The COVID-19 crisis consequences: disrupting the African peace and security agenda

Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Despite its obvious limits and constraints, the African Union (AU) has been doing its utmost to address peace and security challenges in Africa. However, over the past few years, the involvement of external powers has drastically increased at the expense of seeking African solutions to African problems. This trend has deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent reduction of meetings, field visits and peace initiatives by the AU.

This piece focuses on the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the African agenda for peace and security. Since its inception, the African Union (AU) has been focused on creating favourable conditions of peace and security as part of its broader Agenda 2063 for achieving “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena”. In adopting its Silencing the Guns flagship project in 2013, the AU provided itself with a tool to achieve its objectives.

With hopes of the discovery and mass distribution of an effective COVID-19 vaccination next year, it is now an opportune time for the AU to actively contribute creative ideas on how the world should be reshaped after the pandemic.”

Important meetings, field visits and initiatives postponed

Since March 2020, several important meetings have been postponed, including the two Extraordinary Summits that were scheduled to be held in South Africa in May 2020 to discuss matters related to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and Silencing the Guns by 2020, and the second Mid-Year Coordination Meeting between the AU and regional economic communities (RECs), scheduled to be held in July 2020. The sixth AU–European Union (EU) Summit, scheduled for 28–29 October, has also been postponed. Some observers noted that this “may be a blessing in disguise”. I hope that the AU will take advantage of the postponement to prepare meticulously for the summit and articulate a clear position for a new and audacious AU–EU partnership that will take into account the conditions and aspirations of Africa as a continent.

Over the past eight months, the situation in the Sahel has continued to be of concern. The AU Commissioner for Peace and Security continued his consultations on the proposed deployment of an additional African contingent to the Sahel. Following the recent coup d’état in Mali, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was involved through its special envoy, former president Goodluck Jonathan, in efforts to address the situation, based on the regional body’s principles on unconstitutional changes of governments. The coup d’état in Mali is an indication of the fragility of the AU’s governance agenda, which needs to be substantially consolidated.

In the Horn of Africa, while the situation in Sudan is gradually improving, including as a result of recent progress in the talks between the government and some rebel groups, the peace agreement signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea two years ago has yet to fully materialise. Relations between some countries of the region remain strained and deserve greater attention from the AU, and increased support to reconciliation processes within and among the countries of the region is warranted. The AU should continue to support the peace talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) until a final agreement is reached. Beyond its current involvement in the talks as AU Chair, South Africa is well placed to continue with its good offices and facilitation to encourage the parties to reach an agreement.

In the Great Lakes region, no annual meeting of the regional oversight mechanism at summit level has been held since October 2018. This high-level meeting is expected to meet annually to review progress in the implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the region. Moreover, the regional summit – convened recently by President Félix Tshisekedi and scheduled to be held in Goma on 13 September – had to be postponed, since most of the invited leaders could not attend.

In North Africa, the crisis in Libya remains tense, despite the announcement on 21 August 2020 of a ceasefire by the Libyan protagonists, and the most recent agreement reached in Bouznika, Morocco, on the criteria, mechanisms and objectives for “assuming positions of sovereignty”. Meanwhile, the question of Western Sahara remains deadlocked, with no progress in the appointment of a new personal envoy of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General and the activation of the AU Troika on Western Sahara, which was decided to support UN efforts at the AU summit held in Nouakchott in July 2018.

Increasing external influence and military presence in Africa

Over the past few years, external influence in African conflict situations has increased due to bilateral agreements between AU member states and their partners. Despite the prevailing pandemic, France and its European partners continue to work closely with the G5 Sahel countries, including through the Pau Summit, convened by President Emmanuel Macron of France on 13 January 2020, and the follow-up summit, held in Nouakchott on 30 June 2020. In this framework, new initiatives have been launched, including the deployment of a European Takuba force and the launch of the International Coalition for the Sahel. For its part, the United States of America (USA) remains active through its military presence in the Sahel.

The situation in Libya has turned into a battlefield where external powers are involved in a proxy war, with devastating consequences for the Libyan people and for the region at large. As a result, the AU and its High-Level Committee continue to be marginalised. For its part and against the background of a deeply polarised UN Security Council, the UN is finding it increasingly difficult to pursue its peace efforts, including appointing a new special envoy of the Secretary-General, despite the strong backing received at the Berlin Summit on 19 January 2020. At its meeting held in Brazzaville on 30 January 2020, the AU High-Level Committee “condemned the continued external interference in Libya”. This condemnation was reiterated at the meetings of the AU Contact Group on Libya, held in March and May 2020.

The increasing presence of external forces in Africa was discussed by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) in May 2016. On this occasion, the PSC “noted with deep concern the existence of foreign military bases and establishment of new ones in some African countries, coupled with the inability of the Member States concerned to effectively monitor the movement of weapons to and from these foreign military bases. In this regard, Council stressed the need for Member States to be always circumspect whenever they enter into agreements that would lead to the establishment of foreign military bases in their countries.” The PSC reiterated its concern, including at one of its sessions held on 14 August 2019, during which it noted that “the military presence and military bases are contributing to the risk of rivalry and competition among foreign powers within Africa and undermining national sovereignty and peace efforts”.


As we hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will considerably decrease with the breakthrough and mass distribution of an effective vaccination, which will hopefully take place in the next year, it is now an opportune time for the AU to actively contribute creative ideas on how the world should be reshaped after the pandemic. It is further suggested that Africa should again seize the initiative in shaping its future relations with its external partners, based on its collective interests. While AU member states are obviously free to enter into agreements with their external partners based on their own national interests, it is also important that the AU principles and guidelines are upheld to avoid further fragmentation and divisions on our continent.

Ambassador Said Djinnit joined ACCORD in June 2019 as a special advisor, based in Brussels, Belgium. He served as the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region of Africa from September 2014 to March 2019, and as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa from April 2008 to September 2014. Before joining the UN, Ambassador Djinnit served as the first Commissioner for Peace and Security at the African Union (AU) from 2003 to 2008.

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