Autocrats United? The Peace and Security Council of the African Union

The African Union (AU) has declared 2010 the “African Year of Peace and Security.” The campaign’s slogan is “Make Peace Happen.” Turning this statement into reality rests in large part on the members of the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC), the most important African institution for the day-to-day management of peace and security issues. It is the PSC which coordinates conflict management strategies, decides when to establish peacekeeping operations, and when to impose sanctions. Unfortunately, the new crop of Council members – elected during the AU summit in Addis Ababa in early February – contains a worrying number of authoritarian regimes. If the African Union is serious about “protecting democracy” as its Commissioner for Peace and Security asserts, it should start by ensuring that Africa’s dictators do not control this crucial institution.
But first the good news: the AU Assembly refused to award Muammar Qaddafi a second term as its chairman. During his four decades in charge of Libya, Qaddafi has crushed internal opposition, supported a variety of vicious insurgencies across west and east Africa, and has attempted to foist upon the continent his vision of a “United States of Africa” complete with a court of traditional monarchs. Not surprisingly, his period as AU chairman was marked by persistent disagreements with AU Commissioner Jean Ping who to his credit publicly contradicted Qaddafi on some significant issues. Nevertheless, Qaddafi did not go quietly but instead sought reappointment. He had support from Tunisia – which circulated a memo calling for an extension of his tenure – and made his usual attempts to bribe smaller powers by paying their AU dues. But in the end, his bid failed. The relief was palpable across much of Africa and beyond. The Economist summarized a good deal of Western sentiment when it wrote, “if the African Union had allowed Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s clown of a leader, to chair the continental body for another year, as he apparently desired, the rest of the world would rightly have consigned it to the dustbin of comic diplomacy.”[1]
Qadaffi’s successor and the AU’s eighth chairman is Bingu wa Mutharika, President of Malawi. His appointment is in line with the AU’s preference for rotating its chairperson among sub-regions: this time it was southern Africa’s turn and the Malawian President received strong backing from that region as well as from states in east Africa. He wasted little time in setting out a far more sensible agenda for the AU than Qaddafi’s Pan-African pipedream. The Union’s priorities will be food security, especially reducing the number of children who die because of malnutrition; developing the continent’s transport infrastructure and information communications technologies; and affordable energy provision. A problem facing Mutharika, however, is his comparative lack of funds and political stature with which to push through his agenda.
While the downgrading of Qadaffi’s influence is clearly a step in the right direction, less attention has been paid to the fact that after a four-year absence, Libya was elected back onto the PSC. It was joined by a somewhat surprising array of members including Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and Mauritania. This should be a source of concern for supporters of a more democratic African Union.The PSC’s fifteen members are elected by the AU Executive Council: five for terms of three years and ten for terms of two years. Article 5 of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union,[2] states the Council’s membership is to be decided according to the principle of “equitable regional representation and rotation” – hence the north, west, central, east and southern regions present candidates for election. It also lists criteria on which to judge prospective candidates. These include an assessment of whether the state in question is in good standing, i.e. does it uphold the principles of the Union, does it respect constitutional governance and the rule of law, has it paid its dues to the organization, and does it have a track record of being willing and able to shoulder the responsibilities that membership would place upon it? Retiring members of the PSC – those whose seats have expired – are eligible for immediate re-election. Of the newly elected members, six retiring states were re-elected (Benin, Burundi, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda), three returned to the PSC after a period of absence (Libya, Kenya, South Africa), and six took up seats on the Council for the first time (Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Namibia, Zimbabwe).
With this in mind, the current crop of members raises several issues. On the positive side, the election of six newcomers may well reflect efforts by the AU to take seriously its ideas of regional representation and the rotation of members. This cycle means that 35 of the AU’s 53 members will have served on the PSC. It was also encouraging to see significant rotation of the three-year seats. Although Nigeria retained its seat – it is the only country to have sat consistently on the PSC since 2004 – the other three-year slots changed hands: after six years on the Council, Algeria, Ethiopia, and Gabon have departed (replaced by Libya, Equatorial Guinea, and Kenya respectively). Southern Africa continued its trend of rotating the three-year slot by replacing Angola with Zimbabwe. However, this is where the problems start.
Of particular concern is the fact that so many of the current members cannot be said to embody the AU’s principles and ideals as stipulated in Article 5 of the PSC Protocol. For example, seven are defined as “Not Free” in Freedom House’s report, Freedom in the World 2010 (Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Mauritania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe),[3] six are autocracies according to the Polity IV Global Report 2009 (Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Mauritania, Rwanda)[4] and two are sites of severe armed conflicts according to the Heidelberg Institute’s Conflict Barometer 2009 (Chad, Nigeria).[5] Members engaged in armed conflicts pose particular challenges if they are included on the PSC agenda. PSC Protocol Article 8.9 states that “any Member of the Peace and Security Council which is party to a conflict under consideration by the Peace and Security Council shall not participate either in the discussion or the decision making process relating to that conflict or situation. Such Member [sic.] shall be invited to present its case to the Peace and Security Council as appropriate, and shall, thereafter, withdraw from proceedings.” This has caused considerable problems in previous years, particularly when the PSC addressed armed conflicts in which Council members Ethiopia and Sudan were directly involved.
The election of more authoritarian states raises the broader issue of what type of “peace and security” the AU will promote in 2010 if countries like Zimbabwe, Libya, Equatorial Guinea, and Chad are among its primary stewards. Electing such states appears to run directly counter to one of the AU Assembly’s showpiece announcements at its recent summit: its commitment to take a harder line on a wider range of unconstitutional forms of governance. At the end of the summit, AU Peace and Security Commissioner, Ramtane Lamamra, told journalists that AU leaders had “agreed on a new set of measures to combat unconstitutional changes of government” and “improve our ability to protect democracy.” Although the details remain hazy, it is widely thought that they will include the ability to impose sanctions on regimes which do not hold elections or which engage in fraudulent elections. Article 23.2 of the AU Constitutive Act already permits the Union to sanction juntas, but this new commitment is more wide-ranging. Lamamra’s message was reiterated by the AU’s new chairman who said, “we must declare war on unconstitutional changes of government on African soil and resolve to take strong and necessary measures against all offenders of coups and those that provide them the means to succeed elected governments.”
This ostensible commitment followed a particularly tumultuous year in which four African states suffered coups: Madagascar (which remains suspended from the AU pending a power-sharing deal), Mauritania (which was suspended before the AU determined order had been restored), Guinea (which remains suspended and must hold elections within six months), and Guinea-Bissau (which was suspended until order was deemed restored). Such instability generated fears among potential investors of a return to Africa’s bad old days. The immediate catalyst for the broader concern about “protecting democracy” was probably developments in Niger, where President Mamadou Tandja increased his presidential powers, unilaterally extended them for three years, and refused to hold an election – all without any sanction from the AU. This prompted military leaders to depose Tandja in a coup on February 18, 2010. However, since 2005 a longer-running debate has been taking place within the PSC over whether it should continue to equate “unconstitutional changes of government” with coups or broaden its focus “to cover all forms of manipulations which either culminate in a coup d’etat or in a democratically elected government re-forging the constitution without popular consent as genuinely expressed by the people, with a view to prolonging stay in office.”[6]
The African Union has made significant strides in recasting its image from the days when its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, was widely criticized as little more than a club for dictators. Electing Qaddafi as its chairman did not help its cause, but denying him a second term saved the organization from international ridicule. Although the PSC’s activities rarely feature in the international media spotlight, they are an important part of responding to Africa’s many security challenges. The election of so many autocratic states to the Council not only casts considerable doubt on the AU’s ability to make 2010 the “African Year of Peace and Security” it also raises at least two fundamental questions. First, does this development reflect a more widespread complacency about governance and the erosion of democratic institutions on the continent? If so, it casts doubt on whether the AU’s members really believe in their own founding principles and the current procedures for encouraging their implementation. Second, it raises questions about international engagement. In particular, will the election of more autocratic states encourage the U.S. and other donors to look for bilateral partnerships rather than prioritize the existing institutions? While such a shift away from multilateralism would weaken the AU it might provide some incentive for change in a more democratic direction.

[1] “African Union: Get still more serious,” The Economist, February 4, 2010,
[2] The PSC Protocol was signed in Durban on 9 July 2002. It came into force on 26 December 2003 (after ratification by 27 of the 53 AU members).
[3] The survey measures freedom—the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of the government and other centers of potential domination—according to two broad categories: political rights and civil liberties.
[6] African Union, Draft background paper on the Review of the Methods of Work of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU document Interoffice memorandum, 27 April 2007), p.20.

Paul D. Williams is associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University in Washington DC.

Paul D. Williams