The Significance of a Resilient AU-UN Strategic Partnership for Peace Operations in Africa

The Strategic Context

Three considerations explain the importance of regional organisations for UN peace operations: (1) conflicts are rarely isolated within state borders, (2) those who are closer to the problem are often in a better position to understand and influence it, and (3) their proximity ensures that they have a long-term interest in its outcomes.

One of the important issues the UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations will have to address is the relationship between the UN and regional partners. In this context, the most important relationship for the UN is its relationship with the African Union (AU).

Approximately 70% of the UN’s special political missions and peacekeeping operations are deployed in Africa. Africans make up approximately 60% of the UN’s international civilian peace operations staff and about 80% of its local staff. Over the last decade Africa has become the largest regional contributor to UN peace operations, and now contributes approximately 45% of the UN’s uniformed peacekeepers.[1] African capacities are therefor a critically important resource for the UN.

At the same time all the AU peace operations to date have been supported by the UN in one way or another, and all, with the exception of Somalia, have been handed-over to the UN. UN support is thus a critical enabler for AU operations and the UN has to be an important partner of any exit strategy for the AU. The effectiveness of both the UN and the AU are thus mutually interdependent on several levels.

Changing Conflict Dynamics

The conflict dynamics the UN and African peace operations have to deal with continue to change rapidly and have become more complex, asymmetrical and challenging. In many contemporary conflict zones terrorists, criminal gangs, traffickers and armed groups or militias deliberately choose to use violence to pursue their objectives. Civilian populations, aid workers and increasingly peacekeepers have been targeted as a result.

Effectively managing such conflicts require robust peace operation capabilities that can contain and manage aggressors and ensure basic stability, so that political and humanitarian work can be undertaken to alleviate suffering and seek medium- to longer-term political solutions.

A decade ago most UN peacekeeping operations were engaged in post-conflict peace agreement implementation missions in countries like Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia and Sudan. Today, in stark contrast, approximately two thirds of the UN’s peacekeepers are deployed amidst on-going conflict in missions where there is ‘no peace to keep’. There has thus been a significant shift in UN peacekeeping over the last decade from missions that were deployed to help resolve a conflict by supporting and safeguarding the implementation of peace agreements, to missions deployed amidst on-going conflict to protect civilians and to manage and contain aggressors. Over this same period the UN has developed a much more operational political and peacemaking capacity.

Whilst UN peacekeeping missions were focussed on containing violence, UN special political missions and special envoys were working on the political dimension and seeking short-, medium- and longer-term political solutions. In Africa especially, the UN recognised the inter-linkages between conflicts and have deployed regional envoys to West Africa, the Horn of Africa and to the Great Lakes.

The Emergence of AU Peace Operations

The AU has been, in many ways, ahead of the curve. The UN is struggling to adapt an almost 70 years old peacekeeping culture to these new conflict dynamics (and the UN Panel is an important instrument in this process). The AU, on the other hand, is still developing and establishing its youthful peace and security tools, and as a result it has been able to adapt more rapidly to these changing conflict dynamics. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) have demonstrated the political will to engage sooner, more robustly and with greater innovation than the UN Security Council. The most recent mission authorised by the PSC, the Lake Chad Basin Commission’s Multi-national Joint Task Force against Boko Haram, is a case in point. Four factors may account for this development:

  • the growing institutional capacity, experience based confidence and growing impact of the AU and the RECs/RMs (some more than others) have resulted in a much more assertive approach to conflict management;
  • the AU does not share the UN’s peacekeeping history and doctrinal parameters, and are thus more willing to engage in stabilisation or enforcement This should not be misunderstood as a preference for military solutions. It is a conscious strategy to use force to proactively shape the security environment to create space for political solutions;
  • there has been a significant increase in actual African peace-operations capacity since the launch of the African Standby Force project a decade ago. In total, over 40,000 uniformed and civilian personnel were mandated to serve in AU peace operations in 2013 (approximately 61,000 if the joint AU-UN hybrid mission in Darfur is taken into account as well).[2] This increase in African capacity has also benefited the UN and African contributions to UN peacekeeping operations have increased steadily during this period, from a little over 10,000 in 2003, when the ASF was launched, to approximately 48,500 in December 2014;
  • the AU does not have comprehensive set of rules and regulations for mission support and force generation. As a result, AU missions deploy more rapidly, and whilst they may have been more ‘messy’ (compared to the UN model) they were also more nimble and much more economically efficient in terms of per capita expenditure.

Enabling a AU-UN Strategic Partnership

As a result of these factors a partnership model has emerged where the AU and/or RECs/RMs, with support from the UN and partners, acted as first responders to African crises in, for instance: Burundi, CAR, Darfur and Mali. When basic stability has been achieved these missions were handed over to the UN, and the African military and police peacekeepers were re-hatted and became UN peacekeepers.

Once AU peace operations are handed over to the UN, the AU typically maintains a political mission to follow-up on and support the political process.[3] Similarly, the UN typically has a special political mission in place before and during the period that the AU may have a peace operation deployed.[4] In Africa, the UN and AU will thus always operate alongside each other. Close cooperation between the UN and the AU is thus a strategic necessity.

This strategically important relationship is, however, at times stressed and strained. The UN narrative is often that it needs to come to the rescue of poorly equipped and badly managed AU operations. The AU perspective is that these missions have been effective in creating the conditions that have made it possible for UN follow-up mission to deploy, e.g. in Mali and CAR. The AU has felt in the past, for instance in Mali, that the UN has undermined the role of the AU, especially during the rushed transition from AFISMA to MINUSMA. However, the transition from MISCA to MINUSCA in CAR has gone much smoother and it seems both the AU and UN have learned valuable lessons from the Mali experience.

The UN Panel should consider what needs to be done to foster a common narrative that is mutually re-enforcing and respectful of each other’s roles. For instance, the UN and AU can consider developing a common doctrine on transitions with a strategic division of tasks, for instance stabilisation by the AU, supported by the UN, followed by UN peacekeeping, based on their respective comparative advantages. Such an agreed joint approach can make it easier for both sides to involve each other from the earliest stages in assessments, planning, and the sharing of mission support plans and capabilities.


Funding AU peace operations

The UN Panel will also have to consider the need to find predictable ways in which the UN and other partners can support AU and REC/RM peace operations. African peace operations represent local responses to global problems. Most African conflicts are global in the sense that they are heavily influenced, if not driven, by external factors like the global war on terror; the exploitation of natural resources by multinationals; capital flight facilitated and solicited by the international banking system, and transnational organized crime, driven by markets in the West for narcotics, human trafficking, timber and illegally caught fish. Effective African peace operations thus represent a significant contribution to the global common good.

African peace operations are funded and supported by the AU Member States, African troop and police contributing countries and, in the case of the Ebola mission (ASEOWA), also by African private sector donations. However, these contributions from within Africa are not sufficient on their own to fund African peace operations. The AU has launched an initiative to seek alternative ways to finance the AU and its peace operations, and a decision has been made at the just-concluded AU Summit to significantly increase the percentage of the AU budget that is contributed by Member States.

However, these new steps will take a few years to phase in. African peace operations thus require additional funding and support from the UN, EU and bilateral partners. This financial dilemma impacts negatively on the ability of the AU to independently make decisions regarding the size, scope and duration of its missions. It also impacts negatively on the UN, in that the UN had to take over the AU’s missions in Mali and CAR earlier than it would have had too if the AU missions had more predictable funding sources. As a result the UN, as a last resort, had no choice but to deploy stabilisation type missions that forced it to go beyond its peacekeeping principles and doctrine.

The UN has provided some form of support to all the African missions to date. These ranged from support to AMISOM via UNSOA’s assessed contribution budget, to various other types of support packages and voluntary contribution tools, such as trust funds. None of these have proven sufficient or satisfactory to the AU or UN, but they have enabled the AU to undertake its missions to date.

More efforts are needed to creatively and innovatively find ways to support African peace operations. For instance, the UN can make some of its Department of Field Service capabilities available to the AU, including its Brindisi and Kampala logistical depots; include the AU in some on-call procurement arrangements, for instance strategic airlift; and partner with the AU in developing essential mission support planning and managing capabilities in the AU Commission.


[1] In comparison the South East Asian countries together contribute aproximately 30% of the UN’s uniformed peacekeepers. Six of the top ten UN troop contributing countries are from Africa, with Ethiopia now the largest contributor to peace operations in the world if one takes both their UN (7690) and AU (4045) contributions into account.

[2] In 2013 the AU managed three missions simultaneously: AMISOM, AFISMA and MISCA. Currently the AU is responsible for one mission: AMISOM, the world’s largest peace operation with over 22,000 uniformed personnel.

[3] For example the African Union Mission for Mali and the Sahel (MISAHEL) that has followed on AFISMA, and the AU Mission in Central African Republic and Central Africa (MISAC) that has followed on MISCA.

[4] For example the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) alongside AMISOM.

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