The African Union’s (AU) 16th extraordinary summit on 28 May sought solutions to the threats of terrorism and unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs) in Africa. These were ‘hindering Africa from achieving its goals of becoming a peaceful and prosperous continent,’ said AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.
The summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, which came at a time of increasing terrorist attacks and UCGs in Africa, resulted in a draft declaration and draft decision. African heads of state endorsed previous recommendations by the Peace and Security Council (PSC) and other organs that could enhance AU responses to these threats. The outcomes are a continental commitment to addressing these problems, without signalling a significant policy shift in AU responses to them.
Whether and how these decisions are implemented remains to be seen. Especially considering the significant financial and human resource restrictions the AU faces, particularly the AU Commission, which is expected to be central to implementing these decisions.
The summit declaration adopted the theme ‘robust response, deepening democracy and collective security.’ It’s mostly a political statement that reiterates AU member states’ commitment to previous AU decisions, frameworks and mechanisms on terrorism and UCGs.
It acknowledges how severely the two issues threaten African peace and security, and calls on member states to ratify and implement AU decisions and instruments on both. It also reaffirms AU decisions, including establishing a counter-terrorism unit under the African Standby Force (ASF) and implementing a fund to fight terrorism and violent extremism.
The declaration endorses the AU Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security’s May 2022 recommendation for an AU and regional economic communities (RECs) agreement on the ASF. It further recommends establishing a counter-terrorism coordination task force at ministerial level to enhance synergy and harmonise counter-terrorism responses at different levels.
The more succinct draft decision includes seven major action-oriented resolutions that provide more guidance on AU responses to UCGs beyond the declaration. The draft decision seeks immediate reactivation of the sanctions sub-committee and establishment of a PSC sub-committee on UCGs to monitor other potential UCGs, including national constitution amendments. The AU Commission has been tasked with developing guidelines for such amendments by the February 2023 summit.
The draft calls for prompt activation of the PSC sub-committee on counter-terrorism established in 2010, which has never been functional. It also tasks the AU Commission with consolidating a comprehensive continental strategic plan of action for countering terrorism and violent extremism. This should synthesise the AU’s policy frameworks on countering terrorism, mercenarism, small arms and light weapons, transnational organised crime and criminalisation of ransom payments.
At their July executive council meeting, foreign ministers are expected to determine how much funding to allocate to the AU’s rapid response capability for emerging conflicts, including terrorism. The funds will come from the Peace Fund’s Crisis Reserve Facility. The other two decisions focus on implementing the African Governance Architecture and the African Peace and Security Architecture, and for the next African Peer Review Mechanism governance report to focus on UCGs.
Establishing a sub-committee on UCGs, independent of the sanctions sub-committee, and renewed commitment to developing guidelines for national constitution amendments, signal AU readiness to go beyond sanctions to manage UCGs. The sub-committee would focus increasingly on preventing and responding early to UCGs, including monitoring incumbents’ attempts to amend constitutions to expand their powers or extend terms.
This is a move in the right direction. Contestations over constitutional amendments have contributed to political instability and triggered public protests leading to military interventions in some African countries. Consolidating a continental strategic action plan to counter terrorism and violent extremism also shows the realisation that a more holistic and coordinated response is needed.
However while the summit’s outcomes widened the AU’s response to UCGs and terrorism, governance deficits that drive both were again off the table. Addressing governance continentally is challenging due to the sovereignty issue. The AU can only encourage states to make changes. But it can ensure continental policy frameworks provide a holistic response to the threats.
The summit outcomes also seem to have overlooked complementarity between new provisions and previous summit decisions. For example, the February 2022 summit stipulated that a high-level hybrid committee of sitting and former heads of state and government would be established. It would engage incumbents who try to amend national constitutions ‘without national consensus.’
The last summit had also decided that a monitoring and oversight committee be established including the AU Commission, RECs, the APRM and member states. It’s unclear whether the sub-committee on UCGs will now take over its responsibilities or if they’ll work together in a structure yet to be established.
Implementing the summit decisions will have serious cost implications. The declaration promises a budget for national and regional response to terrorism and violent extremism. However, given the AU’s track record of allocating funding to initiatives, member states will have difficulty deciding on a budget and meeting their commitments.
It’s also unclear whether this finance will come from the AU’s regular budget, the Peace Fund Crisis Reserve Facility or the newly established special counter-terrorism fund. While establishing the counter-terror unit under the ASF was endorsed by the summit, its realisation will face similar financial challenges.
The decision to develop guidelines for the amendment of national constitutions is also not new. Since 2010, member states have asked the AU Commission to develop such a guideline that will be universally applicable to its members. The Commission, however, can’t do with its constrained human and financial resources.
The sub-committees on counter-terrorism and sanctions have never operated due to inadequate human resources in delegations of member states and the AU Commission. The AU lacks the human resources and financial capacity to monitor and enforce sanction regimes.
Moreover, while various AU agencies working on terrorism and violent extremism might actively support that sub-committee, there are no active units focusing on governance issues to support the UCGs sub-committee.
The AGA is a coordination platform rather than a governance advisory body, while the APRM operates by the invitation of member states. The PSC is the only member of the AGA platform with a mandate to scrutinise the governance performance of member states. However it has always shied away from this responsibility.
While the summit may have made significant strides in responding to terrorism and UCGs, its success can be measured only to the extent that these decisions are implemented.
Shewit Woldemichael is a Researcher, Africa Peace and Security Governance, ISS
This article was first published by the ISS’ PSC Report.