The African Union’s Emerging Security Culture: Options for U.S. Policymakers

Recent changes in the normative landscape of Africa’s international relations provide both opportunities and challenges for U.S. policymakers charged with protecting U.S. security interests on the continent. In the last decade, the security culture of the African Union (AU) has developed in some relatively radical ways.  These have created new opportunities for furthering a long-term U.S. strategy aimed at promoting democratization and curbing the excesses of state power that have done so much to destabilize Africa.  There are also new opportunities to advance the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) agenda adopted by the United Nations General Assembly World Summit in 2005.  This agenda commits individual states and the international community to protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.  If successfully implemented in Africa, R2P would make a tremendous contribution to promoting stability and peace.

Today, U.S. security strategy for Africa is too focused on the short-term details of setting up the Pentagon’s Africa Command and on implementing military training programs that will do little to ease underlying social and economic problems.  Periodic displays of military force in the Horn of Africa connected with the Administration’s Global War on Terror are largely ineffective and risk alienating African opinion.  Policymakers would be far better advised to give their attention to supporting institutions and legislatures that can act as counterweights to excessive state power.  They should also be focusing their energies on conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction in order to prevent crises that lead to pressures for direct U.S. military intervention.   A sensible place to start would be to provide real resources to the AU’s Peace and Security Council.  In the short- to medium-term at least, this is the single most important institution for promoting a stable security environment in Africa.

Around the world, regional organizations identify different issues as security threats and devise different responses to them. Particularly on issues related to the internal affairs of member states, the world’s regional arrangements have adopted very different stances. At one end of the spectrum, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plays almost no corporate role in responding to internal crises within its members such as rebellions and coups. At the other end of the spectrum, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has deployed troops in civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Cote d’Ivoire. Similarly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have both justified the use of military force with reference to humanitarian crises generated by civil wars. While ECOWAS forces have remained within West Africa, these two Western organizations have sent their troops outside their own regional boundaries.

What accounts for such regional variation? I submit that security cultures shape the way in which regional arrangements construct and respond to threat agendas. Security cultures are the beliefs and norms shared by a particular group about what constitutes a security threat (as opposed to mere political problems) and what responses to them are considered appropriate and legitimate. A regional security culture refers to the shared beliefs and norms held by members of a particular regional arrangement and its officials.

Today, the AU’s security culture includes an interesting mix of traditional and relatively novel elements. Traditional expectations are still clearly paramount in several areas. The Constitutive Act of the African Union is similar to the charter of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in many ways.  It emphasizes the sovereign equality of member states (Article 4a) and affirms that members are not permitted to intervene in each other’s internal affairs (Article 4g).  The AU Constitutive Act insists that disputes between member states should be settled without the use of military force (Articles 4e, 4f, 4i), and like the OAU Charter it commits member states to the legal norm of uti possidetis, which in the African context means respecting the borders that existed at the time of independence (Article 4b). The Union remains a vocal advocate of anti-imperialism and of “African solutions first.”

However, two important changes have also been institutionalized within the AU Constitutive Act. The first is the Union’s condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments (Article 4p). The second is the Union’s assertion of the right to forcibly intervene in a member state in what it calls ‘grave circumstances’ (Article 4h).

Unconstitutional Changes of Governments

Since the May 1997 coup that toppled President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s government in Sierra Leone, African leaders have declared their intention to no longer welcome military juntas into the continental organization. Most recently, the AU has demonstrated its seriousness about this commitment in relation to coups in Togo (February 2005) and Mauritania (August 2005). On both occasions, the Union condemned the changes of regime and suspended the de facto authorities in Lomé and Nouakchott from participating in its activities.

It is noticeable that the AU has interpreted what counts as an unconstitutional change of government rather narrowly: coups are disqualifying, but massive electoral fraud or incumbent presidents changing constitutions to extend their period in office have not generated the same reaction. It is also apparent that this norm puts the Union in a potentially tricky position both because the governments of many of its current members took power through coups; and because coups may sometimes provide one of the few available means to topple authoritarian regimes and launch a genuine process of democratization.  (Democratic rule is something the AU has also said it supports). This dilemma has been evident in the Mauritanian case, since the junta has, to date, proved far more willing to democratize than the ousted dictator Maaouiya Ould Taya.

Humanitarian Intervention

The second new element of the AU’s security culture institutionalized the Union’s right to forcibly intervene in one of its member states ‘in respect of grave circumstances: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.’ Although Article 4(h) is yet to be invoked in practice, the process that led to its inclusion in the AU Constitutive Act does seem to have changed the terms and tone of the debate about these issues within Africa.  However, given that the Union clearly lacks the corporate military capabilities to conduct a humanitarian intervention in anything other than its weakest member states, invoking the Article in the immediate future would be somewhat premature. It is also important to note that Article 4(h) represents a permissive norm: that is, it stipulates what action can legitimately be taken in certain circumstances but does not oblige the Union or a coalition of its members to act in response to those circumstances.

Like the Union’s commitment to condemn unconstitutional changes of governments, Article 4(h) also raises some difficult issues, not least its legal relationship with Article 53 of the UN Charter, which prohibits regional arrangements from engaging in enforcement activities without explicit authorization from the UN Security Council. African leaders have publicized different positions on this problem, ranging from barely concealed contempt for UN procedures (based largely on the Security Council’s track record of ignoring many African crises) to suggesting that if the AU should be required to conduct such an intervention without Security Council authorization it should seek post hoc endorsement as soon as possible.

Opportunities and Challenges: Promoting Democracy

The Bush administration claims that democracy promotion is one of its key foreign policy objectives after combating terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, the AU’s stance on condemning unconstitutional changes of governments should have provided it with an entry point for starting conversations aimed at strengthening respect for constitutionalism on the continent. The Administration has shown a tendency to make pronouncements either side of contentious elections and spent much of the available democracy and governance funds on supporting individual elections processes.   A more far-sighted approach would be to set a long-term goal of creating and staffing effective domestic institutions that promote respect for the democratic process and the rule of law, and that can explain why these are important to the country’s citizens. Eventually, some of these institutions might be able to act as countervailing sources of power to the executive.

Given the minimal breathing space afforded to the legislature, judiciary, and civil society in many African states, this approach will face many difficult challenges. In the current international climate one of these is how to ensure that explicit U.S. support for local independent champions of democratization does not tarnish their reputations and lead them to be criticized as puppets of Western neo-imperialism.

A sensible way forward lies with recognizing several basic propositions. First, favorable internal developments hold the key to developing respect for democracy and the rule of law, but these can be encouraged by providing a supportive international environment. Second, outsiders must avoid preaching and instead engage in genuine dialogue about what democratic systems of governance might look like in different parts of Africa. The tone in which debates about democracy are conducted and the way outsiders deliver their message is not unimportant. Third, action should be multilateral, and it should be consistent regardless of whether the African state in question exports oil or widgets. Fourth, policies aimed at promoting democracy should not become subservient to fighting the “long war” on terror. Instead, policy priorities should be determined on the basis that promoting genuine democracy is ultimately the best way of making organizations that use terrorism irrelevant. Finally, promoting real democracy means that outsiders must sometimes learn to live with outcomes that they might not have chosen themselves.

Africans will judge how serious Washington is about these issues on the basis of U.S. actions, not words. Unfortunately, democracy promotion in Africa is very poorly funded compared with initiatives related to counter-terrorism or energy security.

Promoting Responsibility

The Bush administration was rather reluctant to endorse the R2P agenda. To date, much of the public debate has revolved around the most controversial R2P issue – what the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention (ICISS) referred to as the responsibility to react in the case of Darfur. This quickly produced a diplomatic dead-end as it became clear that there was no international consensus on which actors had the secondary responsibility to protect Darfur’s endangered civilians after the Government of Sudan proved itself either unwilling or unable to do so.

A more productive approach would be to invest greater effort in supporting African institutions designed to help promote the less well-advertised elements of the R2P agenda, namely, the responsibilities to prevent and to rebuild. Instead of planning controversial military actions aimed at elusive terrorist targets in Somalia, the United States could better promote the R2P agenda by tasking its diplomatic A-team to devote some serious and sustained attention to conflict prevention and mediation efforts around the continent. Beyond the current focus on Sudan, Somalia and Algeria, good places to start engaging in serious mediation would be Guinea, Chad, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. As the Darfur Peace Agreement (May 2006) aptly demonstrates, parachuting in diplomatic heavyweights late in the process and expecting them to produce viable peace agreements on the basis of timetables fixed in Washington D.C. is not only naïve but risks alienating the parties with whom an agreement will need to be devised.

Arguably, the single most important institution in this regard is the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC). Yet this remains massively under-resourced. Three years after its official launch, PSC officials are too few in number and swamped with massively complicated security challenges.  Many are working on precarious short-term contracts and without sufficient administrative and technical support. The United States and other powerful states could play a constructive role by helping to make working for the PSC Secretariat an attractive career option, thereby attracting (and retaining) the continent’s best minds. What would be small change in U.S. budgetary terms could make a significant difference to this important new institution. Over time, a PSC Secretariat staffed by committed experts might just develop some of the autonomous bureaucratic power needed to encourage African governments to live up to their commitments under the R2P agenda. The R2P agenda will make greatest headway in Africa when it is promoted by local rather than foreign voices.

In the last decade, African governments have changed the stated objectives embodied in the continent’s primary organization in significant ways. The AU’s new security culture provides the most fertile terrain to date on which to promote democracy and the responsibility to protect in Africa. As a country that claims to support both, the United States should focus less on short-term agendas related to the war on terror and oil, and more on supporting African institutions that might one day be able to nurture both democracy and peace without relying on outside support. The means that Washington chooses to employ today will shape the ends we can expect to see in Africa tomorrow. ____________________________________________________________________

Paul D. Williams is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick in the U.K. and Visiting Associate Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.  His article “From Non-intervention to Non-indifference: the Origins and Development of the African Union’s Security Culture,” appeared in the April 2007 issue of African Affairs. ____________________________________________________________________

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.

Paul D. Williams