Natasha Louis, a specialist in transnational security affairs, focusing on human rights, conflict, and counter-terrorism
The African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council’s decisions to suspend countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Sudan give the impression that their actions to curb unconstitutional governance are pragmatic. Governments and militaries must be held accountable and suspension could pressure their leaders to create better governance. However, the AU’s PSC has been inconsistent in its actions against such changes in government. The PSC allowed Chad to continue its membership despite a military takeover last year. It also struggled to come to a decision after Sudan’s coup d’état, and they were unable to act swiftly as they had with other countries. This was particularly damaging to the credibility of the AU and they appear to have taken a more passive role with Sudan since their decision.
Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, stated last month, “If civilians fall victim to counterterrorism operations, those efforts will only undermine trust in the State.” This is accurate, as vulnerable populations struggling with economic hardship, climate change and/or weak governance and security are at high risk of joining terrorist groups that take advantage of such instability. Pobee makes a valid point in that regional countries should set aside differences and focus on their aligned security goals. While many delegates and analysts feel that prioritizing development over security should take precedence, accountability and standards should be of top concern.
According to a panel of analysts, “Poor and authoritarian governance is breeding extremism and transnational criminality, igniting violence and undermining efforts to build democracies.” The struggle between authoritarianism and democratization in the Sahel has permitted Islamist extremism to expand significantly over the last year. Joseph Sany, head of the United States Institute of Peace’s Africa programs, believes the suspensions risk “further undermining military cooperation in the fight against terrorism around the Sahel and could aggravate the insecurity that has helped ignite the coups d’état in the first place.”
Mali will assuredly face further instability and uncertainty once French troops withdraw from Operation Barkhane in the coming months. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara warned that this withdrawal will create a power vacuum and it is well-known that many struggling countries turn to dangerous mercenaries at such times. With the Russian-backed Wagner Group mercenaries, who are known to commit human rights violations throughout Africa, terrorism will surely rise in the Sahel region. Discontent has continued to grow against France through disinformation, and terrorist groups will capitalize on such vexations against the West and the Wagner Group’s violations.
Pledges Are Not Enough
Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, Carine Kaneza Nantulya, pressed that the AU should follow through on its pledges; stating that “African leaders cannot afford to avoid addressing how impunity for atrocities committed by their security forces is creating grievances that fuel recruitment by extremist groups.” Unlawful killings have been well documented in Burkina Faso and other countries by their own civilians and militaries during counterterrorism operations. Yet, victims have received no justice. Negating the role of acknowledging and prosecuting such violations is a key driver to further instability and public support of coups.
AU members also “need to address democratic deficits and issues around corruption, impunity, term limits, and the need to hold free and fair elections, which have undermined development and encouraged changes of government that deny citizens the right to choose their leaders.” One solution that experts point to is for the AU to “focus more support on strengthening civil society and democracy in each country between elections, rather than focusing too narrowly, as we have done in the past, just on elections themselves.” This is an excellent argument as many African countries repeatedly make this mistake with election seasons. Government and civil society actors in Kenya, for example, have only recently requested funding and raised concerns over violent election outbursts for this coming August. The PSC and others should continuously prioritize mitigating violence risk and disinformation issues instead of only before events, when it is likely too late. Regular and coordinated efforts that combat disinformation will significantly lessen the possibility of attempted or successful coups.
While the suspension of membership of these countries seems logical, it is clear that such actions are inconsequential and are of no deterrent since coups continue to take place at such an alarming rate. The AU faces immense challenges and it is questionable if they are capable of keeping transitions on track and if suspensions truly apply the needed pressure on these countries. “Too often, verbal condemnations of coups or autocracy have not been reinforced with concrete actions to address the insecurity that creates fertile ground for coups.” A common mistake in negotiating during these crises is that actors focus primarily on the duration of transition back to civilian rule but negate substance to ensure that civilian’s needs are being properly met. Actors need to look closely at the drivers of instability. If primarily looking for a quick-fix reconciliation, the root causes will still permeate and pose risk of further coups.
Supporting the dialogue between civil society and governments is the most crucial component in obtaining peace and security. However, the AU must look at Africa’s history in rushing peace processes that have ignored many marginalized groups. Sierra Leone is a prime example that demonstrates a transition that has left those traumatized, especially women, facing psychological challenges, drug addiction and economic insecurity, all of which are major drivers of radicalization and recruitment.
“While governments should continue to support local dialogue, high-level negotiations with top jihadist leaders are worth exploring as an option that could yield stronger prospects for peace.” Additionally, the international community must align against such juntas and apply significant pressure to implement needed changes in a timely matter. The AU should assist in mediation efforts to these countries even if transition does not seem to be in the near future. If the African Union truly believes in its mission to obtain “a peaceful and secure Africa” then the Peace and Security Council must analyze nuances and prioritize the pivotal conditions that civil societies require in order to create constitutional governments in Africa that are long-lasting.
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