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The challenge of external engagement in African security

Dr Elisabeth Sköns

Many African countries depend, to a significant extent, on the economic, development and security-related activities of external actors. The life-saving impact of externally supported peace operations is perhaps the most obvious example. However, external engagement also presents challenges to African security efforts. In order for African countries to best benefit from external activities, they need locally grounded security policies and a firm strategy for incorporating external support. Civil society now has an opportunity to play a major role in shaping these policies.


The changing security activities of external actors in Africa

While Africa has a long history of external engagement in the field of security, both the types of activities and the range of actors involved have changed over time. After the end of the cold war, there was a period when external interests in Africa seemed to abate. However, since the early 2000s there has been a renewed external interest in Africa, due to a variety of factors, including increased global competition for natural resources; recent economic growth in Africa; transnational security challenges; and radical changes in policies to address international terrorism. This renewed interest is reflected in the security activities of external actors on the continent.

The main external actors in sub-Saharan Africa today include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and two intergovernmental organizations: the United Nations and the European Union (EU). In addition, a significant number of other countries are directly or indirectly involved in various security processes and activities in Africa, including EU member states, Brazil, Canada, India, Pakistan and South Korea, as well as some Arab countries. A number of international financial institutions, humanitarian organizations and private sector actors are also active in Africa.

Visible external security activities include, on the soft side, external contributions to mediation in peace talks and, on the hard side, direct interventions by external military and security forces in conflict or post-conflict situations (either bilaterally or multilaterally, in the form of peace operations). Another visible form of external activity is the transfer of weapons, either legal or illicit, to African states and armed groups. In addition, external actors train military and security personnel; conduct joint exercises with African military and security forces; facilitate military exchanges; and provide support for the reform of the security sectors.

Less visible activities include the various defence and military agreements between African and external governments. Overall, there is a great lack of transparency regarding external engagement in African security. Much more research and documentation is required in order to obtain a full picture of the types, scale and nature of such activities by all relevant actors. However, what can be said is that there has been a shift over the past 10–20 years from direct military and security support—in the form of permanent military presences and arms transfers—towards increased indirect support for capacity-building of military and security forces and security-sector reform. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this overall trend, including the 2011 intervention in Libya, and interventions in Mali and other West African countries over the past two years.

Externally driven processes limit local ownership

Both the rationale for and the nature of the security-related activities of external actors in Africa are varied and complex. Some activities, including physical military presences and interventions in African countries, are directly related to the security policies of the external actors providing the support. However, most activities are provided within frameworks that have the explicit objective of ‘helping Africans help themselves’. Despite this objective, most of these support policies are externally conceived and designed, which limits local ownership.

Within the area of development cooperation, local ownership has long been an accepted principle. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it also became an important objective in externally supported security-sector reform and governance programmes. The rationale for this was at least two-fold. First, there was a realization that, without ownership, there would be no commitment. Second, and more importantly, there was a recognition that local ownership is a prerequisite for the development of a democratically governed security sector.

The challenge for Africa is how to manage external security activities

Increased external engagement in African security affairs takes place in a context in which African governments are intensely involved in their own efforts to develop policies and capacities to address the security challenges, whether within the African Union (AU), the eight Regional Economic Communities, or domestically. At no point in the post-colonial history of Africa has there been a greater focus on development, coordination, and capacity building to strengthen the ability of African policies and institutions to respond to the security threats of the region. External actors are involved in most of these processes.

At the same time, external engagement presents a challenge in that it is basically driven by external conceptions of what is needed and provided by a number of different and uncoordinated actors. What impact do these supply-driven policies, strategies and activities have on policy-formulation and institution-building processes in Africa? Do African countries have the space to shape and manage their security affairs within this environment of externally driven security activities?

The role of civil society in shaping African security policies

In order for African security policies to have legitimacy and sustainability, civil society actors need to participate in their formulation. Without the active engagement and involvement of civil society, it will be difficult to develop sustainable policies on security. Therefore, civil society has an important role in shaping security policies, in particular to address the question of whether to focus on national security or human security. While, in the past, there have been limited opportunities for civil society to assume such a role, this is now changing. The extent to which civil society actors will be able to affect the ways in which African security challenges are addressed will depend on their ability to assess and have an influence on the external security activities, since these are so predominant in Africa.


Dr Elisabeth Sköns is an Associate Senior Fellow at SIPRI and the former Head of the Mali civil society and peacebuilding project.