Conflict in Africa appears to be resurging owing to a cocktail of threats including terrorism, authoritarianism and coups, most recently in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Chad. This situation reveals the limits of current approaches to addressing insecurity – particularly when it comes to collective security.
Collective security is a cooperative approach based on a legally binding commitment among states. It is currently being tested in West Africa, where the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is weighing up diplomatic measures and military intervention in response to Niger’s 26 July coup. ECOWAS’ efforts to tackle the growing threat of coups have met with resistance from some countries in the region.
How should Africa’s approach to collective security be recalibrated to trigger the African Union’s goal of silencing the guns by 2030 and the ‘action for peace’ called for by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres? There are no simple answers, but Guterres’ New Agenda for Peace is a good place to start.
Guterres’s policy brief on the New Agenda for Peace analyses global interlocking threats including armed conflicts, weaponisation of new technologies, shrinking space for civic participation and the climate emergency. It calls for a revival of multilateralism to avert the current global competition logic, and focuses on 12 proposals in five priority areas.
The policy brief is intended to steer next year’s Summit of the Future. The UN bills the summit as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recommit member states to jointly tackle global governance gaps and reaffirm existing pledges, including the Sustainable Development Goals and UN Charter.
One of the New Agenda for Peace priorities is to revise the UN’s collective security system. Africa is integral to global peace and security – in 2021, African security issues accounted for 70 percent of the crises tabled by the UN Security Council. Ongoing discussions around the New Agenda present an opportunity for Africa to revisit the continent’s approach to managing insecurity.
By establishing the African Peace and Security Architecture – a set of norms, institutions and structures to prevent, manage and resolve conflict – African states adopted collective security principles to address interstate and intrastate conflicts. Regional blocs such as ECOWAS and the Southern African Development Community have experimented with the approach. ECOWAS’ peacekeeping missions in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were all classic examples of collective attempts to tackle national and regional insecurity.
The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) is also a collective security and early warning arrangement. The AU’s Common African Defense and Security Policy gives the AU a role in collective responses to external and internal threats. And the African Standby Force – comprising members from various countries for rapid deployment in peace operations – is another collective security initiative.
But after 20 years, these efforts aren’t working well enough. The AU admits that the dire situation calls for a new approach that aligns with the destabilizing factors now facing Africa.
Various normative and practical factors constrain Africa’s attempts at collective security. The continent’s stance is recognized as normatively advanced, with the AU, for example, allowing interventions in member states when grave human rights circumstances demand it.
This represents a shift in Africa’s policy from non-interference to non-indifference. But the AU has hardly ever used this provision because it clashes with other fundamental AU principles, such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Many African states resist what they see as the AU or regional blocs interfering in their political or security matters. This is becoming more evident, for example, in the difficulties of enforcing AU and regional economic community decisions on coups in West and Central Africa.
Ideally, collective security requires member states to accept that regional and continental entities can act in the interest of the collective. That means surrendering part of their sovereignty to a supranational entity.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Union (EU) remains the biggest sovereignty experiment. EU states pooled their sovereignty to a great extent and handed certain powers to a supranational authority. In contrast, Africa’s continental and regional politics is defined by strong adherence to sovereignty, which limits the effectiveness of collective security.
African countries often invoke the ‘sovereignty card’ to resist even the least sovereignty-infringing collective security initiatives, such as PSC field visits and mediation efforts to end crises. Recently Sudan rejected the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s proposal to deploy an African force, considering it an infringement of its sovereignty.
The AU has identified this narrow interpretation of sovereignty, coupled with the contested understanding of subsidiarity that governs its relationship with regional blocs, as the foremost challenge to AU decision-making on security problems.
Another constraint facing African collective security is the disconnect between ambitions and objectives on the one hand and resources, capacity and enabling policies on the other. A pertinent example is the over-dependence on external donors to bankroll African peace support operations.
Some policies and institutions also need major revision. The African Standby Force is a case in point. It was designed in the early 2000s and catered for the threats of the time. Its effectiveness remains limited due to poor political decision making in authorizing its use, limited funding, and member states’ preference for ad hoc security deployments, especially against terrorism.
Like the global system, Africa’s collective security approach under-prioritizes prevention, particularly in addressing the root causes of conflicts. This is partly because prevention is a national prerogative, so strict adherence to sovereignty limits the scope for outside intervention. Conflict prevention is also less appealing to political leaders than security and military measures.
A paradigm shift is needed. The New Agenda for Peace and the Summit for the Future offer an opportunity to revamp Africa’s approach to collective security and position the continent to make a meaningful contribution to regional and global peace.
Africa should thoroughly revisit the collective security concept and the factors constraining it. The continent needs a cooperative mechanism that addresses persistent insecurity and keeps up with shifting global politics.
The AU and regional bodies should lead in convening a dialogue on Africa’s approach. Frank and open discussion are essential, including on the narrow interpretation of sovereignty and lack of priority given to conflict prevention.
(Dawit Yohannes is a project manager and senior researcher, training for peace at the ISS Addis Ababa.)
Contributed by Dawit Yohannes