Cedric de Coning: A Unique Model of African Peace Operations

© University of Chicago Press Books

Cedric de Coning

We hope the book will “encourage the recognition that African peace operations are unique, and not just deficient UN peace operations. Africa does not need saviors, but partners…Those that still base their relationship with the AU around capacity-building and development need to adapt to the fact that any relationship with the AU today should be about strategic partnership.”

In recent years, the world has witnessed increasing commitment by African nations to contributing to peace and security on the continent. Dr. Cedric de Coning, a South African scholar based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and also associated with ACCORD, is an expert in the field of peace operations in Africa. Together with Linnéa Gelot and John Karlsrud, he has edited a new book entitled The Future of African Peace Operations: From Janjaweed to Boko Haram. On a recent visit to New York City, de Coning spoke with the Global Peace Operations Review’s Lesley Connolly.

Lesley Connolly: This book has been years in the making. How was it conceived, and how do you think it now fits into the current debates around peace operations?

Cedric de Coning: When the African Standby Force (ASF) was conceived, United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Operations was the only frame of reference. The Gambari Independent Panel of Experts, which assessed the progress of the ASF in 2013, found that a decade later, the African Union (AU) had enough mission experiences of its own to assess and develop its own concept of peace operations. The Panel felt that the challenges the AU faced in 2013 were very different from the period in 2003/2004 when the ASF was conceptualized. We convened a seminar in December 2013 on Strategic Options for the Future of African Peace Operations. The practitioners are so focussed on day-to-day crisis management that they seldom have the opportunity to consider their strategic options. The aim was to take a strategic look at where we were in the process of an emerging African peace operations capacity. We asked several seminar attendees who presented papers to contribute chapters to this book. The subtitle, from Janjaweed to Boko Haram, gives a sense of the trajectory for the future of African peace operations.

LC: The book talks about the emergence of an African model of peace operations. What do you mean by this, and how would you characterize an African model?

CdC: AU operations differ from the UN in several important aspects. First, they are not guided by the three principles of peacekeeping (consent, impartiality and minimum use of force), nor by the charter’s differentiation between Chapters VI and VII. Second, there is less of a sense of intervention from the outside to ensure compliance with international standards and more a sense of solidarity or good neighbors coming to each others’ aid. There is also a strong feeling of shared identity and common African identity. Third, African peace operations have a history of coming to the aid of people at risk when the UN was not able or ready to deploy UN peacekeepers, starting in Darfur, then in Burundi, Somalia, Mali and Central African Republic (CAR). African regional organisations and the AU were the first responders in each of these cases, and deployed into situations which the UN deemed not yet fit for UN peacekeeping. Fourth, in each of these missions the UN provided support to the AU in some form, and in each of these cases, accept Somalia, the UN subsequently took over the AU missions. The AU lacks the resource base and peacebuilding tools to consolidate the peace, so the UN takes over from the AU to help ensure sustained international support for the peace process. In this context the AU has essentially become a specialist in stabilization operations.

LC: What do you mean by stabilization operations”?

CdC: These are typically operations where the intervening organization has to employ force to deny one or more parties the option of using violence to achieve their political aims. One implication of such operations is the need for troop contributing countries (TCCs) who have the will and means to use force. Often, the only countries that will be willing to do that are those whose national security interests are affected by the conflict. This is very different from UN PKOs, where TCCs should ideally have no interest. Another implication is that you need a command and control system geared for combat. In this context, civilian leadership and military command can range on a spectrum from a lead nation approach, such as in the early days of AMISOM, to a more networked approach, as in the case of the LRA and Boko Haram operations. In networked approaches, the AU provides overall political direction and coordination, but the members of the coalition act independently and coordinate at the operational and tactical level. AU operations are not proxies for UN operations; they have their own unique characteristics. We now have enough AU peace operation experiences (Darfur, Burundi, Comoros, Somalia, LRA, Mali, CAR, Boko Haram) to start to see a unique African model of peace operations emerging.

LC: The book looks at the notion of Hybrid-Peace Operations as well as challenges with the UN Take-Over”. What can be done to improve joint peace operations and general coordination between the UN, AU and RECs?

CdC: The relationship with the UN has changed significantly. Ten years ago, it was more of a donor relationship – the UN was helping the AU to build capacity. The AU has fought hard to change the narrative to a relationship of partnership. It seems that the UN now recognize some of the comparative advantages of the AU. There are now regular interactions between the UN and the AU. There are usually two formal meetings at the highest level between the Security Council and the members of the PSC; regular meetings between the Under Secretary-Generals of Peacekeeping and Political Affairs and the Commissioner for Peace and Security of the AU. There are also many desk-to-desk interactions as well as specific initiatives and projects they cooperate on, such as the joint transitions exercise looking at the lessons the AU and UN can learn from the transitions in Mali and CAR. The UN and AU are looking at how these interactions can be further improved. I feel the relationship has improved a lot and this bodes well for the future of both AU and UN peace operations.

LC: What impact has the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) had?

CdC: The HIPPO helped a lot too. During the consultation process, the AU developed a specific document called the Common African Position on the UN Review of Peace Operations. The HIPPO panel said it was the most detailed, comprehensive contribution they received. Their final report reflected many of the issues raised by the AU. It described the relationship in positive and constructive terms, and argued for the need for a strong strategic partnership with the AU. The SG has picked up many of the HIPPO’s recommendations in his own report, and most of these are already underway. For instance, the AU and UN is undertaking a joint study that will look into options for improving the predictability and sustainability of financing and supporting African peace operations.

LC: Did the HIPPO report shift the way we look at African peace operations?

CdC: There was a narrative, in some quarters, before the report that the AU was unable to manage its own operations and the UN needed to come in and help it. The AU’s common position and the HIPPO has been able to change this perception. Post-HIPPO, it the narrative is about a complementary and strategic relationship between the AU and the UN.

LC: What are the strengths and weaknesses of African peace operations?

CdC: The AU is a willing first responder, but they don’t have the same resources and the know-how that the UN has on how to consolidate the post-conflict peace process. This is an division of work that has emerged organically, and that will continue to evolve over time. In Mali, the AU was unhappy about how the transition was managed, but both the AU and the UN has learned from the experience, and the subsequent experience in CAR has already been much improved. The AU and UN are now developing a joint lessons learned document and a set of transition guidelines that will help to manage such transitions in the future.

LC: One of the criticisms of the HIPPO report was that the mandates of UN peace operations are too ambitious. Do you feel this is a challenge facing African peace operations?        

CdC: The AU has the opposite problem. It does not suffer from Christmas tree mandates, but from an overly military or securitized approach to stabilization. It lacks the civilian expertise necessary to ensure that its military operations are directed towards enabling and supporting political and governance objectives. In Somalia, the AU was able to help to liberate cities and towns from Al Shabaab, but it then lacked the ability to follow-up with the civilian expertise necessary to help the federal government and local authorities to re-establish basic governance structures and services. This is not necessarily the task of the AU. It should be the government itself and there are other actors involved such as UNDP and the UN mission in Somalia and other partners who have also been unable to meaningfully assist, partly because of the security situation. The reality is that those areas are still very unsafe so you won’t have UN and other people staying there and therefore, it becomes the AU’s responsibility to provide the bridge between international actors and the Somali Government. The question that needs to be addressed in this context is what kind of civilian expertise does the AU need to support this kind of stabilization operations. The AU does not have the resources or capacity to deploy the kind of civilian component you find in a UN peace operation.

The AU needs a small but specialized civilian capacity that can help the mission to assess, plan and manage the political and governance dimensions of stabilization missions, as well as to serve as a liaison for the AU mission with the government, UN and other partners. This expertise should emphasize that force should directed towards political and government role. You are not going to defeat Al Shabaab militarily; you will defeat them if the Government of Somalia can provide better security, governance and opportunities than what Al Shabaab can offer.

LC: What are some of the main accomplishments and challenges of African peace operations?

CdC: Looking at the bigger picture, we have seen Africa, with the help of its international partners, develop a significant capacity of its own over the last twenty years. If you look at the Middle East, for instance, and the crises facing that region, you notice that they do not have a comparable regional peace operations capacity, despite the fact that many individual countries in the region having large armed forces. Africa has embarked on a significant political project when it decided to invest in setting up the African Standby Force (ASF). As a result we can see a considerable increase in troop contributions by Africa to the UN. Ten years ago there were 10,000 troops from African nations in UN peacekeeping. Today African TCCs provide approximately 48,000 troops to the UN, and in addition there are a further 22,000 in AMISOM in Somalia. And then Iwe have not taken into account the soldiers engaged in anti-LRA and anti-Boko Haram operations.

Over the same period, the AU has developed the political and bureaucratic capacities to manage conflicts, and today the AU is in the lead or deeply engaged in preventing or managing all the crises and conflicts in Africa. The UN, the EU and others are also involved, but this situation is very different from ten years ago when it was expected that the USA or France or the UN would intervene or lead international mediation efforts in Africa. The French interventions in Mali and CAR stand out as exceptions, rather than what was the norm a decade ago. The AU is more assertive and willing to assume its responsibility for managing African crises, as the current situation in Burundi shows.

The challenges ahead relate to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of AU operations. It has established its willingness and ability to take responsibility for a first responder and stabilization role, and now it needs to improve its ability to assess, plan, deploy, manage and evaluate its own operations. The AU’s most serious challenge is the capacity to support its own operations. Funding is a major issue, but more importantly the AU lacks a mission support concept and the people and systems necessary to implement such a concept. The good news is that the AU, with the support of the UN, has embarked on a process to develop a mission support policy this year. So this challenge has been identified and is being duly addressed. The AU has also appointed Donald Kaberuka, the past-president of the African Development Bank, as its High Representative for the AU Peace Fund. This is a very positive development as Kaberuka has the credibility and networks to help the AU address the funding aspects of these challenges. 

LC: AU peace operations remain dependent on funding and support from international organizations and partners. How can this be changed to increase the effectiveness of African peace operations?

CdC: Several options are being looked into. The AU has decided to significantly increase its own contributions and a new scale of assessment is under negotiation. This will see the AU take up at least 25 per cent of the cost of AU-led peace operations in the future. In addition, the AU is considering alternative and voluntary sources. The UN Secretary-General has also tasked the UN to look into options and a joint AU-UN team will report on this later this year.

There is of course no silver bullet. The AU, UN and partners will have to develop a range of funding options, and they will have to make use of these depending on the needs and context of each operation. I think it will not be possible to find a predictable source of funding for AU operations, but we can develop a more predictable coordination mechanism and process for finding the necessary funding for each operation.

This funding situation is the main structural driver for the aforementioned division of work that has emerged between the AU and the UN, where the AU acts as first responder to stabilize the situation, with the UN taking over the AU mission (because it has the assessed contribution funding) as soon as is feasible.

LC: Is there too much of a focus on the financing?

CdC: It is important to recall the larger strategic context within which any funding discussion should take place. The UN is responsible for international peace and security. When the AU undertakes a peace operation, it does so under Chapter VIII (and Chapter VII if authorized to use force) of the UN Charter. There are very few, if any, crises and conflicts in Africa where external factors are not a major contributing factor, and the consequences of these conflicts do not remain in Africa. When the AU deploys a peace operation, it is in service of international peace and security and it is a global public good. The rhetoric that Africa should fund its ‘own’ peace operations is not helpful. We need to distinguish between the reasons why a mission is deemed necessary by the UNSC, and who is in the best position to undertake such a mission. That is why the concept of strategic partnership is so important. The HIPPO and the Secretary-General’s implementation report capture this spirit of partnership and the new ‘networked’ peacekeeping reality very well.

LC: What role will the African Standby Force (ASF) play in the future of African Peace Operations?

CdC: The January 2016 AU Summit has declared that the ASF is now operational. The African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC), which was a temporary measure until the ASF became operational, may be dissolved and its capacities integrated into the ASF’s rapid response mechanisms. The ASF will be the main vehicle for cooperation, standardization, joint training and joint exercises. It is the foundation for force generation for future AU peace operations.

However, I think the ASF concept needs to be updated to take into account that in all the AU operations to date, the selection of TCCs emerged from the political realities unique to that context, to form a just-in-time coalition of the willing. Off-the-shelf regional standby forces will rarely, if ever, be used as designed. The Standby High-Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG) and EU Battlegroups experiences reflect the same pattern. The ASF is a very useful coordination and capacity building tool, but it is unlikely to be used to deploy a regional brigade. If so, the ASF structures need to adapt to that new role. The UN should study the ASF experience closely when it considers its own standby or vanguard force options.

LC: Who should be reading this book and why? What impact do you hope this book will have on the international peace and security community?

CdC: I hope the book is useful for both practitioners and scholars engaged in working on or researching peace operations in general, and African peace operations in particular. The primary readership would be African countries and those in the political and military sphere who are working in or with Africa. And, of course, the African Union and the RECs themselves who are involved in peace operations. Additionally, there are the partners who work with the AU, such as those in the United Nations and European Union that deal with the AU, as well as those in Brazil, Britain, China, India, France and the United States who support the AU.

The secondary readership would be the scholarly community who work on trying to promote and make sense of African peace operations in general. Within that larger group, there is a smaller group with a particular interest in Africa.

We have two main hopes for the book. First, that it will encourage the recognition that African peace operations are unique, and not just deficient UN peace operations. Africa does not need saviors, but partners. The situation today is very different from ten years ago when the AU deployed its first operation in Darfur. The AU has now proved that it has the political will and the ability to deploy and undertake stability operations under very difficult situations. Africa has significant peace operations capacity, contributing almost 50 per cent of all UN peacekeepers in addition to undertaking its own operations. Those that still base their relationship with the AU around capacity-building and development need to adapt to the fact that any relationship with the AU today should be about strategic partnership.

Second, a unique African model of peace operations is emerging. African operations are not just regional copies of UN peacekeeping. They have their own normative and historical context, regional dynamics and drivers. If partners want to contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of African peace operations, they have to understand them on their own terms and not as proxies for UN peace operations.

Cedric de Coning is a senior researcher with the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Research Group at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) | Twitter: @CedricdeConing

Lesley Connolly is a research assistant at the Center on International Cooperation | Twitter: @LesleyConnolly3