The European Union’s (EU) security engagement in Africa must always be viewed against the backdrop of colonial and postcolonial ties between Africa and Europe. However, irrespective of historical factors, Africa has a complex relationship with the EU in terms of peace and security. For more than two decades, EU member states, particularly France, have attempted to move their security role in Africa from traditional security focused on direct military interventions in armed conflict towards a broader ‘human security’. In rhetoric, this tends to emphasise the link between the EU’s development and trade policy and its security policy. For example, the EU is committed to both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the global normative framework of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, first launched as United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325. In the drive to implement Goals 5 and 16 on gender equality and peace, justice and strong institutions respectively, as well as interventions against sexual violence experienced by women and girls, the EU with the UN supports the African Union’s (AU) African Regional Support Programme for the Elimination of Sexual Violence as a part of the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative.
Another direct result of this, however, has been an overarching commitment to support the development of an African-led peace and security architecture. The proposal for the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) was at the heart of the formation of the AU in 2001. The APSA was conceived as the ultimate apparatus for peace and security on the African continent. Importantly, it would have determined what the peace and security agenda for Africa should be.
The commitment to support the APSA and a broader African-led or -initiated approach to peace and security served the EU in a number of ways. One the one hand, it helped to fulfil the EU’s commitment to regional or continental integration; and on the other, it took away the demand for direct intervention or boots on the ground, which has been consistently criticised by African elites and scholars of African security as neo-colonial in practice. At the same time, such an approach allows the EU to remain a preeminent partner of the African countries and regional institutions as the focus of the relationship shifted from trade and aid to a more political one. However, the EU has not always been successful in its approach, for a number of reasons. Here, we focus on three reasons for this mixed record.
Emergence of Other Actors
As the EU Commission’s delegation arrived at the African Union (AU) Conference Centre and Office Complex in Addis Ababa, in February 2020 to reset its relations with Africa, the delegates entered a building built and funded by the government of the People’s Republic of China to host an organisation that is more like the EU. It is unsurprising that China is a significant factor in the EU’s Africa policy both in Brussels and in member state capitals. This is the case in all of Africa-EU relations, but particularly and increasingly so in the area of peace and security, where China plays a role in both militarised and non-military security issues. Moreover, China actively supports Africa’s regional security integration and the development of its architecture. This is an uncomfortable reality for EU policy-makers particularly at a time, when the United States has flagged the withdrawal of troops from Africa and also Russia has returned to African security.
This increasing engagement of other actors in African security has prompted the EU to step up its game in security. However, this is emerging as a more militarised vision of peace and security at the expense of Africans and its own prior commitments. This regression is motivated not only by external actors, however, but also by the EU’s interpretation of what is ‘threatening’, and there terrorism and migration appear to go hand in hand.
Migration and Terrorism as New Threats
In the Sahel, a region inclusive of five countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – the EU has invested heavily in bilateral and regional security apparatuses. This security investment, which includes direct interventions in the form of EUCAP Sahel Niger, EUCAP Sahel Mali, and the EU training mission (EUTM) Mali has been motivated by a perception that Islamist terrorism in this area threatens European countries and that insecurities in this area fuel the migration of African people into Europe. It is also an area where China has grown as a key security actor. To that end, the EU is one of the largest financial contributors to the G5 Sahel – a regional organisation grouping the Sahelian countries. For example, the EU provided the start-up costs for the G5 Sahel Joint Force and through the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) made contributions to various regional programmes to the tune of €14 million. Additionally, through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for stability the EU has earmarked €1.865 billion to tackle irregular migration.
These incredible commitments are, however, not without their own costs. The formation of the G5 Sahel has been at the expense of and perhaps in direct competition with existing regional arrangements with security mandates including the APSA, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Therefore , the increasing EU security engagement undermines African agency and highlights African anxieties about the entrenchment of French coloniality on the continent.
While there is certainly some convergence between African and EU actors with regard to dealing with terrorism, the approaches are different. Indeed, there is a question of how the EU might be a source of insecurity to ordinary people on the continent. A case in point is the fact that despite years-long EU military training delivered to the Malian army, said army recently perpetuated a coup in the country. Moreover, the EU’s approach to migration is perceived to be dehumanising and has thus been a source of friction. In the grand scheme of things, it is difficult to see how the EU can effectively meet the prevention and protection aims of the SDGs and WPS agenda. When compared to the emerging new security actors in Africa, perhaps due to its articulated aims, the EU is seen as a reinforcing unequal power hierarchy that serves to disadvantage Africans even when rhetorically this is inconsistent with the values the EU seeks to project.
As Africa and the EU stand on the cusp of redefining their relationship there is a range of considerations that underscore that things cannot be business as usual. And while there is a lot of room for convergence based on the rhetoric of the EU and African actors, the practices may yield different results. Certainly, it would be a mistake to simply ascribe EU practices to a reaction to other actors but it does play a significant part in how security is narrated and practiced.
For their part African political elites and regional organisations are keen that the continent not become a new battleground for a major power conflict. Yet, where their ability to exert agency is undermined by the EU, it is unsurprising that African states use China as a strategic lever to prompt the EU to cooperate in terms of development. Such leverage has allowed African states and regional organisations to build capacity and confidence in terms of dealing with security issues. To an extent, this has allowed for more effective cooperation in areas like the WPS agenda, with the possibilities for very positive outcomes. At the same time, in this current moment, while Africa has responded relatively well to the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, it also presents a global crisis that may undermine its relationship with both China and the EU, particularly when the economic impact pushes these actors to dedicate resources to more inward-looking concerns.