How Africa Can Finally Provide Its Own Security

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Sub-Saharan states have made real progress in building their own security. Here's how they can do even better and how the United States can help

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African Union Mission in Somalia soldiers take up new positions in northern Mogadishu / Reuters

Given the tumultuous decade since 9/11, it's easy to overlook one of the world's unsung success stories: the spread of peace, prosperity, and good governance across much of sub-Saharan Africa. This hopeful trend is challenging the still-common Western view that Africa is doomed to be the perpetual ward of the international community. Fifty years after decolonization, Africans are shrugging off a sad legacy of violent conflict, stagnant growth, and venal political leadership.


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One force behind this transformation is the African Union (AU), which succeeded the dysfunctional Organization of African Unity (OAU) in May 2001.  A decade after its founding, however, the AU suffers from serious shortcomings in its ability to implement its grandiose ambitions. The goal of U.S. policy, as George Washington University professor Paul D. Williams argues in a new Council on Foreign Relations report, must be to help the AU close this "capabilities-expectations gap." In short, Washington must persuade African leaders to commit themselves politically and financially to a more robust AU system of conflict management, including effective mechanisms for early warning, political mediation, coercive sanctions, and peacekeeping. Rather than charity, this would be an investment in the stability of a continent increasingly important for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, energy security, and trade and investment opportunities--not to mention ensuring peace within a post-Qaddafi and -Mubarak Africa.

In its short history, the AU has played a significant role in Africa's improving security, economic, and political environment. The OAU was famously welded to the principles of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states. The AU Constitutive Act turns this on its head. It declared a policy of "non-indifference" concerning the internal affairs of African governments, condemns "unconstitutional changes of government," and legitimates coercive intervention in African states in situations of mass atrocities. Since 2003, the African Union has condemned every coup and, indeed, regularly peppers its official statements with expressions of support for democracy.

Under the rubric of African solutions to African problems, the AU has also created an African Peace and Security Council (PSC), deployed member state troops in AU-led peacekeeping missions, and begun developing subregional military capabilities within the AU's eight recognized regional economic communities (RECs). AU troops are currently leading the UN mandated African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with a 9,000 person force, recently authorized to rise to 12,000 troops.

Regardless of the AU's progress, I find the following areas merit U.S. concern:

  • Inattention to conflict prevention. The AU PSC has devoted the vast majority of its energy to resolving conflicts that have already erupted, rather than heading off conflicts before they erupt. As Williams observes, the AU's Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) "remains a work in progress," too underpowered to monitor and analyze emerging conflict dynamics across the region. Moreover, the presence of authoritarian governments on the PSC itself has hindered its willingness to defend democratic governance.
  • Anemic sub-regional bodies. Ultimately, the African Union's ability to ensure peace and security in Africa will rest heavily on the vigor of its regional economic communities. Alas, while a few of these are well developed--notably the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Community--most, like the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, remain anemic.
  • Underpowered peacekeeping. Despite their growing importance, AU peace operations suffer from critical shortcomings. This includes dependence on a handful of African troop contributing countries; reliance on the international community for financial, logistical, and technical support; uncertain support from AU member states to authorize robust mission mandates; and the lack of specialized military assets and personnel. Beyond these needs, the PSC, as well as the AU Commission--the executive arm of the AU--remain significantly under-resourced, both financially and in terms of the personnel that are required to plan, generate forces, and provide logistical support for complex peacemaking and peacekeeping operations. In May 2003, the AU developed a framework for an African Standby Force (ASF) of more than 20,000 troops, divided into five regional brigades. More than eight years later, the ASF has yet to emerge as a fully functional multinational force, with clear command and control and reliable access to member state assets.

As Williams' paper suggests, it's time that the Obama administration increase strategic cooperation between the AU and Africa Command, the focal point for U.S. military engagement on the African continent, including exchanges of officers. Second, the administration should deploy U.S. civilian experts in conflict management to help bolster the AU's early warning, conflict prevention, and mediation efforts. Third, the United States should work with other likeminded governments with significant military assets to help fill the gaps in the AU's operational capabilities, including in the areas of lift and logistics. Fourth, the Obama administration should work with Congress to ensure continuation of the Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) program and with its Group of Eight partners to extend the Global Peace Operations Initiative, to ensure that more African countries have professional troops they can deploy to AU operations. Finally, the United States should work to enhance the AU's intelligence collection and analytical capabilities.

Again, given the ongoing leadership transitions taking place in North Africa, the AU will inevitably become even more of an indispensable regional institution. Let's hope U.S. officials both recognize and act on this sooner rather than later.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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