Coming of age: On balance of impact African-led peace operations score better United Nations’

Coming of age: On balance of impact African-led peace operations score better United Nations’


African-led peace operations have been vital tools for managing Africa’s complex array of security challenges, although continued reform is needed to intervene more decisively in the continent’s most devastating conflicts.

The 20th anniversary of the founding of the African Union in 2022 was a watershed year for African-led peace operations. In response to a variety of conflicts and crises, the AU and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) authorised four new African-led peace operations, matching 2017 for the most in any calendar year. The AU and regional actors now oversee 10 peace operations, comprising more than 70,000 authorised personnel, spread across 17 African countries.

These operations are critical tools for managing conflict. Over the past 20 years, African-led peace operations have undertaken innovative missions to address unconventional threats. They have improved cooperation between regional security forces. At times, they have also provided normative leadership in responding to atrocities and unconstitutional seizures of power.

Despite these contributions, African-led peace operations possess limited operational capabilities, are poorly integrated with civilian-led conflict management efforts, and have failed to intervene decisively in the continent’s most significant armed conflicts.

For the AU to step into its long hoped-for role as the primary guarantor of peace and security in Africa, the AU and member states will need to institutionalize achievements and address shortcomings in the current regional security architecture.

Since the turn of the millennium, 38 African-led peace operations have been authorised, deploying to 25 countries. By far, the AU has been the most active supporter of these operations, authorising 22 total missions. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has authorised six, followed by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) four, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) two, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) two and the member states of the Accra Initiative, Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and East African Community (EAC) one.

There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter African-led peace operation. They have ranged in size from less than a dozen personnel, as with the African Union Technical Support Team to The Gambia (AUTSTG), to over 20,000, as was the case with the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and the African Union – United Nations Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

The operations of the latter two, multidimensional peace enforcement missions, have lasted nearly two decades, making them the longest running African-led peace operations. Others, like the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL), the ECOWAS Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (ECOMICI), the African Union Observer Mission in the Comoros (MIOC), the African Union Mission for Support to the Elections in the Comoros (AMISEC), and Operation Restore Democracy have occurred over the span of less than a calendar year.

African-led peace operations have implemented a wide array of mandates:

The rise and persistence of African-led peace operations represent a trend toward localised ownership over conflict management. Due to a divided United Nations (UN) Security Council and what has been perceived to be the limited success of large, multidimensional, UN-sponsored missions, the deployment of UN forces in Africa has waned. No new UN mission has been authorised in Africa in close to a decade. With the drawdown of MINUSMA, the UN mission in Mali, the UN will only have five remaining active missions on the continent. Meanwhile, the AU, RECs, and regional actors have authorized 16 new peace operations over the past decade, 10 of which are active.

Even within the context of African-led peace operations, a devolution toward more local ownership is apparent. Of the 10 ongoing peace operations currently active in Africa, only three – the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), the African Union Military Observer Mission to the Central African Republic (MOUACA) and the tiny African Union Monitoring, Verification and Compliance Mission (AU-MVCM) in Tigray region, Ethiopia – are AU-mandated, meaning they have been authorised, organised, and logistically supported principally by the African Union. The rest have been led by RECs (such as ECOWAS, the EAC or SADC) or regional organisations (like the G5 Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin Commission) with varying degrees of support from the AU.

African-led peace operations are growing in part because they have found a measure of success in addressing Africa’s armed conflicts. They illustrate the distinctive role regional actors can play in addressing shared security challenges.

First, regional actors can deploy to conflict zones more rapidly and with less cost than international peacekeepers. This was the case with one of the first major African-led interventions of the 2000s, the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL). It was deployed to Liberia on September 9, 2003, three weeks after the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, before being converted into a UN mission one month later. Other African-led peace operations that have been deployed as rapid response operations to prepare in whole or in part for a larger UN mission include: CEN-SAD, AMIS I and II, the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA).

Second, African-led peace operations have shown more doctrinal flexibility than UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions, which rarely deploy in the absence of a peace process or agreement. Six of the 17 African-led peace operations of the past decade have been mandated to fight militant Islamist groups in the Sahel, Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. Because these groups disavow political settlements, the UN has refrained from sponsoring peace operations with explicit mandates to confront them. Nevertheless, the threat from Islamist militant violence, fatalities from which have doubled since 2019, remains perhaps the most significant threat to peace and stability in the eyes of many AU member states.

Third, African-led peace operations have helped African security forces significantly improve coordination with one another in addressing cross-border security challenges, another area that has been neglected by state-centric UN peacekeeping doctrine. This has been especially evident in what are known as the AU-authorized regional missions or ad-hoc security initiatives (ASIs), which have included AU’s RCI effort to counter the LRA, the Lake Chad Basin’s Multinational Joint Task Force, and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. In each case, under the auspices of a peace operation, regional militaries seeking to address a cross-border insurgency:

Established a joint headquarters.

Stood up mechanisms to share intelligence.

Undertook joint cross-border operations.

Implemented “hot pursuit” rules that enabled security forces to pursue insurgent groups across borders.

Particularly in the cases of the MNJTF and the RCI-LRA, ASIs have succeeded in restricting and, in the case of the RCI-LRA, virtually eliminating the threat from these insurgencies. Given that a classic tactic of insurgent groups is to exploit borders and border regions to evade state forces, this is a significant contribution.

Finally, at the request of legitimately elected leaders in smaller states, African-led peace operations have upheld AU norms by intervening to prevent crises stemming from unconstitutional seizures of power. In Comoros, in 2008, it acted through Operation Restore Democracy to remove a renegade military government in Anjouan, the first ever AU-sponsored operation to topple a recalcitrant leader. In 2017, the threat of military force by ECOMIG led Yahya Jammeh to step down in favor of his democratically elected successor, Adama Barrow. In both Lesotho (SAPMIL) and Guinea-Bissau (ECOMIB), Regional Economic Communities intervened to shore up shaky leaders in the aftermath of assassinations or coup attempts by their militaries.

  • A Tell / ISS / Defenceweb report
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