Sign Up

Building on Africa’s Hidden Victories

Will 2006 find Africa’s regional security cooperation improved?

January 26, 2006

Will 2006 find Africa's regional security cooperation improved?

The first weeks of 2006 have been tough for the African Union, one of the world’s youngest yet most aspirational regional organizations. With its 18-month old peace operation in Darfur under critical scrutiny, the grouping’s leaders had to block the Sudanese government from becoming its chair.

Contrast this with the optimism of early 2005, Tony Blair’s “Year of Africa.” Then, there were hopes that the AU would be a major contributor to a “grand bargain” by which international security structures would be overhauled in return for more serious engagement with poverty by the West.

Such hopes encountered obstacles not only on the ground in Sudan, but also in negotiating rooms in New York. For many commentators, the UN World Summit in September 2005 was the moment for any bargain to be achieved — but it did not deliver any sweeping reforms on either security or development.

Yet, African leaders may one day look back on that Summit as a turning point in their efforts to increase their responsibility for regional security.

While the AU cannot provide a “quick fix” in Darfur, it still has the opportunity to work with the broader international community to develop longer-term strategies for peace. This opportunity was provided by under-appreciated successes at the UN — now it must be turned into concrete action.

Read objectively, the UN summit's "outcome document" contains a striking series of reforms that could — if correctly implemented — help stabilize Africa.

These reforms include support for a ten-year capacity-building plan for African Union peacekeeping forces, a UN Peacebuilding Commission to help reconstruct shattered states and an explicit — if tortuously-worded — recognition of the "Responsibility to Protect" against genocide and ethnic cleansing.

These reforms are notable not only for benefiting Africa, but because African support was crucial to their adoption.

Rwanda's advocacy of the "Responsibility to Protect" was pivotal to give the concept true political credibility even as greater powers wrangled over its drafting. Tanzania led in promoting the Peacebuilding Commission — and the African bloc combined to defend the Commission against other developing countries suspicious of institutional change.

Indeed, while African unity was threatened by dissension over changes to the Security Council, it ultimately survived the reform negotiations. This is all the more remarkable since even the far better-coordinated EU was significantly hampered by divisions over the Security Council during the pre-summit process.

That Africa's leaders ended up arguing more effectively than expected in support of their favored reforms was, in vital part, because of the debates over the future composition of the Security Council.

With key states hunting for votes for or against the body's reform, the sheer number of African states — which altogether represent more than one-quarter of the UN's membership — played to their advantage.

But common negotiating tactics would have been impossible without the shared strategic recognition that Africa's status within the UN depends on Africans accepting a new role in their own continent's security and stability.

This greater sense of commonality has been fostered through the African Union, which was launched in 2002. Its founding charter contains a clause on intervention implying a "Responsibility to Protect" and it has conducted peace missions in Burundi, Comoros and now Darfur.

The launch of these missions challenged the myth that a pan-African body cannot find the will to engage seriously in security-related issues.

But it also promoted a new myth: that the rise of regional organizations must come at the expense of the UN. The AU’s willingness to enter Darfur while the Security Council refrained from deploying a mission gave widespread currency to this theory.

However, the reality is that the African Union works best when it functions in concert with the UN. In Burundi, it intervened to halt an escalating crisis before handing over responsibility to the UN's blue helmets.

In 2005, the deployment of a UN force in southern Sudan stimulated much-improved coordination between the two organizations, with the UN establishing an Assistance Cell at the AU's headquarters in Addis Ababa and giving planning support to its commanders in the field.

This close cooperation is now likely to be translated into a gradual transfer of responsibilities in Darfur from the AU to UN, backed by the AU’s Peace and Security Council on 12 January.

The specter of competition between the two organizations has been replaced by a sense of convergence — in December 2005, an AU assessment mission surveyed possibilities for providing a mission to back the UN’s forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And alongside direct support for AU capacity-building, the September 2005 Summit’s agreement on a UN Peacebuilding Commission could be key to shaping Africa’s security environment.

The Peacebuilding Commission is of obvious relevance to a continent where 60% of post-conflict states revert to violence within five years of peace having been declared. But it may also be a mechanism by which African states increase their say in shaping policy.

The Commission will be an advisory body, its membership altering on a case-by-case basis. Crucially, it will bring together the UN and financial institutions with regional organizations and "countries in the region involved in the post-conflict process."

In addressing the broken states of West Africa or the Great Lakes region, it can reflect African interests and ideas — too often unheard or sidelined in existing UN Security Council debates.

Based on all of these trends, it appears that African leaders are stepping up to do their fair share of providing a better future for the continent — their part of the much-vaunted "grand bargain."

Yet, there is the other half of any "grand bargain," which must address not only military capacities and crises, but issues including AIDS, environmental degradation and, of course, poverty.

On this front, it is crucial to change to the right kind of negotiating mechanism. Progress may best be achieved by one-off or incremental initiatives rather than high-stakes summitry.

But rather than continue to complain that the September 2005 UN summit has failed to deliver, the world should welcome the fact that it has offered security mechanisms that allow African governments to become more proactive in promoting stability.

That African diplomacy made this possible demonstrates confidence and purpose — and the "Year of Africa" may be remembered not for a "grand bargain," but for this hidden victory for the continent.