Has the AU lost the plot on security?


Has the AU lost the plot on security?

Ownership has become the buzzword in terms of African defence and security, but is the AU up to the task, given the new dynamics of the evolving security landscape on the continent? By Desmond Davies.

At the Wilton Park conference on Africa’s role in global peace-building in Abuja recently, participants looked at the new relationship between the continent and the US, which they say is now based on a militaristic approach.

Indeed, before former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his first and last official visit to Africa in March, he spoke of America’s growing military involvement in Africa: since 2016 Washington has spent $140m supporting African regional groups in fighting terrorism on the continent.

Last October, the US committed $60m to counter-terrorism efforts by the Group of Five Sahel States (G5) – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. According to Tillerson, the US is the largest contributor to peacekeeping efforts in Africa. Last year the US trained 27,000 African peacekeepers from 20 countries to help the continent take ‘ownership’ of its future.

Ownership has been the buzzword of late in regard to peace and security in Africa. The African Union (AU) has set itself on a path towards ownership in this area. But, according to experts, this is easier said than done. The basic problem of ownership is finance. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has come up with a roadmap to make the AU financially independent enough to take charge of its own affairs.

But the AU has always struggled with getting regular contributions from member states to the main budget, let alone that of peacekeeping. What will change now? For far too long, the AU has been dependent on foreign financing to run its affairs. The Chinese built the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, while the Germans bankrolled the AU’s peace and security building.

In all this, the security situation in Africa is evolving rapidly and this could easily unravel the AU’s ownership plans. It is obvious that the AU is losing control of this because of the emergence of new powers that are intruding into security in Africa. Turkey has built its largest foreign military base in Somalia; the Chinese have set up shop in Djibouti, rubbing shoulders with the French and Americans who have had long-established military bases in the Indian Ocean country. The Russians want to access the Chinese facilities in Djibouti. The French and the Americans have other ideas about this.

So, the big powers are continuing to muscle in on the peace and security terrain in Africa. But what about the Red Sea, which opens up into the Indian Ocean? The Gulf States are increasing their activities there.

New powers enter the fray

“Forget about the Western powers, Africa is being openly challenged by the new powers,” said Medhane Tadesse (pictured left) in an interview I conducted with him on the ALC Pan-African Radio at the Abuja conference. A former Security Sector Reform Adviser to the AU, Tadesse said: “The AU does not even have a policy on the Red Sea while it is being militarised. Its Peace and Security Council has never had a session to deal with the Red Sea. The Gulf States are engulfing the Red Sea.”

The Ethiopian believes that Africa is losing the plot on the peace and security issue. “The challenge for the AU now is that there are destructive forces in Africa. You have new security arrangements in Africa that are not controlled or supported by the AU, such as in the Lake Chad area and the Sahel. The whole security situation in Africa is changing under the nose of the AU.”

For instance, the African Peace and Security Architecture was meant to have regional standby forces that would dovetail to become the rapid response African Standby Force. Tadesse does not see this working any more.

“Somehow, this is being bypassed by new security formations in Africa today,” he said. “The regional brigades as part of the African Standby Force are becoming obsolete simply because security in Africa is being challenged by trans-national criminal activities and jihadist groups. You can’t deal with them with the regional brigades. So while there is the emergence of new powers and their military intervention in Africa, the AU is still talking about the African Standby Force, which will be on standby forever.”

He acknowledged that the Kagame plan for making the AU financially independent was a positive move but pointed out that this would only work if there was strong leadership on the continent. “But the new global security arrangements could present a serious threat to Africa. African countries are not even dealing with this threat cleverly. There is no strong leadership at the moment to deal with this.”

He argued that in terms of pan-African leadership, big powers like South Africa were retreating and focusing on the sub-regional. “There is a leadership vacuum emerging now in Africa at the same time new players are coming to the continent in large numbers,” Tadesse said.

Thus the issue of ownership of Africa’s peace and security agenda may not seem as easy as the continent’s leaders would want to think. In the final analysis, these leaders are the arbiters of peace and security in Africa. They have to create the environment that will end political polarisation in their societies.

Hanging on to power; subverting  national electoral commissions in their favour; and neglecting whole regions for political reasons are some of the seeds of discontent that are regularly sown on the continent by the leaders, which then grow to become a violent reaction to authoritarianism.

There is, therefore, the need for strong institutions that can deal with the sources of conflict in Africa. Trouble often starts with elections, caused by ethnic and economic polarisation. Most African countries are not inclusive and this is a recipe for disaster. The AU’s Agenda 2063, which wants to transform the continent for the better, will not work if these key issues are not dealt with now.

Tadesse puts it succinctly: “The African state should first be re-engineered, based on a new political contract with the people.” Thus, in the current climate, the AU’s attempts to own its peace and security architecture are looking more and more like a tough ask for the pan-African body. 



No diplomacy without arms?

$1.69 trillion

Global military spending in 2016 was $1.69 trillion.


10 countries

The 10 countries with the highest military spending accounted for nearly three quarters (73%) of this total. These countries were the USA, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, UK, Japan, Germany and South Korea.


$611 billion

US military spending in 2016 was $611 billion — nearly 3 times as much as China’s military spending, which was the second highest in 2016 at $215 billion. US military spending is larger than the next 8 biggest military spenders combined.



1.3% decline

Military spending in Africa was $37.9 billion in 2016, a 1.3% decrease compared to 2015.


12 years

This is the second year of decreasing military spending, after 12 consecutive years of increased military spending. (Note that Egypt is included in calculations for the Middle East and not Africa.)

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Written by Desmond Davies

A former Editor of West Africa magazine in London Desmond Davies, originally from Sierra Leone, has been a journalist and commentator on African affairs for almost 40 years in the press, radio and television such as BBC World TV, Al Jazeera, Press TV and CNN. He has covered Africa extensively and has a wide range of influential contacts in the continent. Desmond holds an MA in Mass Communications from the University of Leicester in the UK. His specialities are strategic and political communications. Media and Communications Consult, Due Diligence Expert on Africa.

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