Can the AU’s “Common African Defence and Security Policy” Provide a Pan-African Solution to the Continent’s Security Challenges?

The opening session of the 17th African Union Summit, June 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

On February 28, 2004, during the second extraordinary session of the African Union in Sirte, Libya, the continental body adopted the Common African Defence and Security Policy (CADSP), which set out to consolidate a continental architecture capable of advancing peace and security by addressing domestic and foreign threats. Even after two decades of major shifts in the continental security landscape and the emergence of new threats, the core tenets of the policy continue to be relevant, if not central, to Africa’s pursuit of collective security. Yet, despite being a critical instrument, the CADSP has not received much policy and academic attention in unpacking its vision and set objectives, especially considering their applicability in the current peace and security context.

The establishment of the African Union (AU) in 2002 marked a new chapter in the continent’s efforts towards collective security. The imperative for a common defense policy is integral to the AU’s creation as articulated in its Constitutive Act. The Peace and Security Council protocol adopted in the same year reiterated the necessity of this policy and outlined the key pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Subsequent to the AU’s establishment, several landmark governance, peace and security norms and mechanisms were developed, enabling it to take a much more proactive role in preventing and managing conflicts on the continent compared to its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity.

The CADSP is an expression of African agency in advancing collective security, and it makes a case for comprehensive and principle-based peace and security responses. Although the policy does not extensively address the emerging and non-traditional security threats that are more prominent in the current global and regional security landscape, it takes a holistic approach in defining security and defense beyond the military dimension.

Almost 20 years ago, Ambassador Omar Touray, former Gambian Permanent Representative to the AU and current president of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) commission, noted that the CADSP “represents the determination of African leaders to take charge of the peace and security agenda.” Today, that determination is tested by multiple challenges, although there is a clear recognition that Africa’s best interest is served through its collective pursuit of peace and security, particularly at a time when “Africa is at the heart of… geopolitical storms.”

Key Components of the CADSP

The CADSP complements the Peace and Security Council (PSC) protocol in serving as a critical continental framework to enhance collective security by coordinating the defense and security efforts of African states. It lays out about 25 ambitious objectives, including eliminating rivalry among states; fostering cooperation and regional integration; and providing a framework for the establishment and operationalization of the African Standby Force. The PSC is specifically mandated to implement the policy, while the CADSP further reaffirms the primacy of AU’s role in the maintenance of peace and security in Africa. Although the Peace and Security Council did not hold regular deliberations on the operationalization of the CADSP, it did address the increasing challenges posed by the proliferation of foreign militaries in Africa that are undermining continental mechanisms.

One of the main building blocks of the CADSP is the formation of a continental defense mechanism in the form of the African Standby Force (ASF). The absence of a robust multilateral collective security arrangement, slow operationalization of continental tools such as the ASF, and the immediate security needs of states have increased reliance on ad-hoc coalitions which are outside the formal multilateral security structure. The ASF was declared fully operational in 2015 and again in 2020 at AU’s extraordinary summit on Silencing the Guns, which also instructed the PSC to authorize and mandate AU peace and security operations through the ASF framework.

However, the ASF’s actual deployment is still pending. There is increased recognition that the ASF needs to adapt to the current security landscape and evolving dynamics. This is especially relevant as ad-hoc arrangements and RECs-led deployments have shown increased levels of flexibility with which African states can deploy forces to respond to insecurities. Yet those deployments, while filling the security vacuum, may also risk eroding continental multilateral efforts, given how some have been deployed without the necessary prior consultation or authorization from the PSC. Cases in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and deployments in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reflect this reality.

As AU-led PSOs have declined over the past ten years, Regional Economic Communities (RECs) or alliances of member states have been more active in deploying troops on the ground. Normatively, the AU is recognized as the primary actor in the maintenance of peace and security in the continent. The PSC aptly emphasized that the ASF is “the primary home-grown model in the Continent, to enable Africa to enhance its defense and security arrangements” and it made further calls for member states to renew their commitments to CADSP and the ASF.

It remains critical to consider the implication of such forces on the development and consolidation of pan-African security structure and the continent’s long-term stability. How decision-makers thread pragmatism and flexibility together on the one hand, and standardize responses anchored in multilateral principles on the other, will determine the sustainability and effectiveness of peace and security efforts. In this regard, the CADSP, while recognizing the role of sub-regional actors through the policies and efforts employed in managing conflicts, foregrounds peace and intervention around the AU and PSC mandate. More particularly, it underscores the AU’s role in coordinating sub-regional mechanisms, and the commitment of said mechanisms to harmonize their efforts with that of the AU.

Why Upholding CADSP Principles Remains Relevant

The CADSP remains critical in the current security dynamics for several reasons. First, the fundamental principle at its core is the “indivisibility of security in Africa,” stating that “the security of one African country is inseparably linked to the security of other African countries and the African continent as a whole.” Despite the significant transformation in the peace and security landscape over the last two decades, this underlying principle is a clear representation of the current security trend in the continent and the kind of policy response the continent needs at this particular moment in its history. Even when internal dynamics and challenges are instigating conflicts, insecurities are increasingly becoming borderless and more regionalized.

In the present context, Libya—the country where this landmark policy was adopted, and where several other African multilateral instruments were initiated—is grappling with the risk of disintegration due to rival authorities. The breakdown of Libya’s government and the ensuing instability reverberated widely in the Sahel, creating fertile ground for the flow of illicit arms and the movement of armed groups. Similar concerns of fragmentation loom due to ongoing, intense conflict in Sudan, and its effects are felt beyond the Horn of Africa region. As more countries experience destabilization, the broader regional ramifications of such crises to the security of a region and the continent itself is becoming increasingly evident.

Second, despite the increasingly cross-border nature of security challenges, continental responses are lacking in strategic coherence. The CADSP clearly calls for a common understanding of defense and to adopt a common position on matters that may be considered a threat to collective security. Parallel and fragmented measures led by multiple sub-regional organizations and bilateral engagements have yielded limited results in mitigating threats. The situation in eastern DRC is an example of the effects of the absence of a cohesive continental strategy, where the involvement of multiple actors and mechanisms has weakened effective response.

Third, the shift towards a multipolar global order has impacted the continent’s peace and security landscape. Heightened geopolitical contestations in which super powers and middle powers are aggressively advancing their interest and carving out their sphere of influence have undermined the ability of continental actors to act in a unified manner in conflict resolution. This has been particularly pronounced in the case of Sudan, and more broadly in the Horn of Africa region, where the involvement of external actors—particularly Gulf states and the militarization of the Red Sea area—has complicated peace and security efforts. At a time when the continent is pulled in different directions by multiple interests and actors, the CADSP is a reminder of how Africa needs to reposition itself. In the midst of intensified geopolitical shifts, recommitting to established policy instruments becomes necessary. Such reaffirmation is critical to safeguarding the continent from the complexities introduced by multiple competing interests that are increasingly posing challenges to effective conflict resolution and management, and are ultimately undermining Africa’s own initiatives.

Fourth, beyond the geopolitical context, the diminished influence of African multilateral institutions in numerous conflicts and crises can also be attributed to their ongoing internal shortcomings. This requires them to rebuild trust and credibility vis-a-vis African states and citizens. On one level, we are witnessing a serious divergence between the AU and RECs when responding to unconstitutional changes of government, the most recent case being the military coup in Niger, where ECOWAS’s proposal for a military intervention did not receive support from the PSC. The other development is the increased tension between RECs and their members. The Sahelian juntas not only established their own security alliance; they announced their withdrawal from ECOWAS. To prevent further escalation of the ongoing crisis and fragmentation in the region, which could jeopardize both “security cooperation” and regional integration, ECOWAS has decided to lift some of the sanctions on Sahelian countries. In a different context, Sudan has suspended its membership from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), questioning its mediation role. Another concerning trend is the resurgence of inter-state rivalry in the continent, which weakens multilateral efforts by creating division within these institutions and diverting attention from other strategic matters. While leaders and sub-regional organizations are focused on managing crises in their own respective regions, continental aspirations are overlooked.

However, it remains central for the AU to step in to avert any further fragmentation, and the CADSP is a critical tool that can serve as the basis to revitalize continental commitments and overcome such divisions at the sub-regional level. This would require leadership and foresight by the AU in galvanizing member states, with the latter needing to recommit to the objectives they themselves set out in the CADSP towards collective security.


As there is a stark gap between the vision that birthed the AU and its norms, and the shortcomings in the realization of such ambitions, translating norms into action would require recommitment across the board, at national, sub-regional and continental levels. During the recently concluded 37th AU Ordinary Summit, the Commission’s chairperson made a clear call to member states to enhance their political commitment to implement AU decisions. Indeed, the AU possesses several norms and policies which, if implemented, could lead to meaningful transformation in the peace and security landscape of the continent.

The CADSP is one such instrument. The 20-year anniversary of the policy presents an opportunity to reaffirm the principles that are the foundation of a pan-African security framework, and to also critically assess their significance in the current security landscape of the continent. It offers the blueprint for Africa’s collective security, and its implementation can be further enhanced with clear follow-up mechanisms. The PSC, as the primary mandate holder in implementing the policy, may follow up on its previous decision to receive regular updates from the AU Commission on the status of the CADSP’s operationalization. The AU Commission, as the custodian of such instrument, would need to work towards its advancement and increased ownership by member states, and by ensuring that it remains central in the maintenance of peace and security. Now is a pivotal moment for member states to reinvigorate their commitment, not only to the CADSP, but to the very essence of the AU, as it remains the cornerstone for Africa’s pursuit of collective security.

Bitania Tadesse is a Non-resident Fellow at the International Peace Institute’s Center for Peace Operations.