Tanzanian United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) troops patrol Khor Abeche, South Darfur, Sudan, July 1, 2014.

Tanzanian United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) troops patrol Khor Abeche, South Darfur, Sudan, July 1, 2014. AP Photo/UNAMID, Albert Gonzalez Farran

Four Ways the US Can Help the African Union Stand on Its Own

A united and capable Africa appeals to both regional players and Washington, which increasingly views violence within Africa’s many fragile states as enabling conditions for terrorists with growing global ambitions. By Stewart M. Patrick

Djibouti, East Africa—The slogan of “African solutions to African problems” has long been a seductive mantra, attractive to African and Western governments alike. The phrase suggests a new era of continental responsibility in which African countries themselves—rather than former colonial powers, the United States, or even the United Nations (UN)—play a bigger role in delivering regional peace and security. The vision of a self-confident, united, and capable Africa has obvious attractions on the continent. But it also appeals to Washington, which increasingly views instability and violence within Africa’s many fragile states as enabling conditions for terrorists and violent extremists ranging from Boko Haram to al-Shabab to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Realizing this vision, however, will require vast improvements in the capabilities of the African Union (AU), the continent’s most important regional institution. It will also require clearer division of labor between the AU and the UN, as well as between the AU and Africa’s several regional economic communities (RECs). The Obama administration, which has elevated U.S. diplomatic and military engagement with Africa to unprecedented heights, now faces a tougher task: persuading African governments to take the hard decisions and invest the resources necessary for the AU to live up to its potential as a pillar of continental security.

Since 2000, no area of the globe has made more progress on regional security cooperation than Africa. In 2002, African states replaced the venerable Organization of African Unity (OAU) with the African Union. Whereas the OAU had been obsessed with upholding sovereignty and non-intervention, the AU endorsed the principle of “non-indifference” in the affairs of member states. The AU’s Constitutive Act condemned “irregular changes of government” and held out the prospect of sanctions in response to them. Even more strikingly, the AU became the only regional organization to explicitly recognize the right to intervene militarily to protect populations from mass atrocities, as had occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

Beyond these normative shifts, AU members endorsed a new African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Cornerstones of the APSA included a new, fifteen-member Peace and Security Council (PSC), a Panel of the Wise to conduct mediation efforts, and a proposed rapid reaction African Standby Force (ASF), military staff committee, and Peace Fund.

Many African states chafe at granting real authority to a continent-wide regional organization and prefer to address African conflicts through subregional groupings.

Over this past week, I had the opportunity to assess the AU’s progress in implementing these ambitious goals at a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, cosponsored by CFR and the Institute for Security Studies. These conversations made painfully clear that the AU—and its foreign supporters—have a long way to go toward bringing to fruition the vision of a united Africa capable of addressing its greatest security threats. Four priorities stand out:

1. Closing the AU’s aspirations-capabilities gap: There is an alarming chasm between the AU’s ambitions and its capacities to achieve these objectives. This ends-means gap is most obvious when it comes to funding: despite a decade of robust African economic growth, the AU still depends on external sources for more than 90 percent of its budget. Yes, Africa remains the world’s poorest continent. But it also possesses tremendous riches. Current funding patterns suggest that at least some African governments are determined to keep the AU weak.

And weak it remains. The AU has glaring shortcomings when it comes to analyzing and predicting violent conflict, formulating military doctrine, planning peace operations, mobilizing and deploying troops, providing logistical support, ensuring effective command and control, and distilling lessons learned and best practices from ongoing and completed operations. Professional standards vary widely across troop contributors, interoperability remains uneven, and many member states are reluctant to participate in AU missions. The ASF is nowhere near being constituted [PDF], leading a number of AU members to push for the stopgap measure of a purely military African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), which would take a “coalition of the willing” approach to interventions. In sum, the AU must close the gap between what is written on paper and what exists in practice.

(Related: The US Needs a New Approach to Security in Africa)

2. Clarifying AU and UN roles in peace operations: Cooperation between the AU and UN on peace operations has been ad hoc and turbulent. The AU’s mission in Sudan (AMIS) struggled mightily, and was eventually replaced by the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) in 2008. More recently, the AU-led intervention in the Central African Republic, known by the acronym MISCA, was succeeded this September by a UN mission, MINUSCA. Because the AU has a higher tolerance for casualties than the UN, it’s tempting to contemplate a sequential model, whereby a robust initial AU intervention force yields to a longer-term peacekeeping operation. If so, the AU will need to work harder to ensure the appearance of neutrality. In the case of MISCA, AU peacekeepers from neighboring Chad were accused of supporting the Sekela rebels.

The longest-running and largest AU operation to date has been the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). After a very rocky start, AMISOM has succeeded [PDF] at heavy cost in clearing al-Shabab from Mogadishu and other parts of the country. These achievements would have been impossible, however, without the logistical support provided by the UN Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA), established in 2009, and most importantly, an unprecedented decision by the UN Security Council (UNSC) to support AMISOM with assessed UN peacekeeping contributions. Going forward, the AU-UN partnership needs to shift from improvised, seat-of-the-pants arrangements to more regularized cooperation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently announced another major review of UN peace operations. A central objective of this initiative should be to place AU-UN cooperation on peace operations on a sounder strategic as well as financial footing.

Beyond these practical issues of comparative advantage and burden-sharing, there is the tricky question of authorization. The UN Charter is clear on this matter: it acknowledges the role of regional organizations under Chapter VIII, but requires that the UNSC endorse any use of force except in situations of self-defense. Nevertheless, the AU’s Constitutive Act and some AU policy statements appear to envision scenarios whereby the Peace and Security Council could independently authorize an intervention. Such ambiguity puts the PSC and the UNSC on a potential collision course.

3. Clarifying the roles of the AU and the RECS: In asserting primacy for peace and security on the continent, the AU also faces competition from below, from some of the continent regional economic communities (RECs), notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the East African Community (EAC), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD). Notwithstanding their AU membership, many African states chafe at granting real authority to a continent-wide regional organization and prefer to address African conflicts through subregional groupings. The fact the RECs predate the AU reinforces this instinct. However, the RECs often have overlapping memberships, vary tremendously in their capabilities, and they are susceptible to domination by their most powerful members (Nigeria, for example, in the case of ECOWAS). In 2008, the AU signed a memorandum of understanding on peace and security cooperation with key RECs, suggesting that they should be governed by principles of complementarity and subsidiarity while retaining the AU’s harmonizing and coordinating role. Alas, this MOU has done little to clarify their division of labor.

4. Ramping up the regional dimension of U.S. policy toward Africa: Security threats in Africa, from terrorism to crime to disease, are increasingly transnational. They demand, by definition, regional approaches. This presents a particular challenge for the U.S. State Department, which—notwithstanding its creation in 2006 of an AU diplomatic mission—still engages African countries primarily on a bilateral basis. By contrast, the U.S. Defense Department maintains a standing combatant command for Africa (AFRICOM, based in Stuttgart, Germany), which holds annual staff talks with the AU, as well as a hub in the East African nation of Djibouti, home to several thousand U.S. troops comprising the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). These platforms provide the Pentagon with powerful tools to encourage regional and subregional cooperation among otherwise mistrustful African governments. Indeed, CJTF-HOA’s support of the AMISOM mission in Somalia is intended not simply to help the AU root out and defeat al-Shabab, but also to forge new patterns of cooperation among the governments of the Horn.

(Related: Summit Showcases Africa's Progress and Pitfalls)

The State Department has neither the resources nor the personnel to create its own, forward-deployed platform in Africa (much less a counterpart to AFRICOM). But it can and should devote greater attention to promoting and rewarding African progress on regional security cooperation. This will of course be a decades-long endeavor. But U.S. diplomats have at least one thing going for them: the rhetorical commitment of African leaders to the same goal.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.