Can Ad Hoc Security Coalitions in Africa Bring Stability?

Nigerien army forces patrol Malam Fatori, Nigeria after the town was retaken from Boko Haram by troops from Niger and Chad. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

For over two decades, keeping the peace in Africa has occupied a major slice of the United Nations Security Council’s time, resulting in many more peace operations deploying on the continent than any other region. Since 2011, one trend has been an increase in ad hoc coalitions intended to stabilize certain conflict zones in Africa. Advocates suggest these coalitions are well suited for dealing with some of the continent’s deadliest transnational armed groups. Yet debate continues over who should authorize, finance, and provide them with various forms of technical, logistical, and security assistance. Outside of their benefits and drawbacks, it is clear that the coalitions pose particular challenges for the African Union (AU).

Africa’s ad hoc coalitions involve groups of states deploying predominately military forces to stabilize areas threatened by non-state armed groups, usually with assistance from various external partners. They occur in conflict zones lacking a comprehensive peace process and are tasked with confronting specific actors who are designated as threats to regional peace and security. Examining the main examples will help determine how these coalitions can better fulfill their mandates and work more effectively with the AU. These examples are:

  • the Regional Coalition Initiative against the Lord’s Resistance Army (RCI-LRA) authorized in 2011 (which also included troops from the United States);
  • the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) deployed in the Lake Chad basin in 2015 in response to Boko Haram;
  • and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, deployed to combat various non-state armed groups across the Sahel in 2017.

Key Characteristics and Challenges

Legally, the above ad hoc coalitions are based on collective self-defense, or what some analysts call “intervention by invitation.” They operate under Article 51 of the UN Charter with host-state consent and hence do not require an explicit Security Council resolution under Chapter VII authority. They also align with the AU’s Common African Defence and Security Policy, as enshrined in Article 3, Section (e) and Article 4, Section (d) of the AU Constitutive Act.

Politically, these coalitions reflect the spirit of collective security and self-reliance to respond to a shared threat that is at the core of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). But they operate outside the official framework of the eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and two Regional Mechanisms—formed to help constitute the African Standby Force (ASF)—which are recognized as building blocks and implementing agents of the APSA. The coalitions are also not part of the African Standby Force, and hence do not conform to the ASF’s original six scenarios for military deployments, designed in 2003. Although not a legal requirement of their deployment, so far, each ad hoc coalition sought authorization from the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC).

As regional responses to shared threats they are unsurprising in two senses. First, they are comprised of regional neighbors because most security threats are felt more intensely over shorter distances. Second, the existing African crisis response mechanisms—the ASF and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC)—have not yet been deployed as such. Of these two APSA mechanisms, the ad hoc coalitions more closely resemble the ACIRC approach than the ASF regional standby forces.

Financially, these coalitions are only partially self-funded and are therefore dependent on support from external partners. They have sought financial assistance from the AU, and through the AU, funding from the UN’s assessed peacekeeping contributions. To date, however, the UN Security Council has denied all such requests, with the partial exception of the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) providing some support to the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

Militarily, the coalitions have mandates to pursue a mix of enforcement, stabilization, counter-insurgency, counterterrorism, and counter-criminal activities. They are comprised mostly of soldiers, with relatively few police officers and a very small number of civilians. They have entailed mainly national operations conducted on home territory with a smaller number of cross-border and genuinely multinational operations. In each case, the force headquarters provided formal command but little operational control of day-to-day activities, with coordination among disparate national forces being its principal function.

Improving Alignment With the AU

Better aligning these coalitions with the AU’s conflict management toolkits will not be easy since, by definition, ad hoc initiatives are unlikely to be fully integrated into the APSA framework. For any such initiatives, ensuring flexibility of operational design and political consensus on both the mandating and authorization process between the AU PSC and the ad hoc entity is essential. Today, the AU continues to face three main challenges in better aligning ad hoc coalitions with its conflict management toolkit.

First, the AU doesn’t control these ad hoc coalitions, which complicates political alignment. Rather, the coalitions are the product of negotiations between the AU and the ad hoc entity concerned, which might not always generate consensus. One option in this regard could be for the AU to develop a mechanism to integrate existing and any future multilateral institutions into the APSA, i.e., entities beyond the recognized RECs and RMs, such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission or the G5 Sahel. The other option could be to keep such entities outside the official APSA framework, in which case alignment will require consensus between the AU PSC and the ad hoc entity in question concerning the mandate, modalities, and financing of the mission. Whatever the relationship, it is in the AU’s interests to ensure that these ad hoc coalitions work to strengthen the APSA, not undermine it.

Second, because these coalitions don’t fit the six original ASF scenarios for military deployments, the AU should broaden the potential scenarios for APSA initiatives to encompass these activities. This should be part of a larger revisioning of the AU’s doctrine for peace support operations and APSA security initiatives. The relatively good news is that the ad hoc coalitions share some similarities with the ACIRC approach—and its built-in flexibility compared to the ASF regional forces—which has already been widely debated within the AU.

The third challenge is that these ad hoc coalitions don’t fall under the usual definition of peace operations. The key problem here is that most of the military operations entail soldiers operating on their home territory. As a result, most of the time, the troop-contributing countries (TCCs) making up these ad hoc coalitions are simultaneously the host state. Traditionally, peace operations have been conducted by foreign troops on foreign soil; hence the need for Status of Forces Agreements. The fact that missions are largely comprised of national soldiers operating on their national territory poses huge practical and political problems for the AU. For example, how can the AU ensure only the authorized number of national troops are involved? How can oversight and accountability be ensured? And how should the AU deal with the precedent of funds intended for peace operations being used to support a national military operating on its own territory, often for counterterrorism purposes?

The latter question in particular poses a significant problem. Taking measures to change this precedent suggests that the AU should establish these ad hoc coalitions as a distinct category of operations separate from its “peace support operations,” which have thus far always involved foreign troops operating on foreign soil. The AU would then need to determine the circumstances under which it would support such initiatives and how, which will add more layers to an already complicated relationship.

Other Considerations

Successful crisis management initiatives in Africa—as elsewhere—require four elements: 1) a realistic and appropriate political strategy and mandate; 2) appropriate capabilities (personnel as well as force enablers and multipliers); 3) sufficient, flexible, and sustainable financing; and 4) sustained, high-level political support. If the AU thinks it wise to continue supporting such ad hoc coalitions, they will need to ensure all four elements are prioritized.

In relation to strategies and mandates, the key issue will be synching military and political activities. Although they have some connection to political strategies, the aforementioned ad hoc coalitions do not integrate their military activities with a viable political strategy to resolve the conflict and offer a pathway to peace. Nor do they effectively integrate the non-military dimensions of stabilization.

The AU would also need to develop rigorous accountability, compliance, and human rights mechanisms for these missions; similar to what the UN calls its Human Rights Due Diligence Policy. This remains work-in-progress but the AU has recently made significant headway, including new guidelines and procedures on preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse as well as conduct and discipline issues in its peace support operations.

In terms of appropriate capabilities, force generation for such difficult enforcement mandates must improve dramatically. Most African states do not have the right types of troops, police, enablers, or force multipliers to deliver on their mandated tasks in high-risk, asymmetric environments. The APSA mechanisms will therefore continue to require significant security force assistance from external partners, notably the UN and European Union, as well as individual states such as the US, France, and the United Kingdom.

To ensure sufficient, flexible, and sustainable financing for such ad hoc coalitions, the AU must continue to implement its revised Peace Fund and wider reforms championed by Donald Kaberuka and Paul Kagame. Here, again, the AU has made significant progress, including establishing the Peace Fund’s governance mechanisms and receiving over $60 million in initial deposits.

It would, however, be unwise to use this fund to directly support national troops operating in their own territory. This would set an unhelpful precedent and muddy the waters between peace operations and domestic counterterrorism activities. A more appropriate use of the funds might be to support the common and shared costs of multinational operations. For the foreseeable future, however, the limited African funds will require external partners to provide significant additional support.

Finally, sustained, high-level political support will depend on developing a viable strategy of conflict resolution and a pathway to peace, as well as agreement between the AU and the ad hoc entity in question. Ideally, the mission would also secure UN and other non-African support too.

Can Ad Hoc Coalitions Bring Stability?

Ultimately, the question of whether ad hoc coalitions can bring stability boils down to how well they can synch their military and potentially counter-organized crime activities with the political aspects of their mandates, and the wider international engagement with the regional threat. To date, the three coalitions identified above have been rather blunt military instruments that suffer from various important strategic and operational weaknesses; see, for example, analyses and reports on the RCI-LRA, MNJTF, and G5 Sahel Joint Force.

At best, therefore, these ad hoc coalitions might serve as useful first responders to threats that other actors are unwilling or unable to tackle. But they are likely to remain military-heavy, exhibit key capability gaps, and come with significant risks—not least in terms of accountability and human rights violations. They are also highly unlikely to be self-sustaining, despite the fact that they are largely comprised of national troops operating on their home soil.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to see how these coalitions will successfully complete their mandate. Nevertheless, if the AU thinks they are worth supporting, it must develop a shared strategy that charts a pathway to peace, find sustainable financing, and ensure that military and political activities are in synch. If not, Africa’s ad hoc coalitions will end up costing considerable amounts of money while producing relatively few positive and sustainable strategic effects.

Paul D. Williams is Associate Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He tweets @PDWilliamsGWU. Part of the research that informs this article was conducted under US Government sponsorship. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of its research sponsors.