The Role of African Multilateralism in the New Agenda for Peace

Participants are seen during the 28th African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on January 30, 2016. (Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In recent years, Africa has witnessed multiple challenges due in part to the deteriorating state of governance, democratic backsliding, spread of terrorism, protracted and emerging conflicts as well as from the rise of non-traditional security threats. Since 2020, there have been nine successful coups on the continent, with Niger and Gabon being the latest countries to join the expanding list in 2023. The Sahel region has become the epicenter of terrorism, accounting for 43 percent of deaths from the global total in 2022, compared to only 1 percent in 2007. Most countries experiencing military coups are also the ones fighting against terrorist groups.

Geopolitical tensions have interfered in these (and other) situations in Africa and have further complicated the resolution and management of conflicts on the continent. At the same time, the consecutive global crises related to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have revealed that the multilateral system is deeply flawed, beset with an increasing polarization that has eroded multilateral cooperation and weakened global governance.

It is against this backdrop that the policy brief from the United Nations (UN) secretary-general, “A New Agenda for Peace,” was published in July, which is part of a series of briefs meant to address the multiple intersecting global challenges that require urgent and collective action. The document refers to the principles of solidarity, trust, and universality, which remain aspirational. In reality, global power rivalry and contestation have dominated the scenes. These dynamics of the multilateral order have an immense impact on Africa, including on its collective security.

The African Union (AU) is the only regional body explicitly mentioned in the policy brief, and this singling out of it, along with the political backing to regional actors expressed in the document, provides an opening for continental actors to advance priorities at the global level. However, this moment requires the AU to concretely deliver on revamping its own multilateral system as a springboard to shape and reform global multilateralism.

Key Policy Issues for Africa

Many of the action points in the New Agenda have relevance for the changing security landscape in Africa. The policy brief refers to areas in which the African Union and United Nations partnership can be further enhanced. One is related to the ongoing consultation on financing of AU-led peace operations, which the AU and UN have been working on since 2007. Progress on this has been increasing somewhat, including during a May 25 briefing, when Ghana, on behalf of the three African elected members of the Security Council (A3), indicated that they will resume the negotiation process toward a framework resolution following the Peace and Security Council’s May 2023 decision. This process, along with the secretary-general’s report and the AU’s consensus paper, is expected to inform consultations toward finding an appropriate arrangement for financing of AU peace support operations (PSOs). And Council members who have previously disapproved of this are now keen to consider such arrangements.

Since its establishment, the AU, through its African Peace and Security Architecture, has emerged as a critical actor in responding to conflicts on the continent and continues to be a key global player in the maintenance of peace and security. The secretary-general regularly highlights the importance of regional organizations in filling the gaps in the international peace and security architecture. In the absence of peace, and in the context where the UN was not able to respond, the AU and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have deployed a number of peace operations in the past two decades and practically delivered on maintaining peace and security. The AU is not only a key part of the UN system but it’s also anchored in multilateralism and in the same values and principles enshrined in the UN Charter. Within the broader partnership, there needs to be a more systematic arrangement of support to AU PSOs, particularly now that the very difficult peace and security landscape requires the role and responsibility not only of the UN but also of regional organizations.

While the financing of AU PSOs has received a lot of attention, there is a danger in solely focusing on this specific aspect; instead, the longstanding AU-UN partnership would benefit from advancing broader policy interventions of common interest. The full spectrum of peace and security cooperation has to be utilized: using early warning and preventive measures; strengthening diplomacy and mediation; and consolidating peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. A comprehensive approach like this can strike a balance between peace enforcement and upholding the primacy of politics to ensure that peace enforcement does not lead to the over-militarization of the continent, but instead is linked to broader political processes. Indeed, there are a number of additional policy elements that need to be much more aligned to the continent’s priorities through a deepened AU-UN partnership.

One area that requires attention is a more just and equitable multilateral system, which has been a priority for the continent. While the New Agenda recognizes the importance of such reform, it does not go into much detail on what form it should take. A number of issues can be considered in this regard. First, African states have persistently called for more representation on the UN Security Council, including by articulating a position and specific requirements through the Ezulwini Consensus. Similarly, through parallel efforts, the AU has joined the G20 as a permanent member. Beyond representation, the membership will afford the continent the opportunity to shape policies and decisions with direct impact on its own financial and economic development and that of the world. On many occasions, Secretary-General António Guterres has called attention to the continent’s absence in major global platforms, despite Africa’s increased prominence as a key global player. During the first Africa Climate Summit, Guterres reiterated his calls for a reformed Security Council, for the transformation of existing business models of Multilateral Development Banks, and for restructured debt relief mechanisms, among others.

Second, there are critical issues related to the working methods of the Council. The UN sanctions regime has come under immense scrutiny and has further polarized Council members. Targeted African states, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), and RECs have at various times called for the lifting of sanctions, citing that they limit governments’ ability to combat armed groups. In addition, researchers have found that sanctions regimes—and the imposition and lifting of sanctions—could be revisited and grounded in fair and clear procedures. Broader consultative processes and building consensus among targeted states and regional actors can support making sanction regimes more effective. This may help not only in bringing transparency, but also in addressing the concerns of sanctions-targeted countries and bridging divergent positions in order to put in place context-specific measures. And given the limited impact of sanctions in deterring military coups, the PSC is currently reviewing its sanction regime vis-a-vis unconstitutional changes of government.

Third, the continent has become an arena for geopolitical contestation and global power rivalry, complicating conflict management efforts on the continent. A number of conflicts in Africa considered by the UN Security Council have become increasingly embroiled in the contentions of some of its permanent members. This division between permanent members has put immense pressure on the unity and cohesion of the A3, which limits its capacity to collectively advance common positions.

Enhancing African Multilateralism

The AU has made a number of strides in crafting its own tools and instruments in response to this weakened (or absent) global multilateral system. When Covid-19 first became a pandemic, the multilateral system came to a standstill as developed nations opted for shortsighted protectionist measures with little regard to global solidarity. The AU responded by scaling up the coordination capacity of its Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which provided the leadership needed to swiftly manage the continent’s response to the pandemic. The AU has also embarked on establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to further consolidate regional integration through trade, but also to establish an important supply chain for the continent at a time when the global one has become highly vulnerable to shocks.

However, there are many instances that show the continent’s multilateral system and its collective security architecture need a recalibration. To have a more coordinated and coherent engagement with the UN, there needs to be in-depth reflection and action on how the AU relates to its member states and to RECs. As the AU Commission Chairperson said, the challenges of “the reductive reading of the concept of subsidiarity” and the “restrictive, even dogmatic reading of the intangible principle of the sovereignty” have oftentimes crippled preventive measures and fragmented collective security responses. Much more clarity is needed on the principle of subsidiarity for a more coordinated and effective policy response in managing and responding to conflicts and crises. African Union member states also need to recommit to the norms that they themselves have established over the years.

Another area that requires further work is prevention. Since Guterres became secretary-general, he has referred to prevention as a priority. While his policy brief illustrates how prevention can be further enhanced at global and national levels, it does not include what the role is of regional and sub-regional actors. Similar to the global context, the AU also faces challenges in fully operationalizing and utilizing its conflict prevention tools. Though there are a number of early warning tools and platforms across the continent, these have not translated into early action. And while there is no shortage of data and tools, it is still the political will of member states that ultimately will make preventive measures successful at the global and regional levels.

Looking Ahead

With the policy brief feeding into the UN’s Summit of the Future in 2024, the AU has an opportunity to position itself by clearly articulating its bold policy priorities for Africa and its role and place in a reformed multilateral system. While consultations, supported and led by African institutions, are underway (including through the establishment of a high-level panel of experts), these need to be complemented by a robust AU-led policy process in consultation with member states to galvanize and create a strong and unified African voice in New York. This also means the AU should look to complete its own internal policies that are pending—particularly relevant in this context is the finalization of its partnership strategy to guide its terms of engagement with partners. The secretary-general’s brief offers a window of opportunity, and the state of multilateralism is suggesting that the right time to act is now.

Bitania Tadesse is Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

This article is part of a series reflecting on the July 2023 publication of the UN secretary-general’s policy brief, “A New Agenda for Peace.”