Op-ed: Reforming the AU requires stronger ties with civil society

By Mpako Foaleng and Niagalé Bagayoko*

Faced with security threats that are rapidly and constantly changing, and compounded by economic and social challenges that inhibit development ambitions in Africa, the question that is increasingly being asked is how to promote the participation of civil society in the management of public affairs and, in particular, political and security matters.

In its Constitutive Act, the African Union (AU) acknowledges “the need to build a partnership between governments and all segments of civil society, in particular women, youth and the private sector, in order to strengthen solidarity and cohesion among our peoples”.[1] Furthermore, the AU plans to build its capacity to guarantee peace and protection for African citizens through common defence and security policies by 2063.

Through institutional reforms adopted in 2017, the AU is committed to becoming financially independent with regard to security affairs by increasing the contribution of its Member States to the “Peace Fund” and reducing that of international partners.

Without prejudice to what may actually happen to this fund and its utilization, there is one major hurdle that the AU must overcome to ensure sustainability of its actions in the area of peace and security: a complete change in the manner in which civil society is engaged, involved and considered is mandatory.

By enlisting the support of organized civil society in its various member countries, the AU could utilize them as effective allies, particularly in encouraging Member States to implement its principles, which provide for the involvement of populations in the management of public affairs.

The nature of current security threats – whether in the form of terrorism, violent extremism, trafficking in persons, drugs and arms at the trans-regional level or escalating organized crime and conflicts between communities at the national level – cannot be effectively addressed in the absence of a climate of trust between citizens and state authorities, including security forces and law enforcement.

Moreover, the “African Union Policy Framework on Security Sector Reform”, adopted by the Twentieth Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in January 2013, emphasizes the role of civil society in security sector reform (SSR) and engages the latter (particularly in Section H) to actively interact with the AU as well as with Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and Member States in this area.[2] ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) also highlights in its “Policy Framework for Security Sector Reform and Governance” the key role that civil society should play in the oversight of security affairs.

However, there is no denying the fact that the reality falls far short of these principles in many African states, and the situation tends to worsen in certain countries where laws have been adopted that explicitly restrict, or even prohibit, the involvement of civil society organizations in security-related matters.

The AU is therefore suitably placed to combine its desire for financial reform and the need to foster change in the attitudes of its Member States for greater recognition of the oversight role of organized civil society in the areas of security and justice.

The increasingly important role played in the evolution of institutions and political and security situations by civil society in all of its forms, in a certain number of African countries, is a welcome development.

As an illustration, in 2014 it was observed that civil society in Burkina Faso, through movements such as the Balai Citoyen, were actively involved in actions that precipitated the departure of President Blaise Campaoré. They also played a key role in the failure of the attempted coup of 15 September 2015 led by the former presidential security regiment (RSP), security forces loyal to the deposed president.

This commitment helped to bring about an end to the crisis and the democratic appointment of a new president.[3] Even before this historical wave of popular protests, the Balai Citoyen had focused its efforts on promoting dialogue between the populations and the armed forces, as well as improving the conditions of the military.

However, Burkina Faso today is subject to continuous attacks in the North along its border areas with Mali and Niger, gravely undermining the ability of defence and security forces to ensure the protection of the state and citizens in an effective and accountable manner. The government has identified security sector reform as a priority. It will be important to ensure in the process that civil society in Burkina Faso continue to have a space to advocate for the democratic management of security affairs.

In Africa, a long history of civil wars, armed conflicts, coup d’états, authoritarian military regimes and abuse by law enforcement officers has shaped the largely undemocratic operations of political and security institutions.

Defence and security services have long been at the exclusive service of ensuring the security of regimes in place. The challenge today is translating into action the officially stated, yet contradictory in practice, ambitions of many African states to promote both state security and that of the populations they are meant to serve.

The AU should rely on civil society organizations to help promote an approach to security and governance that focuses on the protection requirements of both citizens and state institutions.

The challenge in fact is ensuring that the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force enjoyed by states is subject to democratic supervision and citizen control, carried out by civil society organizations in particular.

There are, however, three key issues that should not be overlooked in order to promote effective collaboration between the AU and civil society organizations in the area of peace and security: legitimacy, representation and competition (especially in terms of access to public funds or from external donors), which now characterize the increasingly dynamic yet widely challenged (including by the populations) sphere in which African civil societies evolve.

*Mpako Foaleng (PhD) and Niagalé Bagayoko (PhD) are senior experts on security sector reform and governance.

[1] Preamble and Article 4 (c) of the AU Constitutive Act adopted on 11 July 2000 in Lomé, Togo.

[2] African Union Policy Framework on Security Sector Reform, Section H, http://www.peaceau.org/uploads/ua-cadre-d-aoorientation-sur-la-reforme-du-secteur-de-la-securite.pdf

[3] Ludovic Ouhonyioué Kibora and Martial Halpougdou, Le Moog-Naaba et la royauté de Mossi au Burkina Faso, Analyse Sociétale Africaine (ASA), African Security Sector Network (ASSN) Think Tank, October 2016.