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The Problems with “African Solutions”
The Problems with “African Solutions”
Commentary / Africa

The Problems with “African Solutions”

This week Paris will host the annual France-Africa summit. In a year in which Africa and the West clashed over the International Criminal Court – and amid growing doubts over the UN Security Council’s legitimacy, in part because of its unrepresentativeness – there will be no shortage of issues that Africa’s leaders will seek to address.

President François Hollande has chosen to focus the agenda on peace and security. Following the deployment of French troops to end crises in Mali and the Central African Republic (an additional 800 troops are expected to arrive soon in Bangui, bringing the total to 1200), he does not want to be dragged into another intervention and would like African states to assume greater responsibility, particularly financial, in resolving the continent’s conflicts. France and the AU both want much greater African financial contributions for peace operations, in part to make them more sustainable. Since becoming AU Commission chairperson in 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has pushed for a more self-sufficient AU to end its perpetual and disruptive dependence on external funding.


Other Western countries also do not want their troops fighting in Africa’s wars, and would rather not pay for Africans to fight them either; they are perhaps all too ready to endorse “African solutions for African problems”, a policy embraced by the African Union and many of its members to prevent external interference. But this overlooks some fundamental facts. “African solutions” are often as problematic and riddled with hidden agendas as traditional interventions; they are not necessarily the preferred option of all parties, and usually still require significant international assistance. Finally, some conflicts are such an international threat they require an international response.

The pressing need is not for African solutions as such. It is for improving cooperation by defining a clearer division of labour based on a hard-nosed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of all relevant actors–national, sub-regional, continental and international. As Africa’s many conflicts have demonstrated, usually peace can only be imposed through the rapid, pragmatic and effective coordination of most, if not all, the actors in a conflict.

A convergence of interests

President Hollande and AUC chairperson Dlamini-Zuma share another common interest: they are worried about the viability of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), particularly the African Standby Force (ASF). The ASF was supposed to be a collection of brigade-level, mobile, joint forces, regionally based, that could respond quickly to threats to peace and stability. More than a decade after its conceptualisation, the ASF remains a distant goal.

Frustrated with the continent’s inability to field a credible intervention force in Mali earlier this year, and embarrassed by the decisive French intervention, the AU proposed, as a temporary mechanism, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), capable of acting swiftly, and – crucially – independent of Western support. It is to be based on a coalition of willing states and would be financed by AU member states solely on a voluntary basis. Chad, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda have pledged troops, while Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger and Sudan have signalled their willingness to participate in future coalitions.

But the ACIRC may face the same problems that confront the ASF: unwillingness of African states to finance such initiatives; gaps in military capability; and lack of the sustained political leadership necessary for effective peace enforcement. The ACIRC will also not resolve other political challenges that undermine the AU’s efforts to promote peace and security, most importantly tensions among regional bodies and the UN over the leadership of, and division of responsibility in, peace operations.


The problem with some African solutions

Much is made of looking for African solutions, but the AU (and its member states) have no shortage of ideas, whether appropriate or not, on how to resolve the continent’s peace and security challenges. In the last decades, African states, and African statesmen, have played frontline roles in brokering peace agreements and have sought ways, ostensibly African, to end crises. AU member states have deployed ever more troops to peace operations in Africa, including in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan and, more recently, the Central African Republic (CAR). The AU is more robust and more mature than its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, with meaningful institutions to tackle the continent’s array of peace and security challenges. In 2011, it established a regional cooperation initiative to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army and the U.S. provided 100 army personnel to support Uganda in this military campaign (although, two years on, Joseph Kony remains elusive).

But even with increased engagement in peace operations, questions remain about the quality and capability of African troops. Many African armies have pretty dismal track records in their own countries and are often poorly equipped and trained to deal with complex peace operations. Even Africa’s strongest armies have been found lacking. The decision by Pretoria to unilaterally intervene in the CAR, which resulted in the death of thirteen South African soldiers, led to an embarrassing political and military retreat by one of the continent’s stronger powers.

And while “African solutions” sound more legitimate, interventions by African states are often no less controversial than more international ones. For example, Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s interventions in Somalia in 2006 and 2011, respectively, were deeply problematicand had less to do with stabilising that country and more to do with their own national concerns. The sound principle that neighbouring countries with interests in Somalia should not be part of the African Union mission there was abandoned when the AU and UN agreed to re-hat (as part of AMISOM) Kenyan troops already in the country; Ethiopia is now seeking to do the same. One possible upside is that integration of both countries in AMISOM might force them to accept a more coordinated international role in helping to stabilise Somalia.

Similarly, there is great anxiety that Chad might use MISCA, the new AU-led mission in the CAR, to further its own regional ambitions following concerns that it may have been linked to the downfall earlier this year of CAR President François Bozizé. Neither Chad nor its neighbours weighed up the consequences of their African solution of essentially turning a blind eye to the Seleka rebel movement’s March 2013 coup. Today, Bangui and the entire country face a worsening security and humanitarian crisis.

Competing peacekeepers and peacemakers

Differences and competition among AU member states, between the continental and sub-regional bodies, and with multilateral actors have kept progress slow. The AU sees itself as Africa’s key interlocutor on peace and security, but it increasingly faces challenges to its authority, with member states seeking more immediate solutions and sub-regional bodies wanting to manage conflicts in their backyards. The Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), for example, want greater political and financial control over responses to conflicts in their region. While some felt humiliated by France’s decisive intervention in Mali, a core problem is that African states failed to act decisively because of disagreement among themselves: the AU and ECOWAS, still suffering a degree of distrust and mutual suspicion over their differences in handling the post-elections crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, competed over who was in charge; ECOWAS leaders were unclear about whether a military response was appropriate to address the twin problems of domestic crisis in Mali and transnational terrorism in the Sahel; Mali’s political leaders and the military junta were wary of an ECOWAS intervention; and neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania were not members of ECOWAS and did not share its views on military intervention. In Libya, the AU’s preference for an inclusive dialogue with Muammar Qadhafi and his opponents, as opposed to troop deployment, was stymied in arguably questionable circumstances when NATO chose to anoint the Arab League as its partner of choice in dealing with the Libyan uprising.

In its tenth anniversary year, the AU has become more assertive and wants to be the principle voice for Africa, but it has to balance this with its limitations and recognise there are other important, and equally strong-willed, actors. The AU wants to be treated as an equal partner by the UN Security Council, but, for a number of reasons, the permanent five council members want greater oversight and will not sacrifice their soldiers in African wars. Africanisation of peacekeeping has gradually increased since 2000 and took an innovative turn with UNAMID, the first hybrid (joint) AU-UN mission, in Darfur. The problems with the joint model have been widely acknowledged, even by the AU. Nevertheless, the UNSC, as well as the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, must realise that the international peacekeeping architecture has also failed to provide meaningful solutions to several crises and alternative thinking is required. In the DRC, the push by regional countries for an international intervention brigade to fight the rebel “March 23” (M23) movement was in part a response to fifteen years of failed UN peacekeeping (by MONUSCO) in eastern Congo, as well as frustration with Rwanda’s continued interference and President Kabila’s inability to govern his country. (Ironically, some African states, as well as the EU, U.S. and others, had turned a blind eye to his flawed electoral victory in 2011.) In the end, a combination of regional troops (mainly South African and Tanzanian), supported by MONUSCO and fighting alongside the Congolese army, defeated the M23 rebellion.

A new global division of labour

No single institution (or country) can address the numerous peace and security challenges on the continent; today a number of partnerships are required. Indeed, since the early 2000s, various divisions of labour, starting with the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), have evolved among the AU, sub-regional organisations and the UN.

Probably the most intense partnership is AMISOM. African troops do most of the fighting and have suffered hundreds of casualties. Before the establishment of the United Nations Support for Somalia (UNSOA) in 2009, troops suffered from serious logistical deficits and were in no condition to challenge the extremist Islamist movement Al-Shabaab. Discussions about a potential UN peacekeeping operation seem to be off the table in part because the UN is not willing to do peace enforcement, which is essentially what AMISOM is undertaking, while the AU is willing to risk more casualties. The AU considers AMISOM an important step in building its own peacekeeping credentials, but sometimes it conveniently ignores the crucial role that UNSOA continues to play in sustaining its forces. UNSOA serves as a critical link between the AU and UN, which otherwise would pass each other by.

After fifteen plus years of varied bilateral and multilateral initiatives focused on strengthening Africa’s capacity to manage its own crises, there should be a clear-eyed review of what has been achieved and what can be made to work better. UN and AU relations have improved, at least in peacekeeping, though the UNSC’s failure to reform its membership structure and tensions over the ICC militate against this. Nonetheless, the UN’s decision to bolster its office to the AU (UNOAU) with an Under-Secretary General at its head is a significant step.

Today, complex conflicts — involving extremism, transnational crime, and asymmetrical tactics — require the AU, sub-regional bodies and the UN, together with partners such as the EU, to field robust, agile and decisive operations based on an integrated system of response among multiple actors. They should also invest greater effort in prevention, as the best means of effective conflict management is for conflicts not to break out. Indeed, Africa and its international partners need to ask themselves how they allowed the CAR, which displayed sufficient signs of fragility, to once again slide into chaos. Deploying troops may sometimes be important to avert a crisis, but this can only be a temporary measure and cannot replace the essential need to focus more on governance, development, institution-building and appropriate management of natural resources to enable sustained peace

The December summit cannot address all these concerns, and is not necessarily the forum to navigate complex relations between the AU and its partners. But beyond the usual diplomatic photo opportunity, the gathering at the ÉlyséePalace should provide an opportunity to talk seriously about the future of Africa’s peace and security architecture. The goal should not be finding African solutions but achieving better coordinated responses to specific conflicts, and ensuring the better practice of conflict prevention.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a United Nations Security Council meeting on 20 August 2019 at the United Nations in New York. Johannes Eisele/AFP
Q&A / Multilateral Diplomacy

Behind the Snapback Debate at the UN

In mid-August, Washington notified the UN Security Council that it was launching a 30-day process to “snap back” UN sanctions against Iran. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Ashish Pradhan and Naysan Rafati explain what this step implies for the 2015 nuclear agreement.

What is snapback?

In July 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by passing Resolution 2231. According to the resolution’s Article 11, a “participant state” in the nuclear deal can, on the basis of “significant non-performance” by one of the agreement's other parties, initiate the restoration (or “snapback”) of six Security Council resolutions enacted against Iran between 2006 and 2010 that were terminated under 2231. Snapback would nullify an approaching sunset on restrictions on Iranian arms purchases and exports; strengthen strictures on Iran’s ballistic missile activity; and require Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment, among other measures. Under the terms of Resolution 2231, if the council has not passed a new resolution confirming the continuation of the sanctions terminations after 30 days, the sanctions immediately come back into force.

Didn’t the U.S. leave the JCPOA?

Yes, the U.S. withdrew from the deal in May 2018. But Washington’s contention is that regardless of its exit, it is named in Resolution 2231’s text as a JCPOA participant, thereby giving it standing to use the UN snapback mechanism. The deal’s other parties (France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China, together known as the P4+1, as well as Iran) disagree, reacting to the U.S. claim to be initiating the snapback process by asserting that the U.S. had essentially forfeited its right to do so when it left the nuclear agreement.

Why is this debate happening now?

Resolution 2231 stipulates that UN restrictions on countries selling conventional arms to Iran, or buying Iranian weaponry, are to be lifted on 18 October 2020, five years from the JCPOA’s adoption day. Prior to invoking snapback, the U.S. put forward a resolution proposing that the measures remain in place “until the Security Council decides otherwise” – in other words, an indefinite extension. That resolution failed on 14 August, garnering just one supporting vote from the Dominican Republic. China and Russia voted against the draft, while the remaining eleven members of the council abstained. Rebuffed in its effort to recast the arms restrictions, the U.S. proceeded, as it had previously warned it would, to attempt to initiate the snapback mechanism on 20 August. 

What has happened since the U.S. initiated the snapback process?

The other Security Council members resoundingly rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s snapback trigger notification on 20 August, and since then the U.S. has experienced near-total isolation on the Council. A joint letter the same day from the JCPOA’s three European participants (France, Germany and the UK – known as the E3), saying the U.S. notification was not “effective”, dampened any momentum the Trump administration was hoping to create in favour of its manoeuvre. The E3’s rebuke instead empowered the vast majority of other Council members to also register their objections in writing, culminating in thirteen of the Council’s fifteen members outlining their refusal to recognise the U.S. claim to have standing. 

U.S. diplomats have since adopted a two-pronged approach at the UN. First, they have lobbied unsuccessfully for other members, including Indonesia and Niger – Security Council presidents in August and September, respectively – to table a resolution to continue the termination of UN sanctions as outlined in Resolution 2231, with the intent of vetoing that draft. While such a resolution is not necessary for snapback to be considered successful, some diplomats believed that Washington wanted to add a layer of procedural legitimacy to an otherwise thinly veiled attempt to put an end to the JCPOA. 

Secondly, U.S. diplomats have gone on the defensive in New York to avoid public isolation at the Council while also imposing costs on other members for declining to support snapback. In the days immediately following the snapback notification, the U.S. reportedly objected to the holding of several in-person Council meetings to avoid the possibility of a separate discussion aimed at giving the other members the floor to raise their concerns and outline their continued support for the JCPOA.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York.

U.S. diplomats have warned other members that a crisis over Iran could lead to a broader deterioration of diplomacy in New York. On 31 August, the U.S. vetoed a resolution on counter-terrorism issues tabled by Indonesia in a move that other Council members interpreted as, at least in part, a reprimand of Jakarta for its failure to facilitate the snapback process as Council president. But other than that, Council business has carried on as normal to date.

What happens next?

The U.S. goal in initiating the snapback process – which it claims to be on track to achieving – is to restore all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions on 20 September. But given the divide between Washington’s view and other Council members’ assessment that the U.S. lacks standing to trigger the mechanism, there is likely to be a parallel claim put forward. The Trump administration, perhaps with the support of Middle Eastern allies, will contend that it has restored all UN restrictions on Iran’s activities – and insist that these are binding on all member states. U.S. officials will likely turn their attention toward enforcement, pressuring UN member states to recognise the reimposition of pre-JCPOA sanctions. “All countries are bound to enforce them”, contended Secretary Pompeo in a recent op-ed. “To do otherwise grossly undermines the Council’s authority and credibility, and could normalise selective enforcement of Security Council resolutions”. The vast majority of Council members, including the P4+1 parties to the nuclear deal, will maintain – possibly, again, in writing – that they do not consider these U.S. claims as valid and that sanctions have not been restored. Most Council members will thus consider that the terms of Resolution 2231 continue to define the state of play. These parties will ignore the contrary U.S. claim and decline to enforce sanctions.

Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties

Both arguments are likely to be on display during the UN General Assembly next week. Some diplomats in New York worry that President Donald Trump will use his speech to the assembly to threaten the UN with financial penalties if the Council does not fall in line behind snapback, although most think such a threat would likely be bluster. The P4+1 leaders, who will be addressing the assembly in pre-recorded videos, may restate their commitment to the JCPOA, but they are likely to downplay the issue to avoid generating extra friction with Washington. 

What is the role of the UN Secretary-General and secretariat in this dispute?

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit (the International Court of Justice might, though there is little indication thus far of a Security Council resolution requesting it to deliver an opinion on the matter, which in any case could take months). For now, it is a political and diplomatic issue rather than a neat legal determination.

There is no individual or entity in the UN system that can rule on whether the U.S. snapback gambit has or lacks merit

The next phase of UN diplomacy will likely feature U.S. manoeuvring to reinstate the mechanisms for monitoring sanctions on Iran that were dismantled in 2015. If UN Secretary-General António Guterres believed snapback to be legitimate, for example, he could try to re-form the panel of international experts to monitor sanctions breaches which existed from 2010 to 2015. Although this move would be a technicality (UN sanctions regimes can have legal force regardless of the existence of panels to monitor them), it would send a signal to UN officials that they should take the U.S. position seriously.

Guterres has so far resisted calls to weigh in on the dispute and claimed that Council members “need to interpret their own resolution”, but he may find that it is hard to remain entirely neutral. Even if the Secretary-General takes no action at all, Council members opposed to the U.S. position will interpret this inaction as proof that Washington’s claim has no force. The Secretary-General is supposed to report on Resolution 2231’s implementation to the Security Council every six months and the next report is due in December, pushing him to take a stance on the implications of recent events.

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback.

Nonetheless, the Secretary-General has little to gain from adopting a firm position in this dispute. He would be best advised to do no more than tell Council members to resolve it among themselves. 

With no clear resolution to the dispute likely in the short term, there will be confusion over points of detail arising from snapback. One is the status of individuals and entities that were previously under UN sanctions but were de-listed following JCPOA implementation and adoption of Resolution 2231. The reintroduction of past sanctions resolutions could mean that these individuals and entities could once again be designated under a reinstated sanctions regime. The status of the procurement channel established by Resolution 2231 for the “transfer of items, materials, equipment, goods and technology required for Iran's nuclear activities under the Nuclear Deal” will also come into question, as the U.S. will argue that this arrangement should now be terminated. The concrete impact of either measure on Iran in the short term is unclear, and Security Council members and UN officials are likely to get bogged down in inconclusive debates on these technicalities.

What happens when the conventional arms embargo on Iran expires?

Having rejected the U.S. position, most Security Council members accept that the conventional arms embargo on Iran – which the U.S. tried to extend prior to calling for snapback – will end on 18 October. The E3 floated compromise options on the embargo, such as a one-year or six-month extension, but none was simultaneously acceptable to the U.S. and China or Russia, let alone Iran.

The restrictions check Iran’s ability to import or export a range of conventional weapons, including “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems, as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms or related materiel”. During an August visit to Moscow, Iran’s defence minister predicted “a new chapter in defence cooperation” with Russia after the restrictions lapse, and U.S. intelligence assessments have pointed to jets and tanks as possible purchases. U.S. officials have told Western counterparts that they will impose bilateral penalties on Chinese and Russian companies that sell arms to Iran, although many of these firms are already under U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials also claim that after the restrictions are lifted the country has “the capacity to export several billion dollars a year in military equipment”; media speculate that Iran could find buyers for its domestically produced missile and air defence systems, ground equipment, naval craft and drones. Nevertheless, after 18 October, Iran’s outgoing transfers would remain subject to other Security Council prohibitions, including those covering Yemen and Lebanon, and an EU embargo continues to be in effect at least through 2023. 

What does all this mean for the nuclear deal? 

The snapback debate is reflective of the divide that has emerged between the U.S. and P4+1 since the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA. Washington contends that pressure – unilateral where necessary, multilateral where possible – can coerce Iran into accepting its demands to not only revisit the terms of the nuclear agreement but concede on a wider range of issues. The P4+1 have differing views on Iranian policy, but even in cases where there are shared concerns with Washington (the Europeans, notably, are apprehensive about the expiration of arms restrictions) their priority remains to salvage the existing negotiated framework as a basis for broader discussions, even as Iran has breached its terms in response to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign. 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front

The most recent quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes, for example, that Tehran continues to enrich uranium beyond the JCPOA’s 3.67 per cent ceiling and has accumulated an enriched uranium stockpile nearly ten times its 202.8kg limit. At the same time, the IAEA noted a drop in Iran’s heavy-water inventory, and Director General Raphael Grossi on 14 September told the agency’s board of governors that inspections had begun at two sites of concern where access had become a matter of tension (albeit separate from the JCPOA). 

The broad consensus that has emerged against the U.S. snapback attempt should mitigate against a harsh Iranian response on the nuclear front, as that might scupper continued efforts by all remaining parties to save the agreement (and isolate Tehran rather than Washington). Tehran regards its current breaches as a calibrated response to the erosion of the economic dividends it expected from the JCPOA. It wants sanctions relief, as provided for in the nuclear deal, in return for resuming full compliance. For its part, the Trump administration appears intent on pressing ahead with its “maximum pressure” approach.

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute.

How will the U.S. elections affect the dispute? 

Most diplomats and UN officials recognise that the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election will decide the outcome of the snapback dispute. If President Trump wins a second term, he will have ample time and opportunity to kill off the JCPOA, and then hope that Iran will come back to negotiate a different deal (which he has said will be “a deal that’s great for Iran”). Conversely, his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has proposed to rejoin the JCPOA, if Iran returns to compliance with the agreement, and then attempt to “strengthen and extend” its conditions. It is not clear precisely what steps a Biden administration would need to take at the UN to unwind the U.S. snapback drive retroactively and reaffirm its commitment to the JCPOA. But diplomats and UN officials in New York are unlikely to let the niceties of UN procedures get in the way of reconstructing the nuclear deal.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
Senior Analyst, Iran