Niger: another symptom of Africa’s weak crisis-response capacity

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Last month’s coup in Niger once again revealed Africa’s crisis of multilateralism. Political and security developments in Niger and other African countries confirm the continent’s collective security dilemmas and the deficiencies of its architectures for peace, security and governance.

There have been strong divisions among African stakeholders about the appropriate response to Niger’s coup, illustrating an erosion of the consensus reached in the July 2000 Lomé Declaration on unconstitutional changes of government.

The military takeover in Niger is the sixth in West Africa in two years, and shows the fragility of governments facing violent extremism. It also reflects the difficulty that continental and regional bodies – in this case, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – face in preventing military and civilian coups.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), a new constitution removing presidential term limits was adopted by referendum in July. To achieve this, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra illegally sacked the Constitutional Court’s Speaker, who initially deemed the extension of the term limits unconstitutional.

In Sudan, the outbreak of a civil war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces marks the failure of the 2019 transition initially designed by the African Union (AU) following the ouster of Omar al-Bashir.

AU special envoys are an underestimated but highly efficient conflict prevention tool
While different in scope and nature, these three developments highlight how African organisations struggle to weigh in on conflict situations, showing increasing disagreements about the right solutions to crises.

To address this, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) asked the AU Commission in July to ‘review the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) in order to adapt it to contemporary security challenges facing the continent.’

Several factors reveal the crisis facing APSA, including inconsistency in the use of existing mechanisms. For example, the AU Commission chairperson’s chief of staff was appointed spokesperson on the Sudan situation even though an AU Liaison Office was already on the ground in Khartoum. And despite the CAR’s brewing crisis, the AU hasn’t replaced its special representative there four months after the incumbent left. AU special envoys are an underestimated but highly efficient conflict prevention tool.

In Niger, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and the PSC unanimously condemned the coup despite slight differences on whether force should be used to restore constitutional order. By contrast, the PSC’s handling of crises like that in Chad was considered inconsistent.

Another trend illustrating APSA’s problems is the preference among governments for military approaches to insecurity. Such strategies not only fail to address the root causes of conflict, but also increasingly question APSA’s basis as a collective security mechanism. Governance matters don’t get as much attention as military measures, even though African countries can’t fund military interventions on their own, as the ongoing financing crisis of African peace support operations shows.

Reviewing APSA requires an assessment of existing instruments, especially those dealing with preventive diplomacy, governance and subsidiarity. Given the costs associated with peacemaking, some useful and affordable conflict prevention tools could be activated.

Recent AU reforms have damaged the organisation’s conflict prevention framework, and should be reassessed at the political and technical levels. The ability of the Panel of the Wise to preemptively address emerging crises should be strengthened. It should ideally comprise former heads of state, and the capabilities of its secretariat should be augmented and moved to the Office of the Chairperson.

AU special envoys are key to preventive diplomacy but have rarely received adequate substantive and administrative support to implement their mandates. This undermines the AU’s capacity to deploy the political good offices needed in crisis situations.

More broadly, the dismantling of the Continental Early Warning System and its merger with regional desks should be reassessed. Understaffed regional desks focus on existing crises tabled by the PSC instead of identifying new flashpoints. This situation removes the distinction between conflict prevention and crisis management, turning the AU Commission into a reactive body.

Regarding governance, the AU and regional economic communities (RECs) have often struggled to adequately use regional frameworks. The string of unconstitutional changes in government in West Africa and the CAR’s recent change of constitution raise questions about the effectiveness of bodies such as the African Peer Review Mechanism. The added value of governance mechanisms that are separate from APSA has never been demonstrated, and the AU reforms missed an opportunity to streamline these legally distinct instruments.

The overreliance of the AU Commission on election observation generates visibility but doesn’t compensate for the lack of clarity on the AU’s approach to averting recurrent malpractices in the long term.

Finally, the meaning of subsidiarity for the AU and RECs should be reviewed. Niger and Sudan’s junta leaders have been hostile towards ECOWAS and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, suggesting that proximity to a crisis may be a problem in itself.

Recent experience of transregional crisis management shows that a joint, synchronised intervention by the AU and RECs in crisis hotspots is more likely to work than the mechanical sequencing that sees the regional body as the exclusive first responder. For this, the PSC should demonstrate more consistency in discharging its duties as the main decision-making body on security and governance.

RECs and the AU should pursue consensus building to manage the fractures that have recently appeared in many regional mechanisms, notably ECOWAS in the Niger case, hampering their effectiveness and credibility.

When APSA was launched in 2003, it was considered an innovative contribution to African multilateralism. Its three-pronged intervention approach involving the national, regional and continental levels was original, as it also allowed for minilateral arrangements. But with rising geopolitical tensions and African states wanting greater involvement in global governance, APSA needs to adapt to current governance and insecurity challenges.

Written by Paul-Simon Handy, ISS Regional Director East Africa and Representative to the AU, and Félicité Djilo, Independent Analyst.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.