Africa Needs NATO More Than It Needs the UN

Africa needs more help than the UN can offer to stop the spread of Islamist extremism. Alexander Moens and Jimmy Peterson make the case for NATO to step up.

By: /
21 February, 2013
By: Alexander Moens Moens
Alexander Moens is a professor and Jimmy Peterson is an MA candidate in Political Science at Simon Fraser University

France’s recent military intervention in Mali points to a security problem in Africa that goes beyond the conventional trouble of ethnic tension, corrupt governments, and military coups. Islamist groups and networks are upsetting the fragile status quo of many African civil societies. Much of Africa is a mosaic of diversity in people groups, religions, and cultures, all co-existing inside still-fragile post-colonial states. Islamists upset this fragile arrangement in order to set local people and religious groups against each other and provoke civil war. They did so in Sudan, and are now trying the same in Nigeria. Out of the ensuing chaos, they aim to make inroads for politically and religiously extreme Islam. Various intelligence reports and non-governmental organizations have pointed out the trend of emerging Jihadist groups in the northern half of Africa, all the way from Somalia to the Ivory Coast. The influence of these groups in the Tuareg population poses a threat to several states, including Mali, Niger, and Algeria.

We are not suggesting a co-ordinated grand conspiracy. Some of the conservative Muslim groups are just local, acting and reacting – as all the other groups are – to advance their interests in the mix. But several groups are networked into regional and foreign affiliates. A few flare up and burn themselves out, but many are well-funded and armed. We should take note: A totalitarian ideology plus weapons spells trouble. Where these networks take root, they introduce a reign of terror. They eliminate most economic and political rights for women. They drive out Christian and moderate Muslim denominations in a systematic form that can best be described as “religious cleansing.” They bring political and most economic development to a dead stop.

The French intervention was an emergency response – and, indeed, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has a security mandate in the area from the United Nations, supported the action. But unilateral French, British, or American military action in Africa is not a long-term solution. When the French leave, the insurgents will re-emerge. Foreign boots on the ground cannot stop this type of low-level warfare, and inadvertently invite Jihadists to recruit more fighters against the West.

The African and international response to this threat suffers from two handicaps. First, the United Nations Security Council often lacks the political efficacy to counter the threat, as China and Russia regularly oppose Security Council action. Even when the mandate is given, the UN peacekeeping machinery does not have the speed, cohesion, and military preparedness to act decisively.

The second handicap is in Africa itself. There are some eight regional security groupings, and, while ECOWAS is perhaps the best organized among them, enormous economic development and governance challenges in West Africa hinder its military capacity. The Constitutive Act of the African Union, adopted in 2000, includes specific language to mandate the protection of human security. However, the African Union (AU) is still in the early stages of building a capacity to act, and needs more planning, logistics, and command and control.

The NATO alliance offers a practical bridge function to reduce the effects of the two handicaps. When the UN Security Council is stalemated, the 54-member African Union can call for NATO assistance, and a consensus from NATO’s 28 members carries a good deal of legitimacy. UN approval remains the key criterion, of course, but even with it, NATO needs a more direct tie with the African Union. Little known to the western public is the fact that many Africans believe that NATO snubbed the African Union in the way it handled the operations in Libya in 2011. “African solutions to African problems,” is a powerful sentiment, so direct African Union-NATO co-operation needs to be developed.

The bridging function is not, in the first place, about AU-NATO operations (as that would defeat the quest for “African solutions”), but about NATO helping the AU build capacity, train its forces, and set up defence planning, command and control, logistics, and capable stand-by forces. It extends to assisting the AU in constructing an African security regime, and to rationalizing the organizational and operational capacity of Africa’s many regional groups and the AU.

That brings us to Canada and other alliance members such as the Netherlands and Norway. Unlike the suspicion that hangs over the big powers in NATO, the medium and small powers can bring together significant skills and resources to lead in this AU-NATO capacity-building project. Given Canada’s experience in expeditionary and peacekeeping operations, the considerable skills and material assets that it built up during the Afghanistan operation, and its interest in working with NATO, Canada ought to take the lead on this project. Using NATO to help build security in other regions is certainly in Canada’s best interests. In addition,  NATO would likely be working alongside UN and EU projects and bring in partner and contact countries from continents other than Europe and Africa. Again, Canada and others have experience and interest in this sort of network-building.

The African Union and NATO began to develop ties in 2005, when some NATO members airlifted troops, civilian police, and military observers from AU troop-contributing countries to Darfur, and Canada additionally provided military equipment such as armoured personnel carriers. NATO also provided assistance to the AU mission in Somalia in 2007. In general, however, NATO could put more energy into improving AU-NATO ties, and show a stronger commitment to maintaining them. Leadership is needed to build up this security regime.

 On March 15, 2013, SFU and NATO’s Defence College in Rome will organize a seminar on AU-NATO relations in Vancouver.

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