Towards an AU Policy on Security Sector Reform

Published on 24th March 2009

The AU Commission is just beginning to put together a policy framework on Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Africa. Given the sensitivity of the issues surrounding the governance of the security sector, it is important that the process of developing a SSR policy be transparent and consultative incorporating as many stakeholders as possible.


It is in a way, an appropriate response in the face of the resurgence of the phenomenon of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa aiming at promoting an all encompassing culture of democratic Governance of law enforcement agencies and armed forces in Africa.


The end of the Cold War between the Western democracies and the Eastern bloc did not usher in the hoped for peace dividend on the African continent, neither did it bring in a global period of peace and security. On the contrary, the state of global insecurity at the start of the new millennium was much worse than it had been at the end of the 20th Century. The situation was made worse by the fear of weapons of mass destruction in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America on 9/11, and the resulting global war against terrorism. The African continent was directly affected by the global war on terrorism, with direct attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania resulting in many African casualties. African states, the regional blocs and the African Union did not have any policy frame-work with which to handle the new global insecurity.


Furthermore, some security issues that had previously been overshadowed by the Cold War resurfaced. The continent recorded an unprecedented number of insurgencies, border disputes, the return of military coups, genocide, piracy over African waters, politically motivated violence especially around elections, resource conflicts and internal repression. In addition, there emerged security threats from non-traditional sources, non-state actors and non-conventional sources.


Thus, despite the definite advances achieved in Africa in the area of peace and security, in particular those derived from the clear political will and efforts by Member States, working through the African Union, challenges remain in the form of continued conflicts, a relapse into conflict even after peace has been brokered, and weak states unable to secure either their territory or their citizenry. Some member states face huge challenges that make it difficult for them to fulfill their security obligations to their own citizens. In other member states, the security forces have, for one reason or another, become a threat to ordinary citizens. For these reasons, some African member states clearly need to reform their security sectors.


The end of the Cold War coincided with a wave of political reforms that led to multi-party elections in several African member states. These democratization processes were often accompanied by constitutional reform processes that promised more freedoms to African citizens. In many member states, the most visible sign of these reforms was the reduction of the role of the military in politics, and in some instances the removal of any political role for the military. Thus, early conceptions of SSR were often understood to mean a reduction of military forces and bringing the military under civilian control.


The drive to downsize the military and the funding made available for defence related activities, which was partly also derived from the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, recorded more failures than successes. In many cases military forces, the police and secret services actually increased in numbers and in expenditure, and did not succumb to civilian control. Where there were successes, there were also some negative and unintended consequences. In extreme cases this led to some defence forces being eroded to the extent of being unable to defend the state or the citizens, unable to maintain law and order under threat from predatory forces and unable to take part in regional, continental and international peace initiatives. In some cases the threat came from former security officers who had been demobilized or disbanded with the advent of political transformation (a process that was most marked in the countries of Eastern Europe but also had echoes in Africa).  Some states under SSR became dependent on international partners or private security companies for ordinary defence and security activities.


Given these negative but unintended consequences of early SSR initiatives, it is not surprising that African states have tended to regard the concept of SSR with suspicion. The African Union SSR Policy among other objectives such as democratizing the security sector also aims to assist African states to address the national security imbalances created by earlier not-so-well-planned SSR initiatives.   


One of the factors that undermined early SSR efforts on the African continent was lack of a coherent regional and African continental policy on SSR. Even international partners that encouraged, funded and drove some SSR projects did not themselves have any coherent SSR policies and strategies. It is this lack of international policy that led the United Nations to initiate an international dialogue on SSR. On his part, the UN secretary General issued a report entitled “Securing peace and development: the role of the United Nations in supporting security sector reform”. The African Union supports the UN initiative on SSR and encourages member states to work with the UN, the AU and other international partners in the implementation of national SSR programs.


On the African continent, the UN initiated dialogue led to numerous consultations culminating in an international workshop on SSR held in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2007. The Assembly of the African Union, in its February 2008 decision [Assembly/AU/Dec.177 (x)], took note of these efforts and called for the AU Commission, “to develop a comprehensive AU Policy Framework on SSR, within the context of the Policy Framework on Post-conflict Reconstruction and Development adopted by the Executive Council in Banjul, in June 2006”.  This process to formulate an SSR policy is therefore being done in fulfillment of that decision of the Assembly of the African Union.


The African Union notes that there are various imperatives that drive member states to embark on SSR. These include the need to reduce government spending, the need to combat crime, and the need to improve a member state’s human rights record. Some SSR initiatives are part of peace operations either with the AU or with the UN, while others are part of post conflict reconstruction and development processes, undertaken as part of a process to address the underlying causes of conflict and prevent future conflicts. Indeed, it is important that all peace processes consider SSR as an integral part of any peace agreement where the military and other security sectors are involved in conflict, and an AU SSR policy will facilitate this.


An AU SSR policy must address some of the contentious issues that are at the heart of the SSR debate, including providing a definition of what the Security Sector is, which would be subject to reform. Does it include the judiciary, intelligence agencies and all the other supporting bodies that are not core security institutions? Given the socio-economic situation in many parts of Africa and the sectarian divisions that sometimes exist, is it ever justified for the security sector, including the military in particular, to play a political role in the state, and if so, what should be the limits of its role?  What should an SSR policy say to non statutory security services such as militias and private security companies? SSR must also follow certain principles. An SSR initiative must be well planned, locally owned, be gender sensitive and must be well funded.


The African Union has a number of challenges in this process. It has no comprehensive SSR structure.It has only one SSR officer who started work in February this year. There is need for capacity building in that area. AU Missions should ideally have an SSR officer or a team in the field. One of the challenges would be to integrate the emerging work on SSR into the African Peace and Security Architecture, including the African Standby Force (ASF), AU peace operations and Post Conflict Reconstruction and Development (PCRD).


The challenges facing us are great, but the need to provide human security for all citizens in all member states is even greater. Let me hope the African Union Commission will come up with an SSR policy that is implementable and enhances the capacity of the AU to promote peace, security and stability on the African continent.


By H.E. Mr. Ramtane Lamamra, 

AU Commission’s Commissioner for Peace and Security



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