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Why is Strengthening the African Union Police Crucial for Peacebuilding in Africa?

AFR Scholar

Amid rampant conflict and crime challenges, the African Union (AU) adopted Agenda 2063 (the Africa We Want) which includes aspirations for a peaceful and secure continent under the Pan-African vision of greater integration and political unity. In pursuit of these aspirations, the AU established programs such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and signed the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and Goods. Implementing these flagship programs will increase the mobility of people and goods and will likely add another layer of security challenges for the continent. Given the aspirations and existing and emerging instability and threats, African leaders need to rethink the continental security approach and arrangement. Enhanced supranational policing can significantly contribute to preventing and responding to problems as well as aiding in peacebuilding and development. 

Africa is often characterised by continuous instability derived from the unprecedented rise of violent conflicts and organized crimes. These two evils remain major threats to human security and development across the continent. Between 1989 and 2022, the overall number of conflicts in Africa increased by 306 percent, from 34 conflicts in 1989 to 104 in 2022. In the last five years, there has been a consistent increase in organized crime rates throughout Africa, with no indication of a decrease in sight, as states’ resilience to combat remains low. Bearing in mind the trends of these challenges, it is difficult for Africa to build peace and meet the continental aspiration of a peaceful and secure Africa with its current weak but hard approach. 

In 1992, former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali defined peacebuilding as “actions to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.” Peacebuilding encompasses various activities, including strengthening the rule of law, preventing crimes, promoting justice, respecting and promoting human rights, enhancing the democratic system of governance, and promoting conflict resolution and reconciliation experiences. In such context, employing policing as a soft approach would greatly contribute to the international efforts on peacebuilding. The invaluable contributions of the United Nations Police to peacebuilding and development have been recognised at various levels, including by the Security Council.    

The role of the African Union in regional peacebuilding has been growing over the decades. However, the AU has underutilized policing in its peacebuilding efforts. Like the United Nations, the AU adopted the multidimensional approach of peace support operations (PSO), including military, civilian and police components. In practice, however, most of the AU PSOs have been military-heavy. Since early 2000, the AU has authorized about 27 PSOs across the continent to help member countries in conflict management and peacebuilding. However, police have participated only in two peace missions: the AU missions in Sudan’s Darfur between 2004 and 2007 and in Somalia from 2009 to date. 

The military cannot assume the work of the police, and vice versa. The police, military, and civilian components have their own distinct comparative advantages in conflict management and peacebuilding. While the military can better stop ongoing armed fighting, the police can help in crime prevention and investigation, restoration of law and order, the rule of law, and justice. Protection of civilians is a priority of today’s peace missions mandate, and various studies indicate police are more agile and responsive than the military and civilians in the implementation of this mandate due to their specific training, skill set, posture, and approach. 

In post-conflict environments, the police are effective tools to build peace through reforming and rebuilding the capacities of the local police and other law enforcement institutions. Through community-oriented policing strategies, the police often have the ability to partner and empower people at various levels and solve security-related problems by providing policing services based on the interests of the people. By establishing partnerships and having frequent engagements with local communities, the police build the people's trust and confidence, which are essential for building sustainable peace.

Still, the concept of policing in AU PSOs has a variety of structural and operational constraints. Among others, the police are not represented in AU decision-making structures and processes. In addition to the Assembly, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the Specialised Technical Committee on Defense, Safety and Security (STCDSS) are key decision-making organs for the AU on matters of safety, peace and security. While the PSC is a standing decision-making organ for the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts on the continent, the STCDSS provides guidance and direction to the AU Commission on matters of defense and security. These strategic decision-making bodies need an advisory body for all policing matters. However, there is no active police structure or body established to support AU decision-making bodies in providing timely professional and evidence-based advice. 

The AU Policy for International Policing in PSO and Special Operations, adopted by the Assembly in 2018, provides provisions for setting up organizational structures for the police component at headquarters and in the field. It says the office of the police component at the headquarters comprises the Chief Police Advisor (CPA), the Deputy CPA, and other units. So far, there is no specific police organisational structure in place, and no CPA has been appointed. As of March 2024, the AU PSO Division has five police planning officers with different reporting lines to various units and with no proper and sufficient coordination among themselves. Communication between the AU police and member states’ police organizations has also been another challenge, as the two parties do not have direct relations and communication channels. All policing-related communications are channeled along the military lines, and it takes a long time to reach the concerned policing bodies. 

Various attempts to put policing higher on the AU agenda have been largely fruitless. Persistent misunderstanding about the proper scopes and functions of international policing in today’s world is at the root of this failure. Many perceive policing as only a form of local business. Lack of leadership for steering continental-wide policing is another challenge. African leaders gave their political will while adopting the AU Policy for International Policing, but this lacks a leader to champion the implementation of the provisions. 

It is essential for the AU to strengthen its supranational police structure to use fully the advantages of policing for peacebuilding and to pursue the aspirations of Agenda 2063.  Strictly applying the provisions of the AU Policy for international policing would be a significant milestone. The AU Commission should establish a separate office and appoint sufficient teams of police experts, including the CPA. In addition to its advisory role, the CPA office can supervise and guide the work of the AU mechanism for police cooperation (Afripol), the police component in the Africa Standby Force structures and PSO in the field. This would harmonize the work of the police in combating crimes, conflict management and peacebuilding. 

It would also be essential to include the African Chief of Police in the AU strategic decision-making processes on the rule of law, justice, conflict management and peacebuilding. It is imperative also for the AU member states to include Police Liaison Officers in their permanent diplomatic mission to the AU. The officers can ease communication and enhance the sharing of information, lessons learned, and best practices in Africa and beyond.   

About the Author

AFR Scholar

Meressa Kahsu Dessu

Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Senior Researcher, Institute for Security Studies (ISS)
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more