortages have triggered a humanitarian crisis in the 10 years since the Sahel security crises in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania began. According to projections made for the region in October 2020, an estimated 13.4 million people, or 20% of the total population, required immediate assistance. Constant attacks from extremist armed groups and terrorist organizations escalate criminal activities and ethnic and local conflict. Because of the ongoing violence instigated by armed groups in the Sahel, 2.9 million people have been forced to leave their homes, 14 million people are at risk of hunger, and 31.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
On March 3, 2015, the AU authorized the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to end Africa’s struggle against violent extremism and illicit organized crime. One way to do this would be to create a plan for countering the Boko Haram uprising in the countries bordering Lake Chad (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria). However, similar to the G5 Sahel’s force, the MNJTF has been unable to perform one of its primary duties—preventing the advance of insurgent and terrorist groups like Boko Haram—due to a lack of consistent commitment, funding issues, and disjointed planning.
AU Response to Africa’s Security Crisis
According to the AU’s founding document, the organization has the authority to take action in the event of “grave circumstances,” such as “war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity,” occurring within a member state. The AU has been able to effectively use its authority within its borders to guarantee that these requirements are met. In recent years, for instance, the AU has guaranteed the final resolution of the election dispute in Zambia in 2021. The African Union (AU) has been able to rally to draft treaties like the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance and the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, all with the goal of preserving Africa’s peace, democracy, and good governance. The AU has been pushing for the rapid implementation of initiatives like “Silncing the Guns,” which was followed by the Lusaka Road Map in 2016, to end conflicts across the continent.
However, the AU’s peacekeeping framework is largely under-funded, or involves disjointed collaboration with regional blocs like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), or is often no match for missions conducted by international organizations like the UN, due to the AU’s immense dependency on external donors. Due to a lack of resources, the United Nations has taken over peacekeeping operations previously handled by the African Union, including the African Union Mission in Burundi (AMIB) and the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS).
The African Union (AU) has been successful in reaching consensus on conceptual understandings of conflict, but it has also developed a habit of shielding tyrannical state officials like former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their crimes against humanity. Moreover, the AU’s failure has been especially pervasive throughout the UNAMID in terms of long-term structural peacekeeping missions. A large number of innocent civilians in North Darfur have been forcibly displaced, raped, and killed during the AU’s 15-year rule.
The mass rape of over 200 women and girls at Tabit, North Darfur (October 2014), occurred because UNAMID did not respond to reports of the crime. Most notably, UNAMID’s inaction after a massacre in North Darfur on September 2, 2010 ,that killed about 50 men and boys and their refusal to evacuate the wounded (who all died) is a particularly gruesome example.
Even as violence escalated in Cameroon and Libya, the AU was conspicuously absent. The union finally stood firm in the face of the coup in Sudan and suspended the country’s membership in June 2019, after previously hesitating in Egypt in 2013 and Zimbabwe in 2017. Lack of suspension of Zimbabwe following the coup that ousted Robert Mugabe and radio silence when General Constantino Chiwenga became vice president are examples of the AU’s inconsistent response to conflict. Finally, in terms of conflict response, the AU is still dithering while international actors become increasingly invested in the security failures in Libya and other African states.
Are AU Peacekeeping Missions Sustainable?
Can young Africa lead the AU into the future as the youngest continent gets mired in the wars of its elders? It is crucial that the AU be reformed in light of the reoccurring nature of war in Africa. To be successful, state and AU cooperation must prioritize civilian protection as a component of defense. It is critical for the African Union and African governments to move away from a reactive approach and toward an analytical and long-term strategy that will help rebuild the institutions and infrastructures within affected states. Although conflict intervention is a reactive process, it must begin with an understanding of the systemic failures and root causes of conflict that serve as incubators for state-inflicted and armed group violence.
Moreover, the AU’s approach to peacekeeping after conflicts should prioritize the restoration of civilian-focused infrastructure that fosters unity rather than fostering animosity through human rights training. It is crucial that the AU receives adequate funding and maintain its efforts to monitor and improve oversight of repetitive shifts towards insecurity through improved communication between the AU and regional blocs, thereby reducing reliance on international non-African actors in continental conflicts.
Milkee Bekele works for the Organization for World Peace as a correspondent. His research interests include human rights policy research, Africa’s role in international justice, and women’s rights advocacy.