The Future of Peace Operations is African, and Demands Better Coordination

Ugandan troops, serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), prepare to conduct operations against al-Shabaab in a region of Somalia. (AMISOM Photo/Ilyas Ahmed)

The African continent has played a central role in deploying peacekeepers for decades, and not only through its substantial contributions of civilian, military, and police personnel to the United Nations. Africa has been particularly innovative and responsive through the deployment of a range of continental and regional-led peace operations, especially through the African Union (AU), Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and mechanisms (RM), as well as more recently through regional ad hoc security coalitions.

Despite such progress, the future of peace operations in Africa will be determined by the disposition of the international community towards developing better mechanisms that coherently bring together the various visions and approaches of global, continental, and regional peace operations initiatives.

Rather than competing for space with the UN, as one might think at a first glance, African peace operations have often been deployed when the international community has been unable or unwilling to intervene. “African solutions to African challenges” has been not only a motto that evokes African claims to more regional ownership, but has also served as a reminder that the limited commitment often displayed by the international community has resulted in an increasing number of African-led responses.

Currently, the UN deploys the largest number of peacekeepers internationally (and in Africa). However, African (continental and regional) peace operations have increasingly taken the frontline in supporting peace and security efforts on the continent.

For instance, the UN at present has seven multidimensional peace operations deployed on the continent (one deployed in partnership with the AU), as well as three special political missions that play the role of multilateral peace operations (one of them being mandated to support an AU mission). The AU currently has five operations deployed in Africa, including the largest peace operation in the world in terms of number of uniformed personnel deployed: the African Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). In addition, Regional Economic Communities (RECs), Regional Mechanisms (RM), as well as ad hoc security initiatives currently deploy another five operations in the continent.

In recent years, non-UN operations have often been deployed in response to the increasing threats posed by violent extremism, asymmetric warfare, transnational organized crime, as well as climate change. Part of the reason for this trend relates to the inability of the UN Security Council to respond outside of its traditional peace operations arrangements and mandates. This opened the space for other organizations to regionally complement the UN’s key mandate of promoting peace and security. The emergence of ad hoc security initiatives in the past few years, as a response to peace and security challenges across Africa, can be exemplified by deployments like the G5 Sahel or the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin.

While authorized and mandated by the Security Council (and heavily supported by some of its permanent members, like France), they are often seen at the fringes of the peace operations concept. They are composed of troops that operate in their own territories and have the potential to conduct cross-border operations, especially in direct pursuit of belligerents.

These new regional ad hoc security initiatives are becoming more frequent, and may in the near future be seen as standard practice, rather than exceptions. But despite increasing use, these initiatives still require much clarity from the UN Security Council in terms of their mandate nature, oversight, command and control, and reporting.

While significant progress has been seen in terms of regional peace operations, they still require support from the international community, and the UN in particular. Political challenges globally often stand in the way of timely and effective interventions. Regional organizations have the added challenges of their limited capacity and resource constraints, as well as those associated with the timely and effective transitions of missions.

These challenges are particularly visible in terms of the diverse capability levels presented by different African regions. For instance, while the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) can be considered to have stronger established capabilities to deploy, other regions are still lagging behind.

Certainly, the multiplicity of peace operations actors in Africa has led to a number of strategic coordination processes, like the signing of the 2017 UN-AU joint framework on peace and security. However, fewer truly triangular and multi-way UN-AU-RECs strategic partnership are visible. This is particularly due to the fact that much is still done in parallel to the established framework around peacekeeping operations. Strategic relationships between different actors are often described as UN-AU, or AU-RECs, or UN-RECs.

Fragmented and piecemeal coordination between the UN, AU, and RECs may lead to the creation of further future competition and damaging overlap of the work of different organizations. Such challenges are not hypothetical, they are already visible on the ground. Mali, for instance, hosts missions from the UN (MINUSMA) and the AU (MISAHEL), as well as one ad hoc security initiative, the G5 Sahel. Each attempts to address different elements of the emerging threats, and have led to the development of multiple strategic plans and approaches, not all of them aligned with each other.

Another issue, and possibly the Achilles’ heel of regional peacekeeping in Africa, relates to the difficulties in the global division of labor and financing. The UN Security Council has, for years, been divided in resolving the issue around the use of UN assessed contributions to fund regional peace operations. African member states have supported the argument that since many African issues are considered to be threats to international peace and security, the UN has the responsibility to provide sustainable and predictable support, especially when it’s not able or willing to deploy its own operations. This would be expected to reduce the continent’s dependency of external (and often conditional) support, at the same time that it would increase the global commitment to resolving peace and security issues in the continent.

Resolving the financial deadlock is essential in ensuring the creation of sustainable frameworks that enable multiple international partners to effectively work together, in structures that are predictably defined with jointly agreed upon rules of the game. Therefore, while the ability to adapt is critical, without predictable and sustainable funding, effective regional operations will be destined to fail.

While the future of peace operations will be intrinsically linked to Africa’s future, this does not mean that the UN will lose its central role. African solutions to African challenges is not referring only to those responses led by the AU or the RECs. With 28 percent of the overall membership of the UN coming from Africa, the UN is already an integral part of these African solutions.

But, in order to adapt and succeed, the UN needs to further understand that it cannot do everything alone, or always be the lead. Instead, it needs to develop stronger triangular coordination mechanisms that bring together the UN, the AU, and RECs, by better supporting, complementing, and strengthening the variety of tools that assist the international community in achieving sustainable peace.

Gustavo de Carvalho is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.