At the heart of African peace and security architecture (APSA) is the aspiration for enhanced African autonomy, often referred to as the “African solutions to African problems” agenda. When the AU commissioner for peace and security addressed the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) in January 2012, he identified the primary element in strengthening the AU-UN partnership as “the need to promote African ownership and priority setting on issues of peace and security on the continent” (AUPSC 2012).

To this day, there are tensions dogging this ambition. I will draw on the Libyan crisis in 2011 to illustrate some of these tensions and hope thereby to inspire lively debate among my peers. One caveat is called for: I focus here only on perceived tensions with the AU’s peace and security role. Much more could be written on the perceptions of incoherence or self-interest in the policies advocated by the AU’s many donors and partner organizations.

In simple terms, the ambition for autonomy and African ownership can be divided into at least two sub-sets of arguments. These have tended to be conflated in statements by AU representatives and in the literature. The first is autonomy for reasons of legitimate power. These go hand in hand: by implementing peace and security decisions the AU might be taken more seriously as an international player. Thus, by vesting authority in the AU, African leaders are seeking more influence in international affairs (see, for example, Gelot 2012). Secondly, there is autonomy for reasons of “anti-imperialism”. Autonomy is needed to lessen undue outside interference on African affairs. Depending on which of these two arguments is being made, the tensions arising from partnerships and external support become more or less dramatic (see, for more on African ownership, Franke and Gänzle 2012; Williams 2008; Franke and Esmenjaud 2008).

The point has often been made that the AU seeks international partnerships to enhance its presence in international affairs (Ali 2012; Kagame 2006). Some African governments have cautiously begun to delegate authority to the AU, because it is more effective in formulating united African positions and bringing these into the international arena. Thus, there is an ongoing process of engagement and contestation at the AU level, which is resulting in “African principles” on peace operations, protection of civilians, human rights promotion, and models of governance. “Universal” principles are referred to and adapted to fit “local” circumstances (see, for example, Bachmann and Gelot forthcoming). For the foreseeable future, the AU’s ability to implement many of its programs depends on the body’s international legitimacy and the external support it is able to muster. From this perspective, African leaders welcome the closer AU-UN relationship, and maintain very short lines of communication with major partner institutions and donors. Capacity-building programs are necessary if the AU is to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. What is needed now is for these programs to build sustainable capacity over the long term, which would be easier if the AU peace and security role was clarified further (Gelot, Gelot and de Coning 2012).

Both arguments (legitimate power and anti-imperialism) were in play in the AU’s response to the 2011 crisis in Libya. Partly because the AU’s peace and security role still needs clarification, it was easier for individual African autocrats to speak in the name of the AU or African interests, but also from personal motives that could harm AU partnerships. In regard to Libya, the AU faced a difficult balancing act. Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa voted in favor of the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution of March 17, 2011 that authorized the P-3 (UK, US, and France), and after that NATO, to implement a no-fly zone over Libya. At the time, South African leader Jacob Zuma argued that military measures enforced by the P-3 were necessary to protect the threatened civilians of Benghazi. But the South African UN representative noted the ANC government’s concerns:

We have supported the resolution, with the necessary caveats to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya and reject any foreign occupation or unilateral military intervention under the pretext of protecting civilians. It is our hope that this resolution will be implemented in full respect for both its letter and spirit. (UNSC 2011c)

While the AU’s high-level committee on Libya wanted to be consulted and treated as an international player, it also had to manage the support and consent of some of the continent’s more conservative leaders. So the AUPSC correctly and swiftly condemned the violence in Libya, and the three non-permanent African members of the UNSC supported the multilateral decision on a no-fly zone. Nonetheless, two days after the UNSC vote, the AU Libya committee criticized the methods being used during Operation Odyssey and rejected “any foreign military intervention, whatever its form” (AUPSC 2011; see also Museveni 2011). The AU was highly critical of the methods of enforcement, because these principally served the goal of removing Muammar Gaddafi from power. One major problem for Zuma, who was playing an influential role both in the UNSC and the AU committee, was how to put across the official AU position in the international media. Zuma tried but created the impression that his foreign policy statements were incoherent. First, his government voted for willing states to use “all necessary means” to halt the violence in Libya, and shortly afterwards he bemoaned international interference in African affairs and called for African solidarity (Channel 4 News 2011).

There were big differences between the official AU position and the “international” Libya strategy: the AU insisted that the rule of self-determination should be respected and that a political solution would be better for Libya and the wider region. For Zuma, Gaddafi was to be treated as a head of state until a transitional government had held elections and the Libyan people had voted him out of office. While the AU’s position could have been communicated better, the Union was at pains to interpret and implement the Libya position in line with its emerging rules and principles on democratic governance, chief among them being rejection of unconstitutional changes of government (see, for example, Maru 2011). The AU committee attempted but failed to broker a compromise between Gaddafi and the armed rebels for the establishment of an interim governing structure while a new constitution was being negotiated. To some Western powers, African unwillingness to demand Gaddafi’s immediate step-down smacked of intolerable defense of a tyrant by an institution that had become too used to his financial largesse (interview, senior Western diplomat 2011).

The AU also interpreted the “protection” authorized by the UNSC in March 2011 very differently from the P-3. For the AU, removing Gaddafi represented both undue interference in the internal politics of an African country and an insufficient measure to ensure protection of civilians in Libya. It was a shortsighted strategy that might create novel or different protection challenges for the country and region. The AU committee held that the P-3/NATO no fly zone averted the mass atrocities stemming from government attacks on civilians, but that these parties should not have deliberately supported the armed rebellion in Libya, thereby taking sides. In this vein, South Africa and other African states argued that the principle of protection was being abused, because enforcement of the no fly zone had become a tool to bring down Gaddafi and was not being used just to avert imminent risk of mass killings (for example, see UNSC 2011a). The committee called for a comprehensive cessation of hostilities at the earliest date. It also pointed out that NATO stood by silently when the armed rebels committed human rights abuses and killed civilians. Protection would best be ensured if a cessation of hostilities could allow for the start of a political process (AUPSC 2011).

In regard to other crises in Africa, the need for context-sensitivity and long-term thinking has been acknowledged by some UNSC members. However, in regard to Libya, the AU’s concerns about humanitarian issues and regional stability remained largely unheard or provoked sarcasm among some donors and Western ambassadors (interview, senior Western diplomat 2011; UNSC 2011b). The AU might have placed greater emphasis on why an AU-led political process would be a better option for local, regional and international peace and security. It cannot be denied that the seeming incoherence of some AU statements made the AU roadmap easier to dismiss by those states eager to portray NATO air strikes on Libya as a success. It has been noted that the roadmap might have gained the attention it deserved if the AU committee members had made more convincing arguments in its defense (McKaiser 2012). It may also be that the AU still struggles with a weak international standing and faces structural constraints in making its voice heard in Western-based media.

The second argument regarding external interference was also made by certain African governments: African solutions to African problems are needed because of the neo-imperialist policies of foreign powers. For Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Teodoro Obiang (Equatorial Guinea), foreign involvement in Libya was a neo-imperialist regime-change project, motivated by greed and thirst for oil (News Zimbabwe 2011). Thus, “solidarity” was needed among African heads of state. For the likes of Mugabe, the objective of the AU might be insulating certain regimes from undesired international meddling. This line of argument was pursued in reference to Libya because NATO was using the protection principle to forcibly remove an African head of state. Thus, the question arose of whether this would set a controversial precedent. AUPSC members at the time of the Libya crisis included some of the most authoritarian states on the continent: Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Chad and Libya itself.1The AUPSC consists of five members elected for three-year terms (one from each of the continent’s five official regions) and 10 other members elected for terms of two years. In 2010, those elected were Libya (3 years), Mauritania (2), Nigeria (3), Côte d’Ivoire (2), Benin (2), Mali (2), Equatorial Guinea (3), Chad (2), Burundi (2), Kenya (3), Rwanda (2), Djibouti (2), Zimbabwe (3), Namibia (2), South Africa (2). As members of the AU, these governments also speak in the AU’s name. Nonetheless, their own human rights and democratic shortcomings pose a challenge for the Union’s quest for autonomy and legitimacy.

If the AU wants to secure increased ownership in the sense of legitimate power, it needs to foster international support and goodwill. For the foreseeable future, the AU will depend on international assistance for its peace negotiations, peace operations, and new institutions, and therefore it needs greater international engagement, constructive dialogue, and partnerships. Finger-pointing and alleging double standards do not serve to increase the credibility of the African solutions to African problems approach.

Concluding recommendations

While it is still too early to gauge the effects of the AU’s response on Libya, they are likely to have repercussions for the AU-UN relationship as well as AU-donor relations. There is a perception in some, especially Western, capitals that African heads of state have made inconsistent statements about how best to respond to conflicts in Africa, and such perceptions make it easier to undermine or deride what may at its core have been sound policy. For the AU, the P-3 and NATO interpretation of the UNSC-authorized no fly zone over Libya stood in contrast to UN Charter principles of self-determination and human rights.

The UNSC-AUPSC consultative meeting in June 2012 partly acknowledged the negative consequences of the differences between Africa and Western states on Libya. The two Councils agreed to develop, where possible, “cohesive positions” on issues affecting Africa. There is a need for the UN and AU to continue close discussions about how best to respond to armed conflict in Africa. The more the two organizations can jointly formulate their positions, the more cohesive AU-UN rhetoric can become, the harder it will hopefully be for individual states or groups of states to act outside the multilateral consensus. Additionally, both Western and African states could do more to formulate multilateral, legitimate, and efficient policy responses to war and conflict in Africa. These need to be “African” in the sense that context-sensitivity and bottom-up approaches should be highly valued. Nonetheless, it is essential that there be recognition that the problems as well as solutions are of international concern.

Over time, African heads of state need to be more active in using sub-regional and regional decision-making bodies on the continent to clarify and formalize the political and ethical principles as well as the strategic priorities that underpin the African peace and security project. The political question of purpose is prior to and ought to shape the issue of strengthening the AU’s material capacity. Especially since the bulk of funding for peace and security comes from sources outside the continent, it is tied up with the very problem of dependency the discourse on autonomy seeks to reduce. Without clearly agreed objectives, the credibility of the African solutions to African problems agenda will remain weak.


Amina, Ali (2012) ‘Foresight Africa: The Continent’s Top Priorities for 2012’, Brookings Institution Washington, 11 January. Accessible at

AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) (2012) Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on the Partnership between the African Union and the United Nations in Peace and Security: Towards Greater Strategic and Political Coherence, PSC/PR/2 (CCCVII), January 9.

AUPSC (2011) Communiqué 265th Meeting, March 10.

Bachmann, Jan, and Linnéa Gelot (forthcoming 2012), ‘Introduction’, Special Issue, African Security 5, nos. 3-4.

Channel 4 News (2011) Gaddafi not the only victim of Libya’s revolution, 7 September.

Franke, Benedikt and Stefan Gänzle. ‘How “African” Is the African Peace and Security Architecture? Conceptual and Practical Constraints of Regional Security Cooperation in Africa.’ African Security 5, no. 2 (2012): 88-104.

Franke, Benedikt and Romain Esmenjaud. “‘Who Owns African Ownership?’” The Africanisation of Security and its Limits.’ South African Journal of International Affairs 15, no. 2 (2008): 137-58.

Gelot, Linnéa (2012) Legitimacy, Peace Operations and Regional-Global Security: The African Union-United Nations Partnership in Darfur, London: Routledge.

Gelot, Linnéa, Ludwig Gelot, and Cedric de Coning (forthcoming 2012) ‘Supporting African Peace Operations’, Policy Dialogue, Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.

Kagame, Paul (President of Rwanda) (2006) First Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), London, 18 September.

Maru, Mehari Taddele (2011) ‘How the AU Should Have Recognised the Libyan NTC’, ISS, 5 September.

McKaiser, Eusebius (2012) ‘Mind the UN-AU Gap’, International Herald Tribune, January18.

Museveni, Yoweri (2011) ‘The Qaddafi I know’, Foreign Policy, 24 March.

News Zimbabwe (2011) ‘Libya: Mugabe slams “”naïve” Nigeria, South Africa and Gabon’, 20 May.

UN Security Council (UNSC) (2011a) 6650th Meeting, SC/10442, November 9.

UNSC (2011b) Security Council 6555th Meeting S/PV.6555, June 15.

UNSC (2011c) Security Council Resolution 1973, S/RES/1973, March 17.

Williams, Paul D. (2008) ‘Keeping the Peace in Africa: Why ‘‘African’’ Solutions Are Not Enough.’ Ethics and International Affairs 22, no. 3: 309-29.


Confidential interview, senior Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, October 2011.

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    The AUPSC consists of five members elected for three-year terms (one from each of the continent’s five official regions) and 10 other members elected for terms of two years. In 2010, those elected were Libya (3 years), Mauritania (2), Nigeria (3), Côte d’Ivoire (2), Benin (2), Mali (2), Equatorial Guinea (3), Chad (2), Burundi (2), Kenya (3), Rwanda (2), Djibouti (2), Zimbabwe (3), Namibia (2), South Africa (2).